Today, we bring to you part two of the interview between Rohan Venkat and Avani Kapur, as part of CPR Perspectives — our flagship interview series commemorating the Centre for Policy Research’s 50th anniversary.
In the first part of this conversation, released earlier this month, Rohan Venkat spoke to Kapur about starting at CPR just as the Accountability Initiative was taking shape, the stunning examples of inefficiency she discovered while looking for bottlenecks in public spending in the field and getting positive feedback from the state — including how one government official described AI’s work as being that of ‘physician’ tracking the flow of blood through the body, searching for blockages.
In this second part of the conversation, Kapur speaks about why the initiative has moved from talking about accountability to ‘Responsive Governance’, how AI does much more grassroots capacity building work beyond its flagship PAISA public expenditure tracking, and what advice she has for young scholars entering this field.
If you prefer audio, this conversation is also available as a podcast here.
And if you missed our previous interviews, read our conversations with Partha Mukhopadhyay (Part 1 & 2) and with Navroz Dubash (Part 1 & 2).
Over the years, you’ve moved away from the term accountability and now see your mission as being that of advocating ‘Responsive Governance.’ Could you tell us more about that shift?
Throughout our journey, we were constantly using the learnings to further develop our theory of change. The critical point for me personally came in 2017 when I took over. In 2018, we would have completed 10 years of our existence and an important question that we were asking ourselves was, where do we go from here? We’ve had a successful 10 years, but do we want to do more of the same? How do we scale our impact? When we started doing our own diagnosis, we realised our strengths was our research on understanding the nuts and bolts of implementation. But there was this missing gap between researchers and implementers. In our team also there was always this little bit of a friction saying, ‘Should we just stop at saying these are the bottlenecks, or should we push ourselves to think of solutions?’ And most of the research organisations around us were focused more on the academic and policy circles. And then there were the CSOs [Civil Society Organisations], which often didn’t have the tools to use that evidence or the research, nor did they know how to actually navigate the government structures or even constructively work with the government. We felt like there was this gap and we were kind of one foot here and one foot there.
Around the same time there was a growing body of work that said, for citizens to effectively demand services, it’s not enough to just give information on rights and entitlements. It’s important for them to learn how to navigate government systems. I remember works by Jonathan Fox and others called ‘doing accountability differently’ and there were several others, who said that for social accountability interventions to actually succeed, you need practitioners to have the tools to navigate the local context better. But you also need the state to not be thought of as this monolithic creature.
That’s when we rearticulated our vision towards responsive governance. We used the social accountability definition and applied it to our work, which rests on 3 pillars:
Using that we realised that it’s really important for us to work across all three stakeholders. So we provide both government and citizens with access to information on schemes, government functioning, bottlenecks and implementation. For citizens, we also figured out that it’s important to provide them with tools to allow them to navigate the local state. We work with service providers to build their capacity and recognise those spaces for increased citizen engagement. And then of course, we also work with governments in identifying the root causes for implementation failures. We advocate with them for opening up more spaces for citizen engagement.
It was a journey that was happening globally as well, but I think we saw it in our own work: The need and importance of working across different levels and not just thinking of ourselves only as a research group or implementation group, but bridging that gap between research and practice required us to redefine ourselves as working on responsive governance.
So with that shift, could you give us a sense of everything that the initiative is doing today, PAISA and beyond?
One is of course research. PAISA is a methodology and a tool. There are times when we focus more on the administration side, such as capacity, there are times when we focus more on the expenditure side, but our core goal is to continue looking at process tracking studies. Another big flagship project for us is the budget briefs. Again, it started literally from when Yamini asked me that question about understanding how much money is going to different things in the education sector. Eventually I was able to create a 2-3 page brief. We felt that the difficulty in trying to collate that information, which was not available in one place, but required going through multiple government websites. It required detection work where RTI responses versus what was on the website versus parliamentary answers all had very, very different data even for the same year. Having gone through all that trouble, we felt like it was useful to share that with the world, and particularly with Members of Parliament.
We felt if we could share what we had learned at least for the large schemes with Members of Parliament and other decision makers, maybe it would help them get access to knowledge that may not have been easy for them to otherwise access. So we started the budget briefs. This year was our anniversary year, where we completed 15 years of budget briefs. Every single year, come rain, come hail, we’ve produced our budget briefs. This year, in fact, we did an anniversary issue where we were able to look at welfare trends over the last 15 years in the budget analysis.
