Solutions when the ‘solution’ is the problem


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IN these polarized times, if there is one thing that most Indian’s will agree on, it is that the Indian state suffers from a serious crisis of implementation capacity. Weak implementation capacity is the reason why the Indian state is unable to deliver quality public services to its citizens, even when its politicians promise ‘maximum governance’, and India’s unruly, demotivated, corrupt frontline bureaucrats are the primary culprit.

In recent years, recognition of this implementation crisis has motivated several administrative reform efforts aimed primarily at getting this cadre of unruly, demotivated workers to show up and do their jobs. In the early 2000s, due largely to civil society activism, India began experimenting with using legal instruments such as the Right to Information and social audits to render the state transparent to its citizens’ and through transparency, empowering citizens to directly pressure the frontline into behaving. This was complemented with investments in building a technology infrastructure to facilitate transparency.

Since 2014, Narendra Modi has focused his government’s energies on accelerating the reach and use of this technology infrastructure. In these last four years, GPS mapping, mobile apps to track the delivery of every conceivable government programme, data dashboards, biometric monitoring systems and Aadhaar have become the new shiny tools of administration, deployed to monitor and incentivize the frontline to do their jobs.

Although rooted in very different imaginations of the role of the state and its relationship with citizens, both the citizen-centric, rights-based approaches of the 2000s and recent technology-led reforms, share the same premise: getting bureaucrats to be productive is about getting incentives right by disciplining them, either through public pressure or through fear on internal sanctions. Making the everyday functioning of the bureaucracy visible both to the bureaucratic hierarchy and to citizens at large is a necessary condition.

But it is my contention that this excessive focus on ‘disciplining’ the state has served to limit our understanding of what it takes to motivate the frontline and achieve service delivery goals. Rather than engage with the question of how the local bureaucracy works, the norms and culture it is embedded in, and the professional identities it fosters, it assumes that employee behaviour is a function of rewards and punishment. In doing so, the question of why workers are demotivated and how they construct accounts of their professional lives in ways that legitimizes unruliness, remains unaddressed. More crucially, it fails to engage with the far more fundamental question that debates and reforms aimed at strengthening India’s implementation crisis ought to confront – what are the intrinsic capabilities that the state needs to develop in order to respond to the complex demands that delivering public services in the 21st century place on the state.


Increasingly, the developmental functions of the state have expanded beyond mere technocratic tasks to focus on outcomes and regulation. Delivering education for instance is not just about building schools, it is about ensuring children learn and as the private sector has expanded, education is also about regulation. Rather than engage with the complex questions of skills, structures and institutional capabilities needed to respond to these changing expectations on the state, the emphasis on disciplining runs the risk of reinforcing the very conditions that have undermined the state’s capability to deliver in the first place.

The idea of trust is an important phenomenon through which students of bureaucracy have sought to understand how bureaucracy works. Degrees of trust shape the means through which internal relationships, organizational norms and cultures are established. Trust forms the basis on which workers come together to work towards goals that are often distant and fuzzy.1 When trust is high, managers assume workers will work efficiently and the administrative focus is on coordination with teams and sharing information. Where distrust prevails, shirking is expected and measuring and monitoring become the primary concerns, and managers seek to centralize decision making control.2


The foundations of the Indian bureaucracy are rooted in a profound lack of trust. In a fascinating account of the evolution of bureaucratic practices in contemporary South Asia, Matthew Hull points to the role that the deep distrust in local Indian functionaries to act in the interests of the British government (and the East India Company before) played in shaping the everyday practices of the colonial bureaucracy.3 Distrust in government agents manifested itself in kaghaz raj or document rule: rule through files, papers, signatures and bureaucratic hierarchy where accountability was sought through careful, laborious documentation. ‘Only through a connection with a piece of paper (a bill, warrant, note, book)’, Hull notes, ‘could an action be construed as an action.’

