What does transforming a system mean?
Shailiza Mayal
May 27, 2020

Before I started working in the governance domain, I would often come across phrases such as “systemic transformation”, “changing systems at scale”, “managing systems at scale”, so on and so forth. But what does it actually mean to transform the system? What is the essence of a system? Working with 3 state governments over the last 3 years have helped me frame answers to these complex questions.

In the simplest terms, a government system is a set of people working together to achieve a common goal--a vision. A governance consulting firm like Samagra seeks to transform this system that is working at scale, so that it becomes more efficient and effective. This involves defining objectives, creating frameworks to achieve those objectives, and putting in place processes to implement those frameworks. However, the most crucial part of a system, its core, is not the objectives, frameworks or processes, but the people who are a part of it. For example, in a state’s education department, this means the teachers, cluster resource groups, block education officers, districts education officers, state level directors and all related support staff. Therefore, transforming a system essentially implies transforming the way people work in a system by introducing objectives, frameworks and processes.

This however is easier said than done. A government order asking people to work in a way that is different from what they are accustomed to cannot transform a system. This requires following three principles.

  • Clearly defining expectations
  • Providing a conducive environment for achieving goals
  • Setting up an accountability framework

All three fuel motivation which in turn initiates the shift that is required to transform the system.

Clearly defining expectations

For any ministry, department, office, or decision-making unit, it is important to have a goal in place so that people know what they have to achieve together. For example, as part of Mission Prerna, a systemic transformation project that seeks to impart foundational learning to primary students in Uttar Pradesh, the state government has clearly defined targets for grades 1 to 5 in Hindi and Maths and communicated it to the entire education system in the form of ‘Prerna Lakshya’. This ‘Lakshya’ has to be achieved by 2022. That is the ultimate goal of the education department currently.

It is also important to clearly define the roles and responsibilities of everyone in the system besides the larger goal. Orienting people on the goals and their responsibilities and sharing with them why this is a focus for the department is a way of aligning the entire machinery (by machinery, I mean people) to the new way of working. Similar to Uttar Pradesh, the Governments of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have also set clear goals for their education departments—ensuring 80% students achieve grade level competency.

Providing a conducive environment for achieving goals

Building an environment which makes it conducive for people to achieve targets is critical. If the government gives the department ambitious targets without any support, it would do no good. The focus should be on fostering an environment of ownership and support--conditions favourable to achieving goals.

Regularly engaging stakeholders while designing interventions can go a long way in this regard. For example, in March 2020 when the Uttar Pradesh Department of Education started redesigning the school mentoring proforma, it was shared with the state’s resource group (SRG) for feedback. SRG is a group of teachers who are selected after a rigorous process to support the department in designing academic interventions in addition to teaching in their respective schools. Out of 225 teachers in the resource group, around 100 gave their feedback on different questions in the form. It was important to involve them in the design of the proforma that they themselves would be filling as part of their job. This created a sense of ownership and responsibility among teachers towards designing the form in a manner that would achieve the intended objective.

In August 2019, the Government of Himachal Pradesh launched open source tech platforms for review and monitoring as part of the Samarth programme. During the development of these platforms, the state created a core tech team comprising officials from different districts and trained them on these platforms. This ensured that this core team had sufficient resources and capacity to tweak the platforms in a manner that would be most useful for review and monitoring officials on the job.

Setting up an accountability framework

Once the state government defines goals and gives stakeholders a conducive environment to achieve them, there is a need to establish an accountability framework. Who is accountable for what? And what are the incentives and disincentives in place to ensure the targets are met?

A review and monitoring process is critical in this respect. A well-designed review and monitoring mechanism would include metrics for progress and a cadence for cascaded reviews across administrative levels. For e.g., in an education department, the state officers review the districts and the districts in turn review the blocks and blocks review the school heads. The priorities, progress and problem areas that are discussed at the state level then flow down the chain right to the schools.

In Haryana, monthly review meetings are chaired by the Deputy Commissioners in the presence of the district's education officers to review tangible metrics expected of block officials defined for that particular month. Review meetings are an effective mechanism for all stakeholders to be aware of areas of improvement.

To move or bring about any change in large systems, it is important to move the core in the direction of change. The core, which are the people in the system, can only move when they know what they are expected to do, there is a conducive environment to achieve those goals and an accountability framework to ensure there is progress.