Partnership Between Government and NGOs to Improve Public Education

The government is not a monolithic organisation. An appropriate characterization of it would be a multi-headed hydra’ or Ravana’, based on Indian mythology.” SC Behar highlights the challenges NGOs face in working with the government.

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S C Behar interviewed by V Santhakumar

S C Behar has been associated with a number of governmental and non-governmental efforts to improve public education. As an officer of Indian Administrative Service (IAS), he held a number of important positions in the Government of Madhya Pradesh and the Government of India and a major part of his career was devoted to the area of education. He is the Founder Director of Eklavya and SCERT and has been associated with the Total Literacy Campaign and the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti. He is also a member of the board of the Azim Premji Foundation.

Not a typical government officer, Mr Behar has been a harsh critic of the government’s functioning even while he was part of it. Working in the government, he argued for, and, attempted reforms wherever his role as an insider could facilitate it. His position in the government has enabled him to see the way governments and officials function and to also understand and deal with non-governmental or philanthropic organisations. His experiences inform the following observations.

He is outlining, in this interview with V Santhakumar, some of the challenges faced by NGOs in working with the government towards the objective of providing quality schooling for all.

On your initial experience of working with NGOs

As an officer of the Indian Administrative Service of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, I became the Secretary of Education in the state in 1978. An experimental science education program namely, Kishore Bharati’ was going on in the Hoshangabad district under the leadership of Anil Sadgopal. It attracted eminent scientists and science educators working in the institutes of higher education and research who found a new meaning in contributing to science education in schools. It was the time when going to work in remote, rural areas appeared romantic’ to these highly-educated people. The experiment was carried out in 12 schools in the district, and it was found to be very useful in making science education exciting to school students. As a close observer of this program, I wanted to extend this approach to the entire state and also include other subjects.

My initial idea was to form an organisation within the government which could learn from the experience of Kishore Bharati and extend it throughout the state. Since a typical government organisation is not autonomous and could not be expected to attract the kind of people Kishore Bharati did, the plan was to make this organisation highly autonomous. However, people behind Kishore Bharati were sceptical of the possibility of making a government organisation autonomous. This concern was found to be genuine since I was transferred out of the Education Department soon after due to my differences with the Chief Minister of the State. But these developments led to the conceptualisation of a new organisation, an NGO called, Eklavya that started functioning with the financial support from the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. I have been closely associated with it as the Founder Director of the State Institute of Education Research and Training (SCERT), MP, and also as the Chairman, Board of Secondary Education.

On the nature of NGOs
We need to understand the nature of NGOs in post-independent India. Though a number of such organisations inspired by the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi were functioning before independence, a newer set of organisations driven by the Nehruvian ideals of nation-building and a new optimism came about after the 1950s. These were not called NGOs then, but were known as voluntary organisations’ and were, in general, small organisations focussed on bringing about improvements and changes in a micro-social context. For example, an organisation working in the domain of education would run one or a few schools to provide good quality education. These voluntary organizations devised innovative solutions in a manner sensitive to the needs of the local communities and individuals that they served. This is not possible in a governmental setup where rules and procedures come in the way of innovation and sensitivity to the needs of small sets of people. Governments are obliged to make policies and implement programs that are relevant to people at large.

Despite this beneficial aspect of their actions at the micro-level, there was a need to scale up such activities in order to make any significant impact at the national level. However, there were a number of challenges in scaling up the work of these organizations. Their activities were carried out with limited funds and there were not many sources then, to get large-scale financial resources. These were run voluntarily by the founders and a few other functionaries and the employees or full-time members did not receive suitable monetary compensation. Most often, the founders of such organizations were happy and content with what they are doing at the micro-scale since these were situations that could be controlled by them, in other words, they had a much greater control on the outcomes of their actions. So most of these non-governmental actions were aimed at what can be called swantha sukhay’ – self-satisfaction or self-happiness. They were content with their achievements at small-scale and were not looking at the wider, systematic (of say, public education) changes. They did not have a realistic or viable vision for a macro-level improvement. Those who did, may have joined political parties to serve larger interests. People who started such organisations were usually highly committed. They had to work really hard to seek funds and sacrifice a lot in terms of their personal comforts and monetary gains. These people were driven by their personal vision and it was not unusual to see them become somewhat inflexible and assume the I‑know-all attitude. Their actions which led to qualitative improvements at small scale, gave them a superiority complex, a holier than thou’ attitude.