The second thing that I think we’ve expanded on in the last few years is our capacity building courses. A lot of this comes from the fact that we spend a lot of time understanding how public finance and administration works and we felt it makes sense to then share that information with others. So we have one course called ‘Understanding state capability’ which is in an experiential learning program tailored for development professionals and students to unpack India’s very, very complicated governance structures. The idea is that it will build a community of impactful leaders.
Since we have colleagues in five states, we realised that we needed to initially build their capacity as well. They all had a lot of experience undertaking surveys but they didn’t necessarily have the theoretical background of government structures, of budgets, of fiscal federalism or even of social accountability. So we ended up training them first and now they run this program called Hum aur Hamaari Sarkaar. The idea here is that we try and teach civil society organisation leaders and practitioners on the ground. Our hope is that by doing this course of trying to unpack this black box of what is sarkar and what is implementation, they can design appropriate interventions. We’ve had different organisations from Pratham, Piramal, some very, very small grassroots organisations also taking our courses. These courses are delivered in Hindi and we try and hold them in Tier 2 cities. We’ve been very conscious that it’s not just the translation of the English program or a translation of research, but it’s actually trying to see what is most useful for different people who are going to be taking the course.
Then we have a course called Hum Sarkaari Adhikari, which is for local government actors and institutions. So Panchayat secretaries, sarpanches, ward members. We also developed a tool which was earlier a part of our training program called Mapping Governance. In a federal structure like India where you have decentralisation, elected representatives, bureaucrats, quasi-government bodies, all working together, understanding how services are delivered is a challenge in itself. There are informal and formal lines of reporting and accountability. We try to map out this governance. It’s an interactive visual tool that gives a holistic understanding of social sector programs.
While we were always one for convening and having discussions and dialogues, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I had co-conceptualised, with a friend and colleague from Pratham, the need for a platform for development partners to come together. This was during COVID-19 where there were so many organisations that were doing amazing work, but a lot of the existing platforms focused very much on service delivery on the ground. But what were the research organizations doing? What were the implementing organisations doing or the funding organizations doing? So we started this platform called PULSE for development and again it has a long name. It stands for Platform to Understand, Learn, Share and Exchange (PULSE) for development. It was a resource sharing platform initially. In 2022 as the pandemic waned, we made a conscious decision to include within it longstanding development issues and shift the focus towards the attainment of the SDGs. In this present form, PULSE for development has become a community of practice where we have cross-pollination of knowledge. There are nearly 100 member organisations and almost 200 individual practitioners. This includes even young IAS and state officers as well as implementing organisations, research organisations, think tanks, funders, grassroots organisations. The idea is to have an interdisciplinary pan-India community of practice and we cover 16 themes and we often have regular coffee chats on critical issues that different organisations are working on.
It’s been really interesting. I remember one session where we had different government officers who work in difficult geographies, but at the same time very, very different states. So someone from Arunachal Pradesh, someone from Maharashtra, someone from Odisha. But when they started talking about some of the challenges that they were all facing, you could see this exchange of ideas of ‘Oh, that’s what you’ve done. That sounds really interesting. Would love to learn more about it.’ So we think of ourselves as kind of reducing the learning curve for organisations and government by being this repository, but also facilitating interaction and engagement between government on one hand and different types of organisations on another.
What misconceptions about your area of work — accountability, public finance, welfare spending and studying government — do you find yourself having to correct all the time, whether it’s from the lay public or even fellow scholars or people within government?
I think the biggest misconception on accountability is that it’s a fault finding mission. I remember sitting in a government meeting where they heard the name of the initiative and said, ‘Oh then I have to be careful about what I say’ and when they learned what we do they said ‘Oh you mean the good kind of accountability.’ And I didn’t actually know that there was a bad kind of accountability. It’s not a fault finding mission. It’s also not just external. It’s as much internal. It’s accountability to ourselves, to be able to do our jobs to the best of our ability. Also, it’s not just vertical, it’s not that I’m accountable just to my boss. I’m equally accountable to people below me, but it’s also equally horizontal. How do I interact with my peers and with other stakeholders?
