Prerequisites for lateral entry into bureaucracy

If you get an eye infection or if you want a cataract surgery, you go to an ophthalmologist, if you need a neurosurgery, you go to a neurosurgeon. But what if the General Medicine doctors end up dealing with all these cases requiring specialist requirement? It would be a disaster. It's the reason generalist doctors dread giving a medical prescription for issues that require special attention. 

Turn to policymaking, it's not the case, in fact, it's even worse. Generalists, who are not even generalists in policy analysis, but primarily implementers, design policies. We all are being operated by general medicine doctors for every ailment! It is definitely not a desirable scenario. For this simple reason, there have been demands for incorporating specialists in policymaking. 

There's been a wide debate and several commentaries on the pros and cons of lateral entry into bureaucracy. I am not going to discuss all that. In this post, I would like to touch upon an aspect which seems to be missing in the debates, the nature of responsibilities of a policymaking bureaucrat in India.

The lateral entry of specialists at higher levels of bureaucracy presumes that bureaucrats at that level are only into policymaking. It's not true in the case of India. Bureaucrats at such level deal with both the implementation and policymaking aspects. For instance, a sanitation secretary would also be monitoring the implementation of the toilet construct and be accountable for those numbers, while thinking about broader policy issues at the same time.

In such cases, if an outside specialist with no experience in Indian public administration is brought into this role, it would be a disaster. Getting things done in India's system needs a good knowledge of inner dynamics of administration, for which the bureaucrats are trained for years on the ground. The traditional bureaucrats have definitely an edge here.

So, if we are to bring external specialists to higher level policymaking, separating these executive and policymaking rules should be the pre-requisite. Lateral entry would be ineffective without doing such reform.

Again, this is not a unique insight. Even 2nd Administrative Commission recommends separation of executive and policymaking responsibilities of the senior bureaucrats, on the lines of UK.

In summary, lateral entry into policymaking levels of bureaucracy is highly needed but should be preceded by an administrative reform that separates the execution and design roles of senior-level bureaucrats.

Unfair criticism of RCTs

Commenting on the cynicism I noticed in policy circles about other's ideas, I wrote: "An established policy is judged by where it works, while a new policy is judged by where it does not work". I meant to say that often a new policy is dismissed for not addressing "all problems" but the status quo problems are continued and accepted despite addressing a lesser number of problems than the proposed one.

One of my friends read this and commented that it's not just the case with policies but it applies in general to organizations and humans too. Historically under-represented sections of people need to work "extra hard" to receive the same level of praise or recognition the dominant people in status quo get.

Unfortunately, it is true in the case of the criticisms on RCTs. Consider the following criticisms of RCTs

1. Show one RCT that resulted in a policy change. 
2. Only certain kinds of questions can be answered with RCTs.
3. RCTs displaced other studies

Each of these criticisms has the status-quo bias. To make it evident, ask the same questions on any other form of study.

1. "Show one qualitative study about the resource constraints in bureaucracy that resulted in direct policy change". Despite the availability of numerous such studies, why does this problem remain unaddressed? Does this mean that qualitative studies are useless?

2. Is there any one particular method of study that is universally applicable to all types of problems? Why is this question asked only in case of RCTs? Why don't people ask the same about other forms of research? 

3. The criticism of RCT displacing other studies sees research as a zero-sum game. Esther Duflo has, in fact, demonstrated that RCTs did not displace other studies. Instead, they only added to the existing number of studies.

The underlying reason for these criticisms is the lack of appreciation of the nature of research, misrepresentation of RCT researchers, and non-questioning of the existing state of policymaking. 

1. The nature of research in social science is that the attributable change doesn't often happen due to a single study. A series of studies shape an alternative narrative that results in change given the right conditions. Somehow, people miss this while criticizing RCTs.