Though I am an admirer of NGO activities in the domain of education and development, I used to challenge these activists on the scalability of their actions. I would ask them, You have done it in this area but can you do it for the whole district or state?’ These activists underestimate the challenges involved in making system-wide changes, and so they have a tendency to undervalue the role of government. When called up, these activists and organizations were not able to adapt to changes that could make a wider impact encompassing multiple localities and different social contexts.

On the role of philanthropic foundations

Philanthropy in education in India or for that matter, in most parts of the world, is not new. Pioneering efforts in Indian school education were made by Christian missionaries who started private schools and colleges in different parts of the country with support from governments. It is this history that has encouraged a number of thinkers and policy-makers in the area of education, like J P Naik, to argue for greater autonomy for private schools in India.

On corporate funds and culture in education

It is in this context that a substantial amount of financial resources from corporate activities have started flowing into the domain of education since the 1990s. There may have been an intention to bring in corporate culture (or the efficiency of private-sector organisations) into the domain of education, which was until then characterised by the culture of charitable organizations, NGOs or the government. This corporate culture has its advantages, as well as, limitations. For example, they have a centralised approach or strategy driving their activities and any attempt to decentralise may not be appreciated. A similar attempt at centralisation can be seen in government programs too. For example, the purpose of the District Primary Education Program (DPEP) was to have decentralised plans at the district levels (instead of having a single approach at the state or national level), it did not translate in this manner in most parts of the country. Therefore, there is a need to combine the good qualities of different types of organisations – the self-motivation driving the voluntary organisations; the large-scale orientation of the government; and, the focus on effectiveness and efficiency of the corporates – to craft a new culture with newer players like charitable foundations. There should be a greater reflection on this issue and an acceptance of a new culture consciously and intentionally; not in an ad-hoc manner.

On the challenges of working with the government

The government is not a monolithic organisation. An appropriate characterisation of it would be a multi-headed hydra’ or Ravana’, based on Indian mythology. There are differences within the government – the way a political executive functions could be different from how a permanent executive does. In the domain of education (as in others) there are multiple tiers, these include the Political Executive; the Secretariat comprising government secretaries; the operational organisation in the state (such as the Directorate of Education); the operational organisation at the district level; and finally; the field-level functionaries. There are interesting patterns visible here. It is expected that the political executive and the secretariat would have a close working relationship. However, one can also see the political executive, in certain cases, trying to bypass the secretariat and work directly with the operational organisations. Often, the reason behind this is that the head of an operational organisation is relatively junior (lower-level) compared to the government secretaries, so the politicians may be in a relatively better position to impose their will and interest on the former.

There is a relatively higher level of autonomy at the district level but field officials are dependent on the district-level officialdom. One problem at the state and district levels is that there are multiple heads (Director of Education, Director of SCERT, etc.) and an external organisation like an NGO may have to deal with more than one officers. There is no single officer coordinating all these different heads, and the tendency to protect the turf by each one and the possible ego-clashes between them may create difficulties for an external organisation. An important lesson here is that it is not enough for an NGO to establish contact with one officer or a single department of the government. Even if the Secretary of Education plays a coordinating role, his/​her consent alone may not be adequate to facilitate the functioning of the NGO or philanthropic organisation in making changes to the public education system. Depending on the kind of work that the organisation wants to take up, it may have to sell’ the idea to one or more heads of the government’s operating organisations and at the same time take their inputs and keep the other functionaries informed. Informal meetings and communications are important in the government. Relationships have to be built not only with the official one is dealing with but others have to be informed and given recognition too. 

