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Tenures, Long Distance Relationships and Techno-Solutionism in Government
One more reason why techno-solutionism is everywhere
Having been fortunate enough to see multiple cycles of bureaucrats, I've come to realize another factor which may be playing into increasing techno-solutionist behavior overtime.
Bureaucrats at the helm have short tenures - time before they are transferred to a different department. Let's say you have 12 months and you want to show progress. Any complex policy reform needs time - understanding the problem statement, figuring out the solution, getting approvals, notifying and then waiting to see it get adopted. The space in which a non-technological policy solution is deployed is a complex one. If you have a short relationship, you try to pack as much as you can in easy explicit forms of affection. Fancy, I-tattoed-your-name, yes but possibly not sustainable. Slow love is difficult.
The higher up you go, ironically lesser power/control you have
As one moves up further into the hierarchy and in the central government, many claim to lose direct control to affect change as compared to when they were in the state or in the district level.
“I argue that India is today a flailing state---a nation-state in which the head, that is the elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs”
Pritchett, Lant. 2009. Is India a Flailing State?: Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernization.
While, I don't agree to the blanket statement, there is some merit to the flailing state argument not necessarily whether one part of the body is more sound or functional or delusional for that matter, but that there is definitely a long-distance relationship between different parts of the government with miscommunication and same-page problems.
Higher up, things start to abstract and aggregate. Further, with Centrally Sponsored Schemes, a central government officer's role is limited to policy, 60% funding and monitoring at a high-level. People at the center feel they have little control on the last-mile excecution. On the other hand, people in the state governments often remark that people at the center are a little cut-off from the realities of what it takes to actually implement things and not everything is as hunky-dory as it appears in air-conditioned bhawans of Delhi.
So, if you find yourself at the center, you can flag the rate of road construction is slow, but apart from writing a D.O letter or conducting a review there isn't much you can do. Apart from financial releases, there aren't many carrots or sticks to exert control. Policy too is largely enshrined in scheme guidelines and what remains under control is day to day operational policies.
So the levers for change available to you are limited, and change one must as there is no glory in maintenance of existing systems apparentely.
So within the context of having shorter tenures, feeling powerless and having limited direct control on the functionaries that execute the actual work on the ground, technical fixes are a great way to exert control. A technological fix is not only under one’s control to initiate and deploy in a short period of time, it allows me to exert control without the necessary need to write a letter or conduct a review or negotiate and as bonus it generates KPIs from day one for to measure whether I am moving in the right direction or atleast in some direction. It is in-situ exertion of power or control as an infrastructure, so sublime that it disappears in the background.
A technological solution or a fix can be designed with little context (dangerously at times), it can be deployed within weeks/months and is live almost instantly. Sure, if it is a new app or something, it will take time for people to get on-boarded but still asking people to download an ed-tech mobile app is easier than a policy reform that fixes teacher training quality or salaries. Latter is messier and has plenty human factors, former is easy. Right? Well, also wrong. This assumption that technological fixes are simpler and deterministic is one of the reasons we are seeing ill-thought half-baked technological solutions disrupting a lot of the front-line. While deploying a technological solution is easy i.e. the means, the end isn't straightforward. Eventually, you pick up the wires and follow where they lead, you'll find a human at the other end of the rainbow coloured cable puncturing the techno-utopia. Whatever you've built is going to interact with a human, most policy isn't purely implemented in 1s and 0s.
Contagion not limited to Government
Okay, so if feeling of powerlessness and urgency to show results leads to technocracy, is this phenomenon only limited to government? I think not. It seems to also be exhibited by organizations doting the streets of Munirka, Hauz Khas and Koramangala. Development consultancies, donor agencies etc too seem to be flocking to technocratic solutions to wicked problems. The powerlessness they feel is by-design, they are not the government and are here to advise. But at times they exhibit the ambitions to have more control than presenting policy briefs to every-changing bureaucrats. These organization do also feel the pressure to show impact even if they do not personally have shorter tenures. Be it donor pressures to show impact or the brief period in which they are matched with a government counterpart who is complying or entertaining them - the emphemeral window where they want to get the most done.
The last wave of transformation saw evidence collecting dev organizations pivoting to implementing/consulting orgs which are now further pivoting into becoming code shops for the government.
While, this transformation happens and move towards technical solutions happens within and in the periphery of government, the larger question remains, who is really getting their hands dirty and working on systemic solutions to the larger problems?
I don't necessarily think longer tenures will reduce technocracy, but it at least creates space and time for one to explore non-technological fixes. As for the the flailing state and the top's perceived powerlessness, I am not sure what organizational design allows for the top (center) to exert control on the bottom (front-line) wherein you are in a situationship with the middle (state) but the answer may lie somewhere in the concurrent list and in re-visiting the the role of the center and state governments.
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