2. No serious RCT researcher ever says that RCTs are the only necessary and sufficient evidence, and input for policymaking. For instance, consider this policy paper by Prof. Karthik Muralidharan where he clearly says "Policy formulation needs to consider technical, administrative, ethical, as well as political factors and even the best technical studies can only provide inputs into one dimension of policymaking." But people criticize as if RCT researchers profess that only RCT evidence is the necessary and sufficient one!

3. In their criticism of the RCTs, especially the bureaucrats don't question the existing state of policymaking. They need to question if the so-called irrelevance of RCTs is due to lack of relevance or inability to incorporate it in policymaking. I suspect that it's the latter because - forget about RCTs - policymakers often don't even use the other forms of existing research. Worse, a recent survey suggests that the top bureaucrats of the country can't do a simple and basic data analysis. Interpreting and incorporating evidence is a long shot in such case.

Further, on the criticism that "foreign researchers" don't research on relevant problems, the critical constraint, in fact, is the bureaucratic maze around getting necessary data. A prominent India-based researcher had once commented that the only way to do good macroeconomic research in India is to be in good books of RBI because it provides access to research data. This is, in fact, true of the nature of research in social sciences. Change doesn't often happen due to a single study. A series of studies shape an alternative narrative that results in change given the right conditions. Somehow, people miss this while criticizing RCTs.

In such situations, we would be better off throwing open the access to research. I am sure the gates will be flooded because research is where data is.

Overall, the criticism of RCTs being irrelevant, displacing other studies, and not resulting in direct policy change are unfair because every other form of research fails if subjected to these criteria. If other forms of research are not subjected to these criteria, why should only RCTs be?

The most important concern is the lack of access to quality data for the researchers. We would be better off if we focus on addressing this problem instead of debating on the merits of different methods on research.

Reducing corruption across sectors is the only way to fund education reform

Education reform needs a significant amount of money. Governments' lack of seriousness in reforming education is definitely an issue that prevents them from going the extra step to allocate necessary funds. But, there is another important issue as well - we simply don't have enough funds for education, even if a committed government comes to power and desires to allocate funds.

In some states, the money required to fill up vacant posts itself would amount to significant part of the current budgets. If one were to calculate the total money required for all the reform and presume that it should come only from the annual budget, it would hardly leave anything to spend on other sectors.

Politicians and bureaucrats commonly cite this as the reason for the State's inability to increase its expenditure on education. Such arguments seem reasonable but one should note that such arguments consider the status quo of inefficiencies and corruption as default, which needn't be the case.

A significant amount of money can be saved by reducing inefficiencies and corruption in expenditure across all departments, not just education, and also collect additional money by reducing inefficiencies and corruption in tax collection. It requires administrative reforms of massive scale accompanied by political reforms that correct the political economy incentives.

For instance, it requires reducing corruption and delays in infrastructure construction, which is interlinked to political funding because many contractors are funders of political parties. It means that political parties should reduce their dependence on such people for funding. It further requires a transparent electoral funding and a break to the practice of distributing money and liquor in elections, which puts a huge burden on the parties. Reducing inefficiencies is thus interlinked to political reforms.

Given that the scope to raise money through additional taxes is limited, saving money by reducing inefficiencies and corruption across government departments is the only way to make enough money available for education and related sectors.

The education reform is thus invariably linked to broader governance and political reforms. It would be great if education policy advocates realise this aspect and thus contribute their voice to the broader reforms as well, along with the education.


People have taken up #March4Education demanding more financial support to higher education institutions, of which more universities is also an implicit demand.
The popular counter-argument is that only the school education should be fully funded, while the undergraduate and postgraduate education shouldn’t be funded and be left to market forces.
Merely reiterating that public funding should be restricted only till school education, and fund higher education in this day and age is a classic example of lazy thinking, intellectual hollowness and the lack of thinking beyond 101 textbook ideas. It perfectly fits what Hirschman once said that he hated:
“I always had a certain dislike for general principles and abstract prescriptions. I think it’s necessary to have an “empirical lantern” or a “visit with the patient” before being able to understand what is wrong with him. It is crucial to understand the peculiarity, the specificity, and also the unusual aspects of the case” Albert O. Hirschman
I had earlier blogged saying that it’s time to retire the idea of restricting the definition of basic education to only school education, and expand it to higher education too.
In the context of the #March4Education and its demands, I summarize my arguments in support of the protest and response to the criticisms to the protest.

