Achieving outputs may be daunting in itself. Yet, we need to focus on outcomes

Gulzar Natarajan has a post on the limitations of outcome oriented approach of development. Gulzar points out that 

1. Mere financial incentive for achieving outcomes isn't enough to overcome the large process issues.

2. Addressing some critical inputs (teacher attendance) in itself can be a daunting task. So, expecting it to be an incidental benefit to outcome based approach is unrealistic.

3.  It isn't easy to re-allocate resources to achieve the outcomes.

So, Gulzar argues that "it is unrealistic to target outcomes in cases of public production involving engagement intensive activities (education, health)".

There's some truth to this argument, depending on the state of the system. Consider this story of Mr. Manoj, District Education Officer of Deoria, Uttar Pradesh. Mr. Manoj is an upright officer facing all odds to get teachers to school. He gets death threats, his office is vandalized and many other things. He even carries a pistol with him for safety purposes.

In a failed system like that with so many things broken, when Mr. Manoj has to spend enormous energies on just ensuring teacher attendance, it may sound unfair to expect him to focus on other elements or outcomes.

While all the above is true, I argue that there is still value in practising outcome based approach over output based approach, for the following reasons. I put the reasons in two categories - harms of following output approach and advantages of outcome approach over output approach.

Potential harms of output approach


1. Defining outputs in a certain manner and focusing on them can be detrimental: The problem with outputs approach is that it's subject to wide interpretation. Defining outputs in a certain manner can actually be detrimental, especially when it comes to monitoring metrics of personnel. "Completion of syllabus" and "Ensuring all CCE papers are checked" are examples of two such output metrics that have turned detrimental.

Excessive focus on completion of syllabus is taking away the focus from "did the children learn?" to "did the teacher teach?", creating a perverse system. It creates a false illusion that the job has been done when in fact it has not been done (child hasn't learnt), thereby misleading us. It also creates an additional hurdle for reform because one has to first bring people out of such illusion, which is a difficult task.

Similarly, these days, CCE support and monitoring of teachers is reduced to output metrics of "did the teacher enter marks in the register?", taking the focus away from the real essence of CCE. All that the teachers now are worried about it is, whether the marks have been entered in the CCE register, regardless of how the correction is done, whether they learnt something about the children in the process, whether they incorporated these in their next session etc. To make matters worse, sometimes teachers make students correct papers themselves and enter the marks, achieving the "output".

In all these cases, focus on outcomes would have helped to avoid this tragedy.

2Piecemeal approach "undoes" the already achieved gains: Following one output at a time (piecemeal approach) has the danger of undoing the progress made in achieving earlier outputs. For instance, for first 10 years, governments work only to construct schools and ensure schools in all locality. Once that's done, in next 10 years, they work to ensure teacher attendance, in next 10 years, some other issue. By that time, the schools have been damaged and need reconstruction. So, we are back to square one.

Thus, piecemeal approach may not appropriately leverage the gains already made regarding certain outputs as they decay with time.

Advantages of outcome approach

Apart from preventing the two dangers mentioned above and many others, there are four distinct reasons to pursue outcome approach.

1. Cognitive reasons: Lant Pritchett in this short video "Selling solutions vs. Solving problems" brilliantly illustrates the effects of mental models on policy approaches.

At the risk of simplifying, Lant says that when people are asked to write down the problem they want to solve, they often write solution. For instance, in education, people write "lack of teacher training" as the problem. When one defines the problem in that manner, the only solution to that can be "teacher training".

This is in other words defining problem in terms of the solution that one wants to have. Defining problems in that manner hinders our ability to dig deeper.

This mode of thinking is seen across the spectrum from education activists to bureaucrats. Daunted by the experiences of the problem, one specific immediate issue clouds our cognitive space, crowding out other elements.

The effects of such thinking gets amplified when it's prevalent at policy making stage. We end up pursuing a piecemeal approach instead of an integrated approach. The consequences are clear, as the history suggests.

Immediately after independence, the problem of lack of schools seemed so daunting that we defined the problem of schooling as "lack of schools", neglecting all other aspects. After 60 years, we realized that this isn't sufficient. Now, we may realize some other daunting problem, let's say teacher attendance. Now we focus on that for another few decades and so on. I think the point is now clear. 

The lesson is that focusing only on one particular element, even if it's daunting, shuts our attention to other elements of the problem and delays the process.

Thus it is still important to define and approach the issue from an outcome perspective. If not anything, outcome based approach at least keeps all elements required to achieve the outcomes within our cognitive attention space.

2. Outcome approach ensures best possible outcomes at each point of time: Pursuing outputs is a sub-optimal approach, as it fails to extract the maximum possible from the system at any given point of time. Let me explain.

There is diversity in a system. For instance, if we consider a district, when we say teacher attendance is the issue, it doesn't mean that it's the issue in every school and is of same severity. It might be less severe in the schools in the district headquarter. 