There are two different types of contracts between the government and the external organisations – formal and informal. A formal contract is based on an agreement or memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by both parties. Informally, there can be a willingness to interact with an external organisation even without (or before) signing an MOU. The merits of a formal contract are that it establishes a formal relationship (and hence, no one can question the legitimacy of interaction); it outlines the expected role of each party; and, the stakeholders are more or less duty-bound to fulfil their expected roles. However, it would be a gross mistake on the part of an external organisation to think that the interaction with the government would be smooth just by signing an MOU. Any officer, at any level, who does not like the participation of an NGO based on a personal reason or whim, can find enough loopholes in the system to block or delay the implementation of the provisions of the MOU; or, if allowed to be carried out, it can be done in an improper or inadequate manner. So, there is a need for informal contracts along with formal agreements. On the other hand, it may be possible to carry out certain activities through informally contacting (and getting the consent) of a particular official. For example, it may be possible for an NGO to have certain activities in a particular school, say, by getting the consent of the Head Teacher. However, this too can be blocked in the absence of a formal agreement if a higher-level officer does not approve of it.

That a government official is committed to a social cause, like the improvement in school education, does not mean that they are above their personal ego or the awareness of their superior status. The level of recognition an officer expects from an external organisation is based on his/​her seniority and position, and there are only very few government officers who do not mind the conventions of hierarchy. Therefore, in essence, it is important to have both formal and informal relationships with government departments. Informal relationships have to be built at several levels because even those who may not have a direct connection with one’s specific activities can create hurdles in a governmental system. In one such program approved by me as the Principal Secretary of the Government of Madhya Pradesh, there would be innumerable issues that I had to sort out with district and local level functionaries. The lower-tier functionaries of the government tend to view a program as that of Behar Saab’ or that of the NGO piloting the program at the local level. In other words, even when there is an order by a senior government functionary to integrate a program of an NGO with the public education system, the middle and lower-tier functionaries may not consider it as a government program to act accordingly. Hence, the interaction between the functionaries of the NGO and the government has to take place at different levels and also in both, formal as well as informal manner.

On the need to convince the government to collaborate

The fact that an NGO or a philanthropic organisation has an interesting idea or expertise in the area of education need not be enough to make government officials extend their support for a collaborative program. The government may not be interested in furthering the agenda of an external agency. It is important for the NGO to understand the needs of the state, and then package its interest/​ideas/​expertise accordingly. This does not mean that the government has a monolithic interest. There may be changes depending on specific regimes and officials within an overall policy framework which is adopted for the functioning of the public education system. Hence, understanding the specific context and the official in charge is, among other things, important for cementing a fruitful partnership with the government.

The willingness of a particular official to collaborate with an external partner depends on whether he/​she is interested in asserting their autonomy within the system. This is the case with the directors of the operating organisation (like the department of education). Some of them may insist on government order/​approval (from the secretaries of the government) for taking any step, and others may be interested in carrying out as much as possible within their powers. These differences also require formal and informal contracts with the government, which as I mentioned, any NGO or philanthropic organisations working with the government requires.

On the need to keep the political executive informed

External organisations planning to partner with the government need to take into account the relationship between the political executive and senior government officials. The nature of this relationship is fast changing in India. Immediately after independence, the permanent executive (manned by the Indian Civil Service or the Indian Administrative Service, inherited from colonial administration) was seen as an expert organisation. Hence, the details of the policies and implementation procedures were determined by this permanent executive. However, this pattern began to change when coalitions started coming to power in states and this change became more prominent after the 1980s. There was instability in governing coalitions and therefore a temptation to get the maximum for oneself during the (short and uncertain) period in power. There was tension between officialdom and the political establishment until the mid-1980s and after that politicians seemed to have acquired power over the bureaucracy. There seem to be three kinds of equilibrium in this regard: (i) where the sections of government officials and political executive are colluding to exercise authority in an arbitrary (and sometimes corrupt) manner; (b) where politicians have control over the officialdom making sections of the government officials extraneous; and © where there is continued tension between government officials and the political establishment leading to frequent transfers and shifting of such officials. Although, in recent times, there has been a decline in the number of dissenting officials.

This change in the relationship between the political executive and government officials is driven partly by the demand of the people (especially the henchmen) who help a particular politician to come to power. These henchmen would want the politician to deliver something specifically to the people who have helped him/​her to come to power, which may require the arbitrary use of power. This would lead to a higher level of intervention on the part of the political executive in the implementation of government programs. Whatever the reason, such a changed role of the political executive may warrant the need for NGOs to keep in touch with the political establishment in carrying out their interventions in the public education system.

