In the Indian context, what, in your opinion, are the key barriers experienced by decision-makers in integrating research into policy decisions?
Frequently, decisions have to be made quickly, or more quickly than it would take to generate direct evidence to answer a specific question of a policymaker. Similarly, policymakers are very busy and they, along with their staff, often do not have adequate resources or knowledge to assess what learning to date can tell us about the problems they must address. Other problems that limit how evidence informs policy are public expectation and lack of institutional demand: if media or institutional procedures or norms required that policymakers justify their decisions using data and research already available, policy discourse and decisions may be quite different. Finally, the major challenge in India is probably not policy so much as implementation, and research on how to improve implementation is frequently lacking. These implementation challenges often are under-appreciated and overlooked by sweeping policy announcements, yet they are the crux of the issue in India.
Can you tell us the key objectives of the BCURE project? And, how has your experience been working with the government institutions in India.
The idea of BCURE is to encourage the use of data and research evidence in policymaking and program implementation, while also encouraging researchers to try to ensure the questions they ask in their research are relevant to pressing policy challenges in India today. Working with the government of India has been an exciting experience. While some people and organizations in the government align with the commonly held stereotypes of bureaucratic inertia, there are groups and individuals committed to improving India in a rigorous way. These champions make all our hard work worthwhile!
What in your opinion are effective strategies/initiatives to promote evidence-based decision making in India?
Our work in India has spanned a wide variety of activities: training, policy dialogues and a hackathon, and pilot projects. From my perspective, the best way to encourage evidence-based decision making is to show by doing. We aim to partner directly with government counterparts to understand: 1.) What questions should you be asking?, since frequently the questions we are interested in examining aren’t really the most important questions; 2.) What can existing data and research tell us about this question? 3.) What else should we implement and test? and 4.) How should the original plan be revised to improve the initial efforts? This process is cyclical – not linear – and therefore iterative.
Do you think this movement towards the culture of evidence-based policymaking poses infrastructural challenges, related to technology, for government institutions in India? If yes, do you see necessary steps being taken to that effect?
The government of India is currently enamored with the possibility of using technology to help solve their problems, so I don’t see technology per se to be the limiting constraint. What does constrain the use of data in government is a smarter use of the technology already available. We frequently encounter cases where data is being collected in ways that are clearly not incentive compatible (e.g., self-reporting on indicators that I am later judged on), data collection practices are ad hoc and allow for a multitude of errors even at the point of input, and systems are not created with the intent of allowing them to link to other data collected by the government. The constraint here, then, is more about using best practices in technology and data solutions rather than getting the right hardware in place.
BCURE is working closely with the Ministry of Rural Development for the MGNREGA scheme. Can you tell us more about this initiative, its progress and challenges?
We’re working with MGNREGA to test the waters, so to speak, in learning how real-time data and visualization can improve implementation in major public sector programs in India. We started over two years ago and have worked to directly address challenges limiting data access and analysis, meaning much initial effort was spent working with the Ministry of Rural Development and its programmers to create the MGNREGA Public Data Portal, Reports Dashboards, and Village View platform.
From there, we’ve developed and are testing MGNREGA Report Cards that we’re sending to district and block officials to see whether providing visualized, easily digestible information can improve implementation through a small randomized control trial. For us, this has been a learning process where we’re asking questions as basic as whether officials will even pay attention to information provided for them, much less change their administrative habits.
Once again, there are many implementation challenges, ranging from connectivity to political issues to figuring out how communicate in a way that resonates with district and block officials.
We are now building a platform to help track and pinpoint implementation bottlenecks in wage payment delays, a crucial issue affecting the well-being of the country’s rural poor. We’ll test this with at least one state in 2016. All these activities combine in a synergistic fashion to push for better use of data and evidence in MGNREGA- and this project sets a good example of what partnering with the government can look like. I hope to report back that the payment delays platform I mentioned can decrease wage payment delays and ultimately be incorporated and scaled up across the country – but we still have a long way to go before that point.
In your opinion, how far is India from having an ideal culture of evidence-based policymaking?
In the movement toward evidence-based policymaking, I see reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic, and often it seems progress is “two steps forward and one step backward”. But the point of all this is to make progress, and to keep on doing what we are convinced will benefit all Indians. Katherine Hay of the Gates Foundation recently used the term “relentless incrementalism” – and, to me, that describes our approach well.
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