All about means and ends

Background: Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Management Information System (MIS), Right to Information (RTI) Act, Funds Transfer Order (FTO), Aadhaar.

  • The MGNREGA is not only a pioneering livelihood security programme but also a great example of proactive disclosure of information through its Management Information System. It is the first transaction-based real-time system for any public works programme in the country that is available in the public domain.
  • There has been a digitisation of all the processes in MGNREGA – right from a worker registering demand for work, to work allotment, to finally getting wages for completed works.
  • Another notable feature of the MIS is the availability of information through online reports at various levels of disaggregation. This has enabled any citizen to monitor the implementation of the programme and has consequently charted a new paradigm of transparency since the enactment of the RTI Act.
  • While this system is certainly a great feather in the cap of a transparent democracy, it is critical to understand its current shortcomings and possible ways to improve its functioning.
  • To begin with, the MIS is accessible only from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Indian Standard Time. This is a huge impediment for collaborative work across time zones.
  • Second, it does not provide any data dictionary. A data dictionary is a repository of all the names of variables/columns used in various reports, containing a brief explanation of its meanings. Such a dictionary is crucial so that any citizen accessing the online reports can understand the content in them.
  • Third, the nomenclature of column names in the online reports is not consistent. The same column name is labelled differently in different reports. Although obfuscation of the column names may not be intentional, it nevertheless becomes excruciating for any citizen or researcher to make meaningful sense of the reports.
  • Fourth, some obvious worker-centric links in the data structure are missing. For example, every household that does MGNREGA work has a unique job card number. This number is crucial to get work. Upon completion of a work week, a Funds Transfer Order is generated containing the details of each job card holder’s earned wages. On the MIS, there is no clear link between these two crucial pieces.
  • The generation of the FTO is withheld till funds for wage payments are released. There are other instances when the FTO is not generated if a worker fails to furnish his or her Aadhaar number.
  • Technological architecture can also be used to perpetuate falsehoods. For instance, consider the flawed mechanism of the calculation of delay compensation when wages are not paid on time.
  • The MIS is a powerful mechanism to have an evidence-based discourse for monitoring basic services. But a governance framework for the MIS needs to be put in place that lays out the minimum standards and accountability of the Ministry managing the system.
  • Such a framework must be built in consultation with all concerned parties and should follow the provisions of the law (both MGNREGA and RTI). The system design choices should reflect the values of the worker-centric programme and hence principles need to be followed for compassionate design.

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