Regarding policy issues on education too, one can see a similar scenario. There was no significant interest in education among Indian political parties in the 1950s and 60s. This was noted by J P Naik who was the member secretary to the Kothari Commission and who was later also involved in a number of other policy ventures in education. There is a much greater interest now in the issues regarding education policy among political parties even though their interest may not always be benign. It may be driven by the interest to bring their own ideological preconceptions into the school curriculum.

In general, the collaboration between an NGO and the government may primarily be driven and shaped by senior government functionaries and not political functionaries. However, if this equilibrium changes, the NGO may need to deal with the political executive as in the case of the implementation of the Total Literacy Campaign (TLC) through a national-level NGO. The initial sanctions related to the program were obtained from senior government functionaries. However, when the Chief Minister of a state started raising concerns regarding the program, I was forced to meet him. For three consecutive days, I explained the rationale of the program and the role of the activists from Kerala – the state which had already successfully implemented TLC in one district. After these briefings, the Chief Minister wanted to implement the program in all the districts of his state by paying an honorarium to the literacy volunteers. This was against the spirit of TLC. The Chief Minister may have seen this as an opportunity to use the volunteers of this mass movement to further his party’s political agenda.

On the culture of government organizations

The culture of government organizations can be summarised as, authoritarian, hierarchical, dilatory, and unwilling to learn (self-opinionated). Given this culture, the government is willing to accept an external organisation as a partner (to improve the public education system) only as long as the latter is willing to play the second fiddle. There is a general recognition of the need for expert’ support from outside and consultancy is one way of getting it. Government officials should be happy if this support can come from an external organisation without paying any money. However, normally, such consultancy is sought only for assisting the design or operations of a program conceived by the government or its international funding agencies. The government is unlikely to hire a consultant to determine the broad outline of the changes or reforms in the public education system or for an activity which is totally innovative and completely new to the governmental system. This limits the kind of activities that can be pursued by an external organisation through a de-facto consultant mode (paid or unpaid). It may be difficult to get buy-in for a program which is fully conceived and owned by the external organisation. This may reduce the innovativeness of the programs that can otherwise be executed by an NGO in partnership with the government in India.

Governments may not learn from their own experiences. One can cite a number of cases where a government may have worked with international organisations and pursued certain practices but have had to abandon these, midway. A government officer would like to claim that he/​she is doing something for the first time’ and there is no attempt at finding out what has been tried out in the past. One can see this trend in policy-making too. New policies (say, the National Policy on Education) are made without looking into the implementation, successes and failures of the previous policies. Though each government may have its own ideological position and that may warrant newer programs, there is no justification for not looking into the actual experience of the previous programs and policies. There is no serious review of the past activities before initiating newer ones. History is often forgotten within the government. The incentive to reinvent the wheel is much higher.

Over time, this tendency has deepened in Indian officialdom. There was a practice whereby each government officer prepares and hands over a charge note when he/​she relinquishes a position. This charge note is supposed to have the details of what has happened in the past and its lessons in that department/​unit. However, this practice is no longer followed in letter and spirit, eliminating a valuable opportunity of learning from previous experiments. There may be a few officers who study past programs and practices but they are a minority. Hence, there is no institutionalized learning in governments. The sustenance of good practices, even if attempted, may turn out to be mechanistic after some time, losing its spirit. This greatly affects innovations in government programs.

On the possibility of external organisations influencing government culture

This is unlikely. Though there are discussions on alternatives, such as on how to select government officers, how to train them, and if there can be public advocacy on these issues but the influence that can be exerted by an NGO is limited. There needs to be a much more determined effort among external organizations to think about the ways of influencing the public education system. The existing system is built on false assumptions and promises. Alternatives cannot be small-scale in nature – like running an alternative school. These should be implemented in such a way that they can be scaled up. And this effort should not be to completely abandon the public education system. It should work in such a way that the nature of public education can be changed gradually to be like that of the alternative model.

On the need to engage with public education on a sustainable basis

Teachers who get into the profession should be competent and they require good-quality pre-service training. Teachers who are in service require in-service training for capacity-building. Quality schooling for all’ cannot be achieved without these two kinds of training – pre-service and in-service. External organisations can facilitate such trainings.