Response to the argument that extent of funding should be based on externalities

Flimsy defense of National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS)

Livemint has an op-ed on National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS), otherwise known as Aayushmaan Bharat. The article argues that NHPS is a good idea and suggests ways to ensure smooth implementation. It is a flimsy defense of NHPS.

The article concludes that NHPS is a good idea based on the following arguments.

1. "Out-of-pocket payments for healthcare services are very high in our country (about 70%, according to the National Sample Survey Office, 2014), which causes impoverishment to nearly 7% of our population."

2. Evidence from Karnataka's Vajpayee Aarogyashree programme lowered mortality for covered diseases and erased rich-poor disparities in concerned mortality rates. It also lowered out of pocket expenditure.

3. "Existing evidence shows that providing insurance to the poor not only saves lives but is also “cost-effective.

The above three points are either inappropriate or incomplete arguments in defence of NHPS, far from terming it as a step in the right direction.

1. There is no debate on the fact that the out-of-pocket expenditure on health care is huge in India. But, National Health Accounts data points out that 42% of the total out-of-pocket spending (OOP) is used towards buying medicines.

Given this scenario, a simple and significant step to reduce OOP would be to make all medicines free. Expenditure on NHPS with no coverage for medicines, while still requiring people to buy medicines for other conditions too, may not be of much use.

It is, in fact, pointed out in one of the author's own paper.

"people who had health insurance coverage did not see any significant difference in their total real OOP health expenditures, relative to people without any health insurance"

2. While the authors agree that not every insurance programme has been successful, the cited programme VAS is not a representative example. A host of other programmes have failed but one can give a benefit of the doubt regarding the implementation quality. It thus brings us to the next aspect - the range of conditions and cost-effectiveness.

3. Surprisingly, the article claims the existence of evidence which shows that insurance programmes are cost-effective. The evidence on the same is to the contrary. Insurance programmes are anything but cost-effective. Starting from the US where they spend 18% of GDP but still don't get timely and quality care to the Indian data, insurance programmes are known for NOT being cost-effective, as Gulzar Natarajan points out. 

4. The argument for primary and secondary healthcare as a prerequisite for good public health system is well taken but the budget allocation to the same is not proportional to its importance. The right question to ask is - assuming that there is an increased spending on health care, where should the increased funding go? Of course, if it ends up being the case that the overall expenditure on health care is NOT increased but money is rearranged towards NHPS, its a lost battle.

Overall, with no increased funding for primary and secondary care, with no coverage for medicines (42% of OOP), and with our existing weak state capacity, the defence for NHPS is flimsy.

The way out is to retain private insurance coverage for terminal illnesses with expensive treatments like cancer, but increase the spending significantly and use a bulk of it towards primary and secondary health care.

Comments on RS TV discussion on education reform

RS TV has conducted a TV discussion on education reform, in the context of government’s decision to reduce the syllabus by half.

The ideas and analysis presented in the discussion is symbolic of everything that’s wrong with the education reform discourse in India.
Consider two key points raised the discussion — “low salary of teachers” as the binding constraint of teacher quality, and a “library movement” as “the solution”.
The reasoning is that talented people aren’t becoming teachers because of the low pay, as compared to the corporates. It seems an obvious reason, so obvious that it clouds our vision preventing us to look beyond. But if we take a step back and probe this further, a different picture emerges.
As I have argued in my book, one needs to ask three questions
  1. If teacher salary is the issue, what’s the “comparative outcome” of teachers of different grades, receiving different salaries?
  2. In a counterfactual scenario, if teacher salary is the binding constraint, then increasing teacher salary should have significant effect on the outcomes.
  3. Finally, what’s the teacher salary in India, compared to our per-capita income?

