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On Upskilling India’s Middle Management Rung Govt Officers For The Digital Age

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By Madhukar Banuri, Vishakha Tiwari

Most social entrepreneurs, like ourselves, are inspired by the people we meet in government leadership positions, be it passionate bureaucrats or elected representatives. We take their verbal cues as proof that the ‘entire system’ is moving forward.

However, we almost always neglect to see the people below them—the middle management rung. Similar to how critical this layer of people is to any organisation, the middle management in the government system (directors, deputy directors, district and block officers, etc.), has to look over both the execution decided by top leadership, as well as the interests of the several people they manage.

Take, for example, the middle management of the Department of Education. On average, a District Education Officer (EO) in India manages more than 2,000 schools with a staff of approximately 5,000 individuals, including teachers. Similarly, a block education officer (BEO) handles 100-150 schools on average. In the state of Maharashtra, the EOs and BEOs make up only 500 odd officers from the 8,000+ officer cadre of the state, spread across both administrative and academic bodies.

Needless to say, this critical layer of middle managers plays a significant role in ensuring that any large scale reform within schools is able to sustain and thrive. Despite this, their voices are heard less than needed, and they are given few, if any, opportunities to expand their competencies.

To understand the needs of middle management government officers in the education sector, the Leadership For Equity team conducted a survey in August 2019 of more than 900 officers across different cadres of Maharashtra. The three-step survey process included an online survey followed by cadre-specific focus group discussions and in-person meetings.

Conducted in partnership with the Maharashtra State Council of Educational Research and Training (MSCERT) and Department of Continuous Professional Development, the survey aimed to understand the current reality of these officers, the gaps they are faced with, and solutions that can be implemented to address them.

What The Data Tells Us

1. Knowledge management processes

As government departments have a huge repository of data with an ongoing process for data collection, approximately 80% of officers across academic and administrative cadres highlighted the need for better knowledge management processes.

Most officers are involved in managing data for activities, such as completing service book for all teachers in their block or district, preparing letters, gathering information for Legislative Assembly questions, filling RTI reply requests, managing different schemes for departments beyond education, and dealing with documents related to the implementation of Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, as well as CSR fund management.

The lack of streamlined structures and requisite tools to manage these activities, coupled with the urgency of the tasks, leads to increased manual workload and subsequent disinvestment in their work.

2. Impact measurement

Similarly, about 70% of officers stated that having streamlined impact measurement tools would improve their programme implementation and reduce redundant data collection. Activities for impact measurement include data collection for monitoring of state programmes run by SCERT or district authorities, exam-related data, and collecting programme feedback for government schemes at a school, teacher, and student level.

Officers ranging from block officers, extension officers (vistar adhikari), kendra pramukhs (cluster level), and teachers form the core field team for data collection.

3. Technology

Sixty-nine per cent of officers across different cadres felt that using technology would make their work much easier. However, some of these officers admitted to not using technology at work due to a skill gap. Basic online productivity tools such as Google Drive or Excel were also not utilised for daily operations.

“Currently, only WhatsApp is being used, but using apps such as Google Forms and Google Sheets would be very helpful. There is no online data collection, which leads to the cost of a huge amount of time for analysing data” – Lecturer, District Institute of Education and Training (DIET).

“We collect data manually or through forms (sometimes). The zilla sends a letter saying what data they want, but they don’t realise the scope of how much it is and how long it would take to collect the data. Also, people are not as tech-savvy as they think,” – A kendra pramukh.

governement officers around a table_public education
Government schools which deliver the best results have always had a supportive and invested officer. | Picture courtesy: Leadership for Equity

4. Team management practices

About 60% of officers across levels stated the need for better team management practices, such as resource allocation to programmes, division of labor within teams, and ensuring accountability within team members across levels.

Most respondents across cadres of state, district, and block levels felt there was a mismatch of the work mentioned in their job charts and the work they were actually doing. Some officers also mentioned that there was no clear job chart for their roles, which led to unclear goals, inefficiency, and a feeling of being unsuccessful.

“There is no future-oriented plan, hence no calendar. People get work assigned randomly, and it becomes difficult to manage” – Senior Lecturer, DIET.