The contemporary Indian bureaucracy inherited this culture of distrust and has remained committed to its colonial passion for paper and procedures. In this culture of distrust, workers are expected to shirk. As Mehta and Walton have argued, the dominant elite perspective on the middle and frontline bureaucracy is shaped by a lack of trust where workers are seen as corrupt, unresponsive and caught up in distortionary local and political networks.4 It is in this context that paper – files, written procedures, records – have further entrenched themselves as the instruments through which the bureaucratic hierarchy exercises control over its subordinates.

Systems where hierarchy seeks to exercise control over subordinates inevitably centralize decision making through rules, procedures and demands for compliance. Such systems foster what political scientist Akshay Mangla describes as ‘legalistic’ norms; norms that promote a culture of strict adherence to rules, hierarchies and procedures, often at the cost of being responsive to local needs.5 Performance in these bureaucracies is shaped not in terms of outcomes but adherence to rules.


In the absence of trust, the Indian bureaucracy is steeped in legalistic norms where decision making is centralized and local officials are expected to follow rules made at the top. In such systems the everyday work life of a local bureaucrat is entirely determined by the ‘orders and circulars’ received from their bosses. As a bureaucrat I once interviewed described when asked about his job profile: ‘I’m just moving from circular to circular and I will follow these instructions in an unquestioning manner.’ These circulars, orders and rules can be so rigid that even everyday administrative decisions – should a school spend its annual grant on textbooks vs desks, as the Centre for Policy Research’s Accountability Initiative discovered through years of tracking social sector expenditures across India – are made on the basis of orders from above. The resulting administrative choices border on the absurd. In a survey in Bihar back in 2012, Accountability Initiative found schools that were awaiting funds to build their school buildings, bought themselves fire extinguishers in response to an order from the district mandating this purchase.


This limited decision making authority serves to legitimize a narrative of powerlessness and discontent within the local bureaucracy. Officers claim powerlessness in their ability to function as effective agents of administration and cast themselves as ‘passive rule followers’ lurching from one order to the next. In numerous conversations that I have had through years of researching the frontline bureaucracy, I have been struck by the consistency with which frontline officers, across different administrative settings, describe themselves as no more than ‘post officers’ or ‘disempowered cogs in the wheel’ whose professional worth is determined by a willingness to follow orders from the top. As one officer told us when asked whether he would offer suggestions to improve schools in his district: ‘What suggestions can I give? I’m in government service. My first priority is to implement government orders.’

In such systems being a good professional is about waiting for orders to be received and for the rest, in the words of one frontline officer, it is ‘complete rest, in comfortable conditions.’ After all, why work when the system doesn’t demand it? Shirking in this culture doesn’t just get legitimized but also deeply entrenched.

But shirking isn’t the only consequence of this low trust, legalistic bureaucratic culture. When rule following becomes the goal, and performance is reduced to responsiveness to rules and orders, officers lose their sense of public purpose. It is instructive that in a recent set of interviews conducted by my colleagues with block development officers, when asked to define their understanding of their role as public officers, their responses were framed in the grammar of rules and orders. ‘On time delivery of schemes’; ‘implementing schemes well’ were the standard stock of answers received. No one, despite some prompting, engaged with the larger challenges of service delivery objectives – providing quality schools, reducing malnutrition, and so on. For local bureaucrats, rules rather than responsiveness to local needs is what shapes their professional identity.


In his work on public sector accountability, Lant Pritchett makes an important distinction between two dimensions of accountability: ‘account’ based and ‘accounting’ based accountability. An account Pritchett argues, is a narrative, the story we construct to justify actions to our superiors, our social peers, those on whose behalf we have acted and those with whom we share a professional identity and seek approval. This account is constructed and shaped by the accepted norms within a professional community. Accounting, on the other hand, is about rules, procedures and compliance.

In legalistic systems, where institutional goals are about adhering to rules and procedures, the ‘account’ inevitably gets conflated with ‘accounting’, privileging a notion of accountability that is linked to rules rather than service delivery goals. And it is in this institutional culture of accountability that the idea of disciplining as a tool for accountability gains salience.