A framework to think through a decision on a career in Public Policy

Some people have asked me for my thoughts on a career in public policy. I am synthesizing these in the post below.
The essence of my suggestion is that
the decision on a career in public policy should be based on 3 factors — nature of the person, nature of the problem that the person is interested in, and the available path.
In the following post, I first describe what I mean by each of those 3 factors mentioned above and I put the various combinations arising from these 3 factors in form of a matrix at the end of the post. If you directly want to jump to the matrix, please feel free to do so.

I. Nature of the person

The “nature” of a person has wide connotations but in our present context, we can categorize people into three broad categories. These categories are illustrative and there can be overlaps between them.
  1. Problem Solvers: These people are obsessed with the policy problem. They would go to any extent to solve the problem. If they need to do a massive protest, they would do it. If they need to enter politics, they would do it. If they need to sit and research for years, they would do it. In essence, they are path agnostic. They will figure out their path. They don’t need advice! Such people are analogous to entrepreneurs in business.
  2. Career-ists: Some people are interested in policy sector but they don’t want to take risks. They would like to pursue it more as a career, with stability. Such people are categorised in “career-ists” group. Such people are akin to MBAs, who want to be in the private sector but don’t want to take the risk of becoming an entrepreneur. They get an MBA, enter the corporate world and climb the ladder.
  3. Satisfaction-seekers: Such people are seeking satisfaction, something beyond the materialistic pleasures of life. Often, they want immediate tangible outcomes. For instance, the joy of donating money to a poor person.
Just to be clear, there’s no judgment involved in categorizing people. It’s just a description of people’s nature as it is.

On private health insurance

Government introduced private insured health-care for the poor up to Rs.5 lakh per year. I have only few things to say.
After spending 18% of its GDP on health-care, US’s health system is no better than some public funded systems like Thailand. This is in a country with higher implementation capacity than India’s.
By weakening public health system through inaction and making a complete shift to insurance model, we might be moving planning our own disaster. More on this later.

Teacher voucher policy as a compromise between government run schools and student vouchers

  1. Learning outcomes and cost effectiveness of budget private schools (BPS) don’t make a strong case to shift focus from government schools to BPS.
  2. However, if the current situation of neglect of government schools continue, two another parameters financial stress on families and plausible improvement in current state of BPS due to additional funds from vouchers — makes a case to shift focus from government schools to BPS.
  3. Since student voucher system may not be feasible in short-term due to financial constraints, a voucher policy for BPS teachers to help them receive better training is a good compromise policy.

There are two common perceptions regarding budget private schools (BPS)
  1. BPS perform better than government schools, even after accounting for differences in student characteristics.
  2. The learning per unit cost (cost effectiveness) is higher for government schools as compared to BPS.
These two arguments are cited as basis to move towards a voucher system where students get vouchers from government and they are free to choose the school they like, over the present system of government run schools where students’ choice is restricted. For instance, this Mint editorial makes the above two arguments to advocate for school voucher system.
Though these two arguments seem intuitively correct, careful research suggests that they aren’t necessarily true.

Learning the wrong lessons

Azim Premji University recently conducted a longitudinal survey of schools following two types of pedagogy — Activity Based Learning, and usual textbook based pedagogy. It says the following
The study assessed the ability of students to recognize characters in the local languages, and while students could recognize the root alphabet, they struggled to identify the compound character formed by joining “a” to the root character. While 32% students in Palghar could recognize the compound character, only 22% in Yadgir could recognize the same.
The lead researcher of the study says
Often, poor learning outcomes are attributed to lack of diversity in curricula, this research shows that even an activity-based curriculum couldn’t help the students as the teachers were ill-prepared and lacked the pedagogical tools required to teach Indian languages
How do we interpret the results of the study?
  1. Is it the issue with pedagogy — teachers lacking pedagogical tools?
  2. Is it the issue of systemic capacity/constraints (Gulzar calls them ecosystem-constraints) that constrain teachers’ efforts or overlook their lack of efforts?