By Eva Rana , 27 Sep 2018

It can often be insightful to visualise the process of democratic governance as fine clockwork – an intricate machine whose inner workings might appear equally overwhelming to the perplexed observer trying to keep track of its several shifting gears, and to each component of the clock itself who feels like the metaphorical ‘cog in the wheel’. How then could one acquire a clearer picture of state performance in the public sector – something that directly impacts all tax-paying citizens? Seeking an answer to this question constituted the subtext of tasks I was assigned as an intern at the Accountability Initiative over the last month.

We know that public policy academics attempt to decipher these mechanisms in order to suggest ways of optimising welfare service delivery within existing institutions as well as to improve structural design. But although this research concerns us all, it is more often than not perceived to be dense and jargon-filled. In the worst-case scenario, this seeming inaccessibility can unwittingly translate into further disillusionment of the average citizen from policies that affect her or his welfare, and of the frontline bureaucrat who views himself as powerless in the grand scheme of government functioning. On the other hand, oversimplifying this knowledge for transmission purposes can also lead to a loss of the nuance obtained from rigorous academic inquiry.

Yet, scholarship on public policy and the real-world execution of these policies should not be viewed exclusively. There exists in fact potential for a dynamic synergy between the two, wherein not only does information gathered at the grassroots level feed reliable research outcomes, but that this research in turn also facilitates the training of government functionaries for more efficient last-mile service delivery. The Accountability Initiative’s Learning and Development work acts as a bridge between this gap, combining a grasp on the concepts and normative foundations of decentralised public service delivery mechanisms with a targeted dissemination of this in the form of relevant technical and administrative know-how for audiences ranging from development professionals to civil society organisations. Working on the ‘Understanding State Capabilities’ course afforded me an opportunity to catch a glimpse of both these dimensions.

Naturally, researchers at the Accountability Initiative possessed detailed information about the provisions, implementation and current state of a variety of social sector schemes in health and education which they had been closely tracking, as well as a deep understanding of the institutions of public finance and administration. The challenge was to condense this knowledge for the specific operational roles and responsibilities of the participants of the course. What intrigued me most was realising what a delicate balancing act such an endeavour proves to be!

After several insightful deliberations on the contextual appropriateness and comparative advantages of employing certain instructional tools or prioritising certain concepts relative to others, it was decided to supplement the conceptual framework of the course with case studies conducted by the Accountability Initiative on various social sector schemes such as those concerning budgetary devolution in the education sector (SSA), or on the evolution of constitutionally mandated bodies (Bureaucracy, Finance Commissions).

From this experience, I have now come to realise that though a cog or two might go awry from time to time, the clockwork-like coordinated precision of the state would be restored as long as citizens are sufficiently equipped to engage with it. Assurances of state accountability ought to be consistent and ongoing, rather than mere electoral rhetoric once every five years. In this respect, policy research and outreach go hand-in-hand.

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