So what does accountability through disciplining achieve? There is little argument that even as the Indian state aspires to be legalistic in the strictest sense of the term, its frontline agents routinely subvert rules in pursuance of their own particularistic, private interests. When it comes to pursuing private agendas, India’s unruly bureaucrats are, as research on the Indian state has conclusively proved, particularly effective in bending the rules.

At one level disciplining this unruly cadre is a rational response. After all, tighter monitoring can, in theory, increase the costs of indiscipline. But this clamour for discipline also serves to reinforce the legalistic bureaucratic culture and in this process runs the risk of undermining rather than strengthen the state’s implementation capacity. I illustrate this argument through three important studies on the effects of discipline on the frontline state.


What happens when the state tries to discipline its workers through greater transparency of its documents? In her book Paper Tiger, anthropologist Nayanika Mathur documents the effects transparency requirements had in the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gaurantee Act (NREGA) in Uttarakhand. Based on a detailed ethnography, Mathur demonstrates how the focus on transparency served to significantly expand the volume of paperwork expected of the local bureaucracy. In Mathur’s telling, transparency under the NREGA required frontline bureaucrats to produce reams of paper or ‘transparent making documents’ on the basis of which its activities could be scrutinized. At one level the emphasis on documentation served to achieve the goal of reducing corruption by making it difficult for local bureaucrats to strike deals with local contractors, as was the tradition.

However, it did so at the cost of placing laborious paperwork demands on the frontline, leaving them with little time to focus on scaling-up implementation in a way that met beneficiary needs. The result was a genuine crisis of implementation. Funds were slow to move and worksites took long to open because officers were busy creating the paper trail – distributing job cards, preparing muster rolls, measurement books – necessary to ensure transparent implementation.6 In this instance, rather than internalizing norms of transparency and ensuring effective, corruption-free NREGA, the paperwork related transparency demands served to entrench the legalistic norms that privilege paperwork rather than norms that promote service delivery as the goal of the frontline bureaucracy. This is not to suggest that transparency is not necessary, rather to point out that transparency without adequate investments in building basic capacity – skills, human resources, training – can result in perverse outcomes that undermine the positive effects of transparency goals.


Another powerful illustration of the limits of disciplining can be found in economists Iqbal Dhaliwal and Rema Hanna’s experimental study of the effects of using a biometric attendance system to incentivize public health care workers (doctors, nurses, lab technicians) in rural Karnataka to show up to work.7 The experiment partially worked. Overall attendance of lower level staff – nurses, lab technicians, pharmacists – increased, but doctor attendance remained unchanged. Curiously, however, women moved away from the health centres where attendance was being monitored and marginally improved, to seek treatment in larger, unmonitored public and private hospitals in the area. Several explanations are offered for this by Dhaliwal and Hanna, but one that stands out is the possibility that turning up at work more frequently gave staff new opportunities to make money by directing patients to doctors’ private practices. Coming to work, in this instance, didn’t quite result in shifting the norms underlying unruly frontline behaviour; it merely reinforced existing practices.


But most importantly, this study found a deep reluctance amongst local bureaucrats to use the data collected through biometric attendance to enforce sanctions. The reason was that strict monitoring served to increase bureaucratic discontent in their jobs. After all, tighter monitoring broke the compact that legalistic bureaucracies strike with their front-line agents – a compact based on the principle of ‘complete rest in comfortable conditions’ where work is limited to responding to orders. Low job satisfaction coupled with the difficulties of hiring and incentivizing health workers to work in rural centres meant that local level managers were quick to realize that absenteeism may be a necessary price for retaining government doctors. Rather than focusing on developing an organizational ethos that shifted the dynamics of the compact between frontline workers and the state, the focus on disciplining, in this instance, became a distraction.


