The frontline administration in India is infamous for corruption and patronage, indifference towards citizens, low effort and high absenteeism. This blog reports findings from a year-long qualitative study on frontline education administrators in Bihar. It captures perspectives of frontline administrators on their role in the education hierarchy and how organisational design and culture shape everyday behaviour.

This is the first of a two-part blog

What does it mean to be a frontline administrator in India? Research on India’s frontline administration over the last two decades has unearthed the high levels of absenteeism, low levels of effort, indifference towards citizens, and corruption and patronage that characterise frontline administration in the country (Béteille 2009, Chaudhury et al. 2006, Das et al. 2008, Muralidharan et al. 2014, Wade 1985). Consequently, as Pritchett and Woolcock (2004) rather evocatively describe, the local bureaucracy in India (and in many other developing countries) ends up “looking like a state”, where the administration is designed to function on the basis of formal, codified rules, and follow hierarchy and structure, but in practice, operates under very different principles of patronage and rent extraction.

Missing in these accounts is any significant analysis of the nature of the local bureaucracy as an organisation – the institutional design, internal culture, decision-making systems - and how these shape the perceptions and practices of administrators as they interpret, articulate and perform their daily jobs. In other words, we know very little about how the frontline shapes its identity as administrators and how these identities translate into actions on the ground.

In this column, we report on findings from our year-long (July 2014- August 2015) qualitative research study on frontline education administrators in the state of Bihar. We undertake over 100 in-depth interviews with frontline education administrators (Block Education Officers (BEO), Cluster Resource Centre Coordinators (CRCC) and Head Masters) and detailed time-use studies1  tracking four CRCCs for five months. Our study seeks to capture frontline perspectives on their own roles and responsibilities, relationship with higher officials, functioning of government schools, and effects of various initiatives by the government to improve functioning of its schools, and interpret how organisational design and culture shapes everyday behaviour.

In this first part of a two-part blog we present our findings and interpretation of the frontline ecosystem based on the interviews and time-use studies. In the next part, we present findings related to how this ecosystem responds to reform efforts and its impact on institutionalisation and scale of reforms.

The ‘post office’ State

The first step in our research was to unpack how frontline officers perceive themselves within the education hierarchy. When we asked our interviewees to describe their roles within the education administration, their most frequently cited self-description was of being powerless cogs in a large machine over which they have no control. Our interviewees regularly referred to themselves as “post officers” and “reporting machines” with little authority to take decisions. This is best illustrated through their perceptions of the role they play in decision-making:

“Expectations? What are those? … This is a Block Resource Centre; orders from the District run the show here.”

“….What suggestions can I give? I'm in government service. My first priority is to implement government orders properly and then make any plans of my own.”

“…..In the end whatever the ‘sarkar’ wants will be implemented.”2  

In a companion research piece, Aiyar and Bhattacharya (2015) traced the persistence of this ‘post office syndrome’ to the organisational design of the education administration which privileges a top-down, rule-based hierarchy that leaves local administrators little by way of authority3. And in the absence of authority to implement tasks, officers have built a narrative of powerlessness. Aiyar and Bhattacharya illustrate their argument through the response of an interviewee (a BEO) who states:

     “The head master comes here and I have no answer on what has happened to their request or problem. I have to send them to the district … I have no power to give them anything.” 

This hierarchy and resultant centralisation of decision-making has fostered what political scientist Akshay Mangla (2014) describes as a “legalistic” culture – one which promotes a strict adherence to rules, hierarchies and procedures often at the cost of local needs and priorities.

In legalistic systems, officials understand performance entirely as responsiveness to orders from above rather than responding to citizen needs. And it is in responding to these orders that frontline administrators have shaped their roles within the education hierarchy as being rule followers and data gatherers rather than active agents responding to school needs - thereby legitimising the ‘post office’ narrative. Bihar, as our interviews highlight, is a classic example of a legalistic bureaucratic culture.