Governmental efforts cannot be improved unless NGOs demonstrate that the alternatives that they propose can be carried out on a large scale. If, for example, it needs to be investigated whether the board examinations really test the competencies which are considered necessary (say, by the National Curriculum Framework), there is a requirement for alternatives to the existing boards like the CBSE. There may have to be a reform of the entrance tests for institutes of higher education too. Employers use board exam results as a screening device and would appreciate a reformed examination method which attempts to test desirable competencies among school students.

The ultimate objective of the external organizations should be to demonstrate to the government and society what can be done to improve the state of public education and how it can be accomplished. Their objective cannot be to take over the public education system. This essentially means that over time, NGOs can stop certain operations if governments understand these changes and are able to incorporate these into their operations.

On working with communities

The public education system in the country, or for that matter, anywhere in the world, cannot be improved without working with the communities. The school should become the socio-cultural centre, especially, in the villages. The importance of a two-way relationship between the school and the community is often overlooked by educationists. Their perspective of reform focuses on pedagogy, curriculum and other classroom processes. In reality, systemic changes in public education require support from communities. It creates pressure from below. NGOs may use various strategies for this purpose. Some may mobilise the people and some others may become the government’s agent to provide services to the people.

Reforming the system of public education may sometimes require working against the government. This is especially so when the government fail to do what it has agreed to. There are informal and formal power structures within the government which may have to be confronted. There are many philanthropic or other NGOs that have taken an adversarial strategy to improve the public distribution system. Pratham is an example. An NGO may carry out its work by finding like-minded officials and working with or through them, or they may choose to work on what they consider necessary even without this support and continue even if the government does not like their intervention.

On the use of technology in education
I have observed that the computer is used by the computer teacher and not by the subject teachers. Though there have been studies that show its positive impacts (especially in non-cognitive areas), the impact of computers on learning achievements was not found to be significant. Given this, there is the question of the expenditure – money and effort – required for extending the use of computers. I think the ground is not yet ready for computer-aided learning. The focus should be on the use of computers for teachers’ professional development. For example, if someone carries out an effective pedagogical experiment, this can be video-recorded and used for teachers’ training. Teachers should be able to use computers responsibly and effectively. In essence, technology can never substitute direct contact in teaching, and so, it should be seen only as a tool for creative teaching.

On the linkage between education and development

The need for integrating these two was recognised by people like J P Naik. He initially focussed on development, and through that realised the importance of education. He coined the slogan, Education for development; and development for education’. Each district may have to plan and work towards a program for district-level social change. A district is an appropriate unit for planning and action.

On the policy-advocacy role of NGOs

All democratic governments may come under the influence of interest groups. Though the state is supposed to represent the interests of the people, it need not be responsive to all their needs. The very structure of the state is such that it is far removed from the people. Consequently, it is not unusual to see governments getting influenced by a small section of people. This is true of democracies in the developed world too. Likewise, it is not unusual to note that NGOs also influence government policies. Since their influence could be better than that of corporate organizations, it should not be seen negatively.

Governments too have realized the need to bring in non-state actors and use their perspectives and experience in policy-making. With the way in which the government functions, it is not possible for it to take cognisance of all aspects of development. But if it has weaknesses, it also has certain strengths and it is possible to combine the strength of the government and non-state actors, and I have used this as a government official. This has driven me to participate in the creation of Eklavya – a well-known NGO involved in the domain of school education in the country.

The Government of India has taken non-state actors on board, as in the case of Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) created as part of TLC. Governments are open to ideas and influences. Organizations such as Pratham should not be seen as adversarial to the government (for its publication of the ASER data publicly). Their work should be considered as attempts to improve government programs. One can see such a collective effort in the institutionalization and implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act. There are two approaches to RTE. One set of civil society organizations accepts it and observes its implementation. They may be of the view that the level of compliance is lower, which leads to better implementation. The approach of the other set, which does not think that RTE is a useful instrument, may be adversarial. However, even in this case, the debates enrich the public discourse on education.

There are provisions for consultations in the government. There are competing influencers and any one organisation cannot influence it unilaterally. The influence is also not unidirectional since participation in such forums influences the approach of external stakeholders too. Moreover, participation should be considered a responsibility of external organisations and they would be failing in their duty if they did not do so.


V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University