I think the other misconception is that we’re not all embedded in this complex set of relationships. Accountability is complicated and so is governance. There is no black and white, there’s often a lot of grey. That’s one big misconception about our work that I wanted to repeat. It’s not a fault finding mission. It’s not someone externally trying to lay blame and point fingers at all.
On public finance, one of the biggest misconceptions was that it’s a very technical skill or it’s a very technical concept. But I think, since I hadn’t actually got formal training on public finance and literally learned on the job, I’ve learned that using a public finance lens can tell you a lot about people, about institutions, about federal relations, whether it’s Centre-state dynamics or state and local dynamics, it tells you a lot about who has decision-making power based on the concentration of financing on funding. It’s actually super interesting and it’s a lens that you can use in your work. It’s not just data crunching. It’s not just numbers. It’s not just technical skills. There are times when you do the mundane data crunching and more than that data entry, but it’s when you’re trying to look at the stories and what it’s telling you, that’s where it’s definitely super exciting and can get really interesting.
That leads into my next question, which is what advice would you have to young scholars entering this space? What tools or lenses or approaches that you found most useful would you recommend to someone who’s entering this area?
The world now is so competitive that the younger generation is already often looking for specialisation. I see young 20 year olds who are, at least in their CVs, specialists in different skills. My advice would be there’s always time to pick specialties, but initially you should just be building your knowledge and understanding your issue through different lenses. If I go back to the question of how I started, where my history background actually helped me understand economics better and led me to a public policy world, I do think that that liberal arts degree — even studying philosophy — all of these are things that you never know when you’ll use it.
The other thing that I would say is listening to different scholars speaking across topics really helps and I think this has been one of the great parts of CPR where we have people across different walks of life talking about different aspects of their work.
I do think and maybe that’s my bias a little bit is that in today’s day and age some data proficiency is useful. It helped me become more structured in my argument, because the second you’re working with data, it forces you to be more organised, be more structured, and also not take anything at face value because you could slice the data in different ways and you could get very different answers and results. For all of those aspects, I would say some understanding of data — and I don’t just mean quantitative data, it could even be qualitative data — is really useful.
Yeah, I think I’d be happy to direct anyone who’s working in this space to get a little bit of philosophy every once in a while. Are there specific pieces for AI or of your own work you’d like to direct people to as either things that encapsulate your work, or that you think would be valuable for someone who’s interested in this conversation?
Definitely, budget briefs and the 15 year trends.
The other piece would be one I did with Yamini Aiyar, called ‘The centralization vs decentralization tug of war and the emerging narrative of fiscal federalism for social policy in India’. In some ways it encompasses some of the inherent tensions in our fiscal federal framework. It gave me the opportunity to both use my quant skills, but it was fascinating because I got a chance to talk to finance officers and planning officers across different states.
We did one for CPR policy challenges, which forced me to look at everything that I have understood on centrally sponsored schemes and social policy and put it together in one place. That may be an easy snapshot summary of some of the lessons that we have learned through our PAISA work and through our other work at Accountability initiative.
What 3 works have influenced you personally?
This is a very difficult question because I think at different avatars and different times of my life, I’ve been influenced by different works. So I will cheat and not just stick to three.
In college I was deeply affected by Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power. That pushed me to work [and] wanting to work in the development sector a lot more. Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson and Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen — all of these propelled me into the public policy space. When I joined CPR on accountability, Jonathan Fox’s work — where he explains the sandwich strategy — we use that in our courses as well, so that’s been really influential for us.
As someone who is starting to understand intergovernmental fiscal transfers I would highly recommend Robin Broadway and Anwar Shah’s book, Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfers, Principles and Practice. It’s very long, but it’s got nice, clean sections, so you can pick and choose what you want to do. It’s like an encyclopaedia of everything you want to know on intergovernmental fiscal transfers. Rethinking Public Institutions in India by Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Milan Vaishnav was again super interesting. What I like about edited volumes is that you get to learn a lot from very, very different perspectives.
For someone who’s just starting out and doesn’t necessarily want to get too technical, I think there are a large number of books where you get a glimpse of the welfare state or glimpse of public policy without necessarily feeling like you’re studying it. Recent works like M Rajshekhar’s Despite the State: Why India Lets Its People Down and How They Cope was really fascinating and similarly I think Ajay Shah and Vijay Kelkar’s In Service of the Republic: The Art and Science of Economic Policy. It’s also a course now on Coursera. I can go on, but I’ll stop now.