The problem for such schools is - conditional upon ensuring teacher presence, how do we ensure outcomes? With further actions, we might leverage the specific advantages of this situation.

An output based approach, let's say ensuring teacher attendance, neglects such schools with enough teacher attendance. It thus costs us the gains that would have been achieved by leveraging the advantages of these schools.

On the contrary, if we follow an outcome based approach, we figure out that the issues are different in each case. While we still pursue the daunting task of ensuring teacher attendance in rural schools, we also try to work on the schools that already have attendance and try to get best out of them. That way, even if it's small, we extract something out of the system, instead of nothing.

3. Outcome approach speeds up the reform by leveraging the institutional knowledge: Outcome based approach in context of diversity builds institutional knowledge that speeds up the reform process in lagging schools.

For instance, in a district, if we improve the schools that are already attendance complaint, it builds institutional knowledge in the system. Such knowledge is useful to improve the current non-complaint schools, that might become complaint in future. It thus saves precious time and energy. 

Else, as discussed above, if we wait till every school becomes attendance complaint, before we take the next step, it might take so long that by that Elon Musk's Neuralink might have developed a device to download data to brain by that time doing away with the need to learn, making schools obsolete. Meanwhile, a generation or several of them would have been denied benefits of education.

4. Outcome approach helps realize the missing elements and creates a demand for them: When one follows an outcome approach, one realizes the need for some elements, which aren't otherwise obvious. One may argue that it costs money to achieve all these and hence is unrealistic. But the point is that there is value in realizing the need for these elements, even if they are not met. Also, such realization helps build pressure, which if not now, may help in long term.

Daunti-ness is a function of "will" also, not just the "nature of task"


Tasks that seem daunting may not be actually so if it's matched with commensurate will. These tasks seem daunting because, till now, efforts to streamline the systems were a result of "bureaucratic will" and not "political will" (recollect the example of Mr. Manoj, DEO, discussed above). When efforts are the result of bureaucratic will, without political will, the limitations are obvious. The task will end up being daunting to the bureaucrats as they are leading it alone.

There is no reason why we should hence accept this context as given and work around it. Instead, we should identify this as the problem and  try to address it.

The argument is that when there's strong political will focusing on outcomes, tasks that seemed daunting once don't seem any more. 

This might seem a nice hypothetical argument that's good for theory but not for practice. But we have examples of not-so developed countries like Poland that once faced similar issues like ours, revamping their systems within a decade. 

One might still point to the Indian exceptionalism but the  recent Delhi experience shows that it's possible in India too. To be fair, Delhi has its own advantages by the virtue of being a city, with closely networked schools, making many things relatively easier. Even then, given this context, consider the amount of work and the range of work that's done in past 2 years in Delhi.

1. Appointing estate managers to schools relieving principals of the administrative duties.
2. New classrooms construction to meet the needs.
3. Large scale learning melas to remediate children in higher classes.
4. Teacher training
5. Principal training
6. Building strong SMCs

... and so on, with a strong focus on outcomes. Once the outcomes were the focus, it was realized that many other things are to be done in order to achieve it. Thus, the individual outputs that would have been an individual scheme in themselves, became incidental to the overall goal of outcomes. One could thus get a diverse range of things done within short time, instead of doing them one by one.

If these initiatives were to be done together at the same time at scale by a bureaucrat alone, without strong political will, these would have been termed daunting++ and considered out of reach for any bureaucrat. Such cognitive limitation would have settled bureaucrats to pickup only one of these elements and pursue it, delaying the progress.

In short, many tasks may seem daunting to be dealt with "bureaucratic will" but political will can reduce the daunting nature of tasks. Thus, we do have a way out of the limitations of outcome based approach. We therefore need not consider certain constraints as given and settle for sub-optimal output based approach.

Nature of 'political will' and the 'approach' matter


Often, actions taken under compulsion to do something or at least appear to be doing something masquerades as an illustration of political will. It results in interventions that gloss over state capability constraints. It serves the purpose of self-satisfaction as "something is being done", but it's not useful for outcomes. On the other hand, "appropriate will" has laser sharp focus on outcomes and goes to any extent to achieve it. One might argue that such "will" is not possible. We then better forget about addressing issues like education and health care.

Similarly, an appropriate approach is needed because incorrectly spent political will (herehere) only hurts in long term.

Conclusion


Despite the daunti-ness of achieving outputs and limitations of outcome based approach in business as usual scenario, there is still value in pursuing outcome based approach. Output approach creates a false illusion of job done and can undo the gains already achieved. Outcome based approach keeps all the essential elements within our cognitive attention space, extracts maximum from the system at each point of time, and speeds up the reform process. Further, daunti-ness is a function of "will". When a daunting problem is met with a commensurate will, it can and will become the incidental benefit to the final outcome. We thus need appropriate political will and an appropriate approach.


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