A day in the life of a frontline education officer in Bihar

For some administrative jobs, such as building infrastructure or delivering entitlements like scholarships and pensions, this perception of being rule followers and data gatherers may well be enough to get the job done. Here the administrative challenge is merely one of compliance to ensure that the system in fact functions like a post office. But education is more complex. By design, frontline administrators are expected to do far more than simply respond to orders. They are expected to play an active role in delivering learning to students. In this case, being a ‘post officer’ can serve to undermine rather than facilitate the process of understanding school needs and delivering learning to students. Take for instance the CRCCs.

The post of the CRCC in the education administration was carved out in the late 1990s specifically to create a platform for schools and teachers to receive regular, continuous teaching support4 . To fulfill this role adequately, CRCCs need to spend substantive amounts of time in schools, understanding classroom practices, identifying student learning levels and engaging with teachers. However, our time-use surveys revealed that on an average visit to schools (that lasts between 1-2 hours a day) CRCCs spend less than 10-20% of their time inside classrooms. For the rest of the time, they are busy checking registers to collect data required by their superiors and gossiping with headmasters and teacher colleagues (Figure 1)5.

Figure 1. How CRCCs spend their time in schools

In character with the legalistic culture, the little time that CRCCs did spend engaging with teachers (both inside and outside the classroom) was used not to ‘mentor’ and support teachers but to establish hierarchy. While in classrooms, CRCCs usually took over teaching entirely. They interacted with students but never offered any feedback or suggestions to teachers on teaching practices6.

This grammar of hierarchy and orders was evident in CRCC interactions with their superiors as well. Monthly meetings with block and district officials were entirely transactional with superiors giving CRCCs orders related to administrative matters. There was no discussion or debate on how CRCCs manage their time, the nature of their school visits or their role as academic mentors. For instance, all CRCCs are expected to fill a quality-monitoring format (QMT) based on their observations of teaching-learning practices. But these were never ‘requested’ for by the block office or debated and discussed, leaving the CRCCs with the clear message that academic mentoring was the least relevant aspect of their job.

A cynical interpretation of the time use of CRCCs is that this is typical of an apathetic, unaccountable bureaucracy that lacks discipline. However, when viewed from the prism of the legalistic culture and the ‘post office’ narrative that this fosters, the behavioural pattern of the CRCCs appears almost rational! For one, the idea of mentoring is the antithesis of the legalistic culture within which the CRCC is embedded. In such a culture, mentorship needs to be nurtured. But throughout our observations of CRCCs, we saw little to suggest that superiors engaged with the CRCCs in a manner that would facilitate a shift from hierarchy to mentorship. CRCCs, in turn, drew on this hierarchy to legitimise their own projection of their superiority over teachers on the one hand and passively awaited orders from their superiors on the other. It is instructive that during interviews when CRCCs were asked whether they interpreted their roles as “leaders” of schools or supporters, the unanimous response was that they saw themselves as supports in a system over which they had relatively little agency.

Consequently, a day in the life of a CRCC is entirely determined by the nature of the orders that they receive from their superiors. And for the rest of the time, in the words of one of our interviewees, it’s “Complete Rest in Comfortable Conditions.” In this world, focusing on school needs and mentoring teachers is simply not something that education administrators do - and this is one critical reason why a focus on learning remains marginal to India’s public education system.

  1. In the time-use studies, we observed the CRCCs in their official work hours as they went about carrying out their duties.
  2. Sarkar is Hindi for government.
  3. For details on how this top-down decision-making system works, see Aiyar et al. (2014).
  4. For a detailed account of the evolution of the post of CRCCs, see: Tara et al. (2010).
  5. Time use studies conducted by Accountability Initiative in Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan over the same period reveal a similar behavioural pattern.
  6. One of the four CRCC was an exception to this. His behaviour is a result of internal motivation rather than a response to system-related incentives.
  Further Reading

This blog originally appeared as a column on Ideas for India