Scrapping the IEO: is the government throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Hardly anyone shed tears for the Planning Commission. But not everyone is cheering the likely closure of the IEO, either. There is a feeling that the institution should be given a bit more time to prove itself - either as a success or as a failure. After all, the IEO was merely one year old and, like any toddler, was just beginning to find its feet.<br />

Seetha September 06, 2014 08:26:47 IST
Scrapping the IEO: is the government throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

So, after the Planning Commission, the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) also is to be disbanded. This news, reported by Hindustan Times , comes a week after the IEO director general Ajay Chibber was informed, while he was abroad, that his services would no longer be required.

Hardly anyone shed tears for the Planning Commission. But not everyone is cheering the likely closure of the IEO, either. There is a feeling that the institution should be given a bit more time to prove itself - either as a success or as a failure. After all, the IEO was merely one year old and, like any toddler, was just beginning to find its feet.

Chibber had taken charge in August 2013 and the office had been formally launched only in February 2014; even recruitments had not been completed. Five programmes had been taken up for evaluation - the public distribution system, MGNREGA, maternal and neonatal mortality, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) and the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY, the village electrification scheme). Seminars and workshops on these were still under way.

The IEO was set up to conduct evaluations of Plan programmes, especially the flagship programmes. This evaluation was not about whether or not and how money was spent - there are enough mechanisms to do that, including the Comptroller & Auditor General - but about the actual outcomes and results that these programmes have achieved. It would also study the design of the programmes and see if these needed to be modified in any way. Though the IEO's budget was routed through the Planning Commission (that is only a budgetary convenience), it was independent of it - it had to be, since most welfare programmes are Plan schemes.

There are many who feel the IEO should be given a chance. Former member of the Planning Commission, Kirit Parikh, points out that the country needs to know whether a programme is delivering results or the money being spent on it is going down a bottomless pit. "We often come to know about the futility of programmes after spending several years and several crores on it," he rues.

A concurrent evaluation, he says, will show up any waste early in the life of a programme and enable corrective action to be taken. There's also an outcome evaluation that needs to be done after some years to see if the programme is delivering on its larger objectives it was meant to achieve.

There are monitoring mechanisms within the government, but the point is that they are not independent. "The entity administering a programme cannot be the one evaluating it; it has to be a third party,"says economist Bibek Debroy.

What about evaluation studies done by independent research organisations for the government? Why waste taxpayers' money in a new organization, which, in any case, gets evaluations done by research bodies? And what about the Programme Evaluation Organization (PEO) in the Planning Commission, whose mandate is pretty similar to that of the IEO? Legitimate questions that are easy to answer.

Evaluation studies taken up as consultancy assignments by research organizations for specific ministries haven't worked very well. Since the government is picking up the tab, it frowns at overly critical reports, and the research bodies naturally tone down their reports, not wanting to jeopardise future assignments.

The IEO outsourcing evaluation studies is not in the same league. It itself, is an independent body, which decides what studies to take up. It submits the proposals to a board chaired by the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. Once the idea is approved, the IEO itself designs the evaluation and bids it out to institutes and firms. The report is to be submitted to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public (through the press) simultaneously. So, there's no ministry sitting there and vetting the report and objecting to individual observations.

There is a general consensus that the PEO is not up to the task that the IEO was mandated to do. Apart from the fact that the PEO is internal to the system (and part of the Planning Commission, which itself is the initiator of many programmes), it also does not have the capacity to undertake the kind of rigorous study that is needed, says Pronab Sen, chairman of the National Statistical Commission, who spent several years in the Commission.

So when the case for an IEO is so strong, what explains the shutdown? Could it have become a victim of being a pet project of the UPA, or seen as a hobby horse of former Planning Commission deputy chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia (who headed the independent evaluation office of the International Monetary Fund till 2004)?

According to a senior government functionary in the previous government, there was a feeling that the IEO was structured for getting specific people. The cabinet had okayed the idea way back in November 2010 and the final order came a year later. Initially, economist Abhijit Banerjee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was reportedly being persuaded to take up the post but he declined. Nothing was done for several months later. Though Chibber was selected after a global professional search, the buzz that the post was being kept open for him refuses to die down.

Should that be reason enough to wind up a much-needed organization itself? Parikh is ignorant about the drama behind the IEO but believes that any flaws in the current structure of the organization could have been set right without scrapping it wholesale.

Most developed countries with large welfare programmes already have their own IEOs, the largest and most effective being Mexico's Coneval (National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy). Set up in 2005, Coneval has a large measure of autonomy and its findings are taken extremely seriously. India was a latecomer to the party and now it has decided to leave it altogether.

That is perhaps not a right decision, Debroy feels. "The idea is certainly needed," he says, "but what is not obvious is whether an independent evaluation needs to be a government one. Are other third party evaluations not possible?"
But who in the government is going to answer that question?

Seetha is a senior journalist and author

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