Photo: Raisina Hill, New Delhi © Pradeep Gaur on iStock by Getty Images
There is considerable potential to enhance opportunities for evidence-informed policy and impact by working with state governments in India. An embedded learning partnership with the government answers decision-makers’ priority questions as they arise using a broad methodological toolkit. A key requirement for the success of such embedded partnerships with the government is establishing trust, understanding government processes, and gaining buy-in across all levels.
While evidence is one of the key tools used to inform decisions, there are several other important factors which play an instrumental role in government partnerships. Working in an embedded capacity can enable organizations to more deeply understand the factors that affect clients’ work like their culture, values, and resources. However, it does come with its share of challenges. This blog provides 5 tips1 – things that I have noticed from my experience working on several government partnerships in India – to set partnerships up for success from the beginning.
Many know that building trust and gaining buy-in is the most important requirement for effective partnerships – government or otherwise. But what is often overlooked is the benefit of focusing on building these lasting relationships at all bureaucratic levels – senior (Secretary), middle (Director), and Program officers.
To do this well, teams must understand the value, perspective, and mandate of government counterparts at various levels within the bureaucracy. The embedded set-up provides a great opportunity to establish a comfortable working relationship and develop empathy for constraints that counterparts face.
This approach of working at all levels of the government brings ownership from them and could potentially lead to higher adoption of the recommendations. Additionally, I would recommend the team to have some touch points (1-2 times per year) with the political leadership (minister level) as it helps in bringing visibility to the project and aids in seeking high-level approvals.
One of the key characteristics of an embedded partnership is to have a team-based on-site working very closely with the government. To enable this, it is advisable to hire staff that is local and conversant with the regional language. A few of the team members should also be able to read and write the regional language to understand and create government documents. A local team is sustainable and essential for building trust and comfort with the client as the team members come with a better understanding of the client context.
For example: While working with one of the state governments, we realized all government documents (official letters, orders etc.) were in the local language – Hindi. We understood that we would need to support in drafting these documents for the government to ease their load. Even for project deliverables, we were advised to ‘create’ them in Hindi rather than ‘translate’ them from English. For this purpose, it is advisable to have a local asset in your team or hire resources separately (translator/editor) who are familiar with the government’s style of writing official documents and can help in creating them on short notice. This small change in our working style went a long way and aided in faster processing of project orders, letters, and deliverables.
Within the team, it is extremely important to establish an internal Point of Contact (POC) for conducting government communication. This helps in bringing credibility and stability to the client relationship. The POC should be senior enough (usually a Manager or Director) to communicate confidently with senior bureaucrats and have sufficient decision-making power to respond in real-time. For larger projects with multiple stakeholders, it is advisable to map one internal POC per stakeholder to allow meaningful relationships at each level. For eg: An associate can be mapped to the Program officer, a Manager to a middle-level bureaucrat (Director), and the Director to a senior-level bureaucrat (Secretary).
If you are setting up a partnership for the first time with a state government, it is essential to learn the prevalent official processes, systems, and bureaucratic norms, and apply them to your working style. You should be ready to support and aid the department in any way possible and not additionally burden them with your paperwork.
For example: It took us a few months to fully understand the government filing process. In most state governments in India, it is the old system of using paper to write up a request (for which you should offer support to your nodal officer), then putting it up on a ‘note sheet’ (similar to an offline email thread), and then adding it to the existing file of your project to seek comments and approval. Seeking approval is not easy and it is an iterative process. At any step, the relevant stakeholder may add comments and ask for further clarification. This makes the physical file come back to the previous person to provide a response. The process continues till all the comments are answered in writing and the file reaches the final authority who has to sign off on the request. This process usually takes days and sometimes even weeks as the file moves from office to office. Thus, it is good to budget enough time for approvals and appreciate the nuances of the paperwork within the specific department. To minimize the iterations, I talk about co-creation in Tip #5.
In India, Whatsapp has become the preferred mode of communication for government counterparts (apart from physical meetings). Understanding the technology’s use by your client in the initial phase of the project and capitalizing it by forming relevant Whatsapp groups can lead to quick movements in the project. Depending on the type of stakeholders, it is useful to have different Whatsapp groups / personal Whatsapp chats for different levels to seek updates, provide updates, and communicate in an informal and quick manner without having to go through the long process of scheduling meetings or email or paperwork.
The internal project leadership should ensure that a robust stocktaking mechanism is in place from the beginning of the project. It is best that such a mechanism is outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the two parties or is enshrined in some written document which holds the parties accountable to hold regular reviews.
For example: A quarterly steering committee meeting held under the chairmanship of the senior-most administrative officer in the state – usually the Chief Secretary – would provide the required guidance and direction to the project in a regular manner. This meeting should also be attended by the relevant Secretaries and Directors. Such meetings serve as a platform to provide progress updates, align on goals for the next quarter, and help in securing high-level sign-offs.
Additionally, weekly or fortnightly review meetings should be scheduled with the Secretary to ensure regular movement in the project activities. The nodal officer meetings should happen once/twice a week or more depending on the requirement and the phase of the project.
Along with building relationships, rigorous, well-researched, and crisp deliverables add tangible credibility to your work. High-quality deliverables center key objectives of the document and are written with the audience in mind. For example: you may want to produce a simple 2-pager for an officer who likes to receive pre-reads for the meeting, but a presentation might be more suitable for another officer who is extremely busy and requires guidance in understanding your deliverable.
Working in an embedded capacity also presents an opportunity to co-create outputs with government counterparts. It not only helps in reducing the iterative review cycles but also builds ownership among the officials. Additionally, it may also serve as a chance for informal capacity building of the officials, enabling them to see the impact of their programs in a data-driven manner.
For example: In one of our projects with a state government, we were co-creating modules for the training of field functionaries. It was immensely useful for us to understand the historical training process and receive regular feedback on the modules. The whole process also made our government counterparts more invested in the project and we saw significant efforts from their end to achieve its goals.
The deliverables should be as action-oriented as possible. The team’s support should not end at evidence generation or synthesis, it should go further to suggest actionable next steps to take evidence to action. For most of the deliverables, try adding an additional section which outlines the ‘action plan’ for your proposed recommendations and what they mean for various stakeholders. This section would require you to understand the feasibility of your solution through stakeholder consultations, field visits etc. and will make the recommendation stronger and more appealing to the officers.
Often while working with the government, we are asked to work on tasks which are not in our immediate scope. It is challenging to meet those demands while also staying on course with the long-term objectives of the project. However, in order to build trust and showcase the value we bring in, the teams should continue to respond to such requests in some way or another. This might mean you may have to bring in some temporary additional capacity, or re-adjust your timelines or provide alternative solutions to the client for finishing that particular task. There will be a time in the partnership when the client trusts you enough to allow you to push back on certain requests but it takes time and effort to reach that level of comfort in the relationship.
Even though working with governments is challenging, it is one of the most impactful ways to contribute to the development of society. I hope some of these tips support you in setting up a better partnership.
I deeply appreciate the comments and reviews on this blog from my colleagues at IDinsight. Thank you, Divya Nair, Ashruth Talwar, Ritika Rastogi, Karan Nagpal, Vasundhara Chauhan and Emily Coppel.
29 September 2023
28 September 2023
26 September 2023
21 September 2023
12 September 2023
17 August 2023
10 August 2023
9 August 2023
3 August 2023
2 August 2023
20 October 2020
29 September 2021
7 February 2023