5. Opportunities to learn

One key finding of the study was the lack of any ongoing professional learning spaces for government officers across cadres and hierarchies. On further reading, we found that the state training policy mandates training of officers at different time intervals of their career or in case of a department transfer. In some cases, the time distribution for such training could stretch to as far as five years. Because of this:

  • Peer learning seemed to interest more than 87% of officers, as they felt that such a space would allow them to share their best practices, challenges, and diverse solutions on an ongoing basis. Many respondents also felt that it could help them gain more perspectives from existing knowledge in the government system and enable a positive work culture.
  • Online courses: Surprisingly, approximately 70% of officers expressed willingness to access online training courses over in-person training, across varied age groups.

“Few things where I feel the need for support are:

  1. Technology training for extension officers/kendra pramukh’s on the management of data.
  2. How to manage time with different activities.
  3. Coaching and mentoring methods.” – A block education officer.

A day in the life of an education officer

To supplement our quantitative findings, we shadowed different cadres of officers to understand their ground realities. Here is one example of what a day in the life of an education officer looks like:

Mr Akshay* is an education officer in one of the largest districts of Maharashtra. He is in charge of providing quality access and education to more than 2.3 lakh students studying in about 3,500 schools. For this, he manages a sanctioned staff of more than 12,200 teachers and officers spread across 14 blocks in the district; with about 40% vacancy at the field officer level.

Mr Akshay’s day usually starts at 9 am, though sometimes it can start as early as 7.30 am (if he needs to get work done before his regular meetings). His mornings are usually spent dealing with a pile of files that need to be read, processed, and approved—these include teacher transfer requests, RTI queries sent by the ministry, legal cases about (mostly private) schools, proposals from schools and gram panchayats, and several smaller requests from zilla parishad and/or gram panchayat members.

Amidst this, Mr Akshay spends time with visitors—journalists, teachers, block education officers, and local leaders. With the lack of the required number of staff, the steady flow of new files and visitors remains constant throughout the day. At the same time, the frequency of phone calls from seniors, schools, and other department stakeholders come in with varying intensity.

Throughout the day, Mr Akshay shifts from people management to approving budgets, to coordinating with departments, to dealing with visitors, to state-level queries, to his individual priorities for the week. Depending on the urgency of the matters on any particular day, Mr Akshay’s day stretches well beyond the comfortable 6 pm, to as late as 10.30 pm.

The need for greater investment in officer development

India has been struggling to provide high-quality learning for the 150 million students studying in its government-run schools. (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/GettyImages)

The more we learn about our massive Indian school systems, the more apparent the need for the continuous professional development of officers becomes.

“Achieving sustainable learning outcome improvement requires strong local leadership amongst field officers.”

A 2018 BCG survey found that out of 26 workplace satisfaction indicators, respondents ranked ‘learning and training opportunities’ and ‘career development’ fourth and fifth, respectively. The findings found that building employee capability is critically linked to building organisational capability, which in turn contributes to improved organisational outcomes. Similarly, our analysis covers the challenges faced by education officers in Maharashtra and also identifies the areas of capacity building for them.

As we work with the complex hierarchical systems of Maharashtra, we are learning that the government schools which deliver the best results have always had a supportive and invested officer—be it Kumte in Satara district, or Manwath in Parbhani district.

India has been struggling to provide high-quality learning for the 150 million students studying in its government-run schools. Achieving sustainable learning outcome improvement needs the school system to thrive, and that in turn, requires strong local leadership amongst field officers. In the long run, the micro innovations happening at the school-level will sustain only if the school-, cluster-, and block-level managers are able to drive, sustain, and scale them. It is with this intention that we have to collectively seek greater investments of time and money to develop our field officers.

* Names changed to maintain privacy.

Know more

  • Learn about the five fundamentals of talent management within the government workforce.
  • Read this study from Nigeria about the challenges to effective management of public sector organisations in an institutionally corrupt society.
  • Understand why it is important to maintain investment in learning and development in the public sector, through this discussion paper by the Australian Institution of Management.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

About the authors:

Madhukar BanuriMadhukar is the founder and CEO of Leadership For Equity, a systems change and research organisation that helps strengthen the effectiveness of public school systems to deliver quality education at scale. He has more than 11 years of experience in the education sector, and had previously worked with Pune City Connect and Teach For India. Madhukar has an engineering degree from BITS Pilani. He is a 2015 Acumen India Fellow, and also serves on the advisory board of Teach For India.
Viskhakha TiwariVishakha is an IT engineer and a Teach For India alumnus. She currently works as a consultant with Leadership for Equity to create an ecosystem of empowered officers with the requisite knowledge, skills, and mindsets to create an environment of effective support for all programmes across Maharashtra.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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