My final illustration draws on a study by Accountability Initiative that documented the experience of implementing Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM), in eight gram panchayats in Udaipur district in 2017.8 By design, the SBM seeks to discipline the state through clearly defined targets that are tightly monitored by top-level bureaucrats. Frequent video conferences, regular monitoring visits by senior officials and of course technology – real time data entry, GIS mapping, end to end management information systems and tracking apps – are all part of the monitoring package. The objective for administrators tasked with implementing SBM is to make their villages/blocks and districts open defecation free (ODF) within a tightly determined timeline.

Sanitation policy has long recognized that sanitation goals cannot be achieved by simply building toilets. Rather, communities need to be mobilized to understand the importance of sanitation and demand toilets. In this sense, implementing SBM requires administrators to engage closely with citizens seeking ways to problem solve collectively. But legalistic bureaucracies that are tied to rules and procedures are simply not designed for this. The Accountability Initiative study in Udaipur (and anecdotal evidence collected from other sites in rural India seem to show similar patterns) found that faced with tightly monitored targets and the need to make a splash on the dashboard, administrators were quick to reduce the complex task of mobilization and demand generation into a toilet construction exercise.

In many instances, coercion and penalizing citizens rather than mobilizing and demand generation, was the primary tool through which toilet construction goals were met. Unsurprisingly, despite declaring itself ODF, on the day of the survey, more than one-third toilet owners in surveyed areas reported defecating in the open.

The problem in this instance was not one of an unmotivated, unruly frontline that doesn’t show up to work. Rather it is one of a bureaucracy steeped in an organizational ethos that privileges rules and hierarchy to perform tasks that requires a very localized set of interactions where officers have to necessarily break hierarchy and problem solve directly with citizens. Disciplining got the state to meet its target but in the absence of investments needed to shift the organizational culture, targets remained fulfilled only on paper.

The point of these three illustrations is to demonstrate one simple fact: the problem of getting the Indian state to work and deliver quality public services to its citizens is far more complex than current solutions are willing to acknowledge. Resolving India’s implementation crisis requires confronting head-on the challenge of changing bureaucratic norms and work culture, and building professional identities in ways that cohere around service delivery goals rather than adherence to rules. It is about seeking to build trust and empowering the frontline. It is about improving worker morale not undermining it through greater disciplining. There are no clear pathways to achieving this, but recognizing that the solutions currently on the table serve to inadvertently reinforce the problem is an important first step.


* I steal this title, with due apologies to Lant Pritchett and Michael Woolcock who penned this wonderful title for their powerful 2004 critique of top-down centralized solutions to development problems. I use this title here because in one short phrase it sums up the fundamental problems with current debates on how to strengthen India’s broken frontline state.


1. Margaret Levi, ‘State of Trust’ in Valerie Braithwaite and Margaret Levi (eds.), Trust and Governance. Russell Sage Foundation, New York, 1998.

2. L.G. Zucker, ‘The Production of Trust: Institutional Sources of Economic Structure, 1840-1920’, Research in Organizational Behaviour 8, 1986, pp. 53-111.

3. Matthew S. Hull, Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2012.

4. P.B. Mehta and M. Walton, ‘India’s Political Settlement and Development Path’, Effective States and Inclusive Development, Working Paper No 36, 2012. http://www. mehta_walton.pdf.

5. A. Mangla, ‘Bureaucratic Norms and State Capacity: Implementing Primary Education in India’s Himalayan Region’, Working Paper 14-099. Retrieved from Harvard Business School, 2014.

6. Nayanika Mathur, Paper Tiger: Law, Bureaucracy and the Developmental State in Himalayan India. Cambridge University Press, Delhi, 2015.

7. I. Dhaliwal and R. Hanna, ‘Deal with the Devil: the Successes and Limitations of Bureaucratic Reform in India’, 2013, downloaded from

8. D. Deshpande and A. Kapur, Unpacking the Processes of Achieving Open Defecation Free Status: A Case Study of Udaipur, Rajasthan. Accountability Initiative Working Paper, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, 2018.