Tough decisions lie ahead for India’s social protection system. How can unorganized workers be empowered to access pensions or other income support programs? How do we make sure that benefits from the new PM-KSN are reaching the intended farmers? The ability of the state to process and consume information to answer such questions for program planning, monitoring and reform has always been critical and never more so than now. Program administrators need to be able to track program performance, learn quickly and incorporate lessons into new designs. In the past fifteen years, India has developed an enthusiasm to monitor schemes through hundreds of Management Information System (MIS) portals. In fact, in the past two years, the national Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) Mission at the Cabinet Secretariat reports the development of 400 MISs for schemes to report payment progress on its national DBT portal. This is more than most middle-income-countries.
The vision is that these systems will enable citizens, government officials and politicians to gain access to all the information that they need to play their individual roles in a democratic society and enable the necessary exchange of knowledge for effective program implementation. Those managing food subsidies can monitor the movement of grains via geo-tagged trucks while the MGNREGS MIS informs administrators of payment delays and citizens use online grievance portals to register complaints.
Such information has the potential to be extremely valuable. One reason why these investments are happening now is that the cost of collecting and sharing information has gone down enormously over the last decades, thanks to the IT revolution. It is possible now for a mother at work to watch her toddler at play in a playschool by connecting her cell-phone wirelessly to a CCTV at the school through one of multiple available apps. And she might, for the first couple of days, but the novelty wears off fast. And then? The app will sit unused, unless there is a specific concern (say, the child is sick).
The problem is that information by itself is not insight; it has the potential for insight. Knowledge is not gathering mounds of information. It is processing that information and translating it into useable propositions—for example, “my child really looks tired, perhaps I should plan to leave early”—that makes people and organizations learners. The mother stops watching the CCTV feed because she needs to focus her mind on other tasks—she already has a tough time fending off the thousand other distractions that life throws at all of us. Processing the volume of information that a CCTV can generate every minute can clog the mind so fast that she needs to take defensive action.
Thus, so it is for organizations. , and the more information you generate the harder that necessarily becomes—the more to sort through and discard. And if you have no guidance on how to do that sorting, then more information may actually hurt. Consistent with this, process evaluations suggest that in the wake of the MIS expansion, the local bureaucracy at the district and state level is drowning in MIS data, with neither the capacity nor the inclination to process it.
. To build a genuine learning state -- a state where everyone, citizens, bureaucrats and politicians use the information they need to generate insight and hold each other accountable, we need three building blocks.