Department of Education Public Seminar: ‘What makes bureaucracy work for the least advantaged?’ 

Monday 23rd January 2023 at 5pm

Chair: Sonali Nag

Speaker: Akshay Mangla   

Akshay Mangla explores this question in his new book, Making Bureaucracy Work: Norms, Education and Public Service Delivery in Rural India (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in the Comparative Politics of Education). All across the world, countries have adopted policies for universal primary education, but implementation is highly uneven and not well understood. Conventional wisdom holds that developing countries need to adopt strong formal-legal institutions to implement such programs and achieve human development, including Weberian bureaucracies insulated from societal interference. Where bureaucratic institutions are weak or politicized, the literature is pessimistic about policy implementation. Yet, bureaucratic organizations often depart widely from the Weberian ideal, and while some agencies perform poorly, others produce remarkable results. To explore this varied performance, Mangla deploys a multi-level comparative research design, analyzing the puzzling variation in education outcomes across four states in northern India, a region of entrenched social inequalities, where conventional theories expect bureaucracy to fail.

Making Bureaucracy Work advances a theoretical framework anchored on bureaucratic norms, the informal rules of the game that guide how public officials understand their duties and relate with citizens on the ground. The book develops an analytical typology, of “legalistic” and “deliberative” bureaucracy, and elucidates the mechanisms through which bureaucratic norms generate varied implementation patterns and outcomes for primary education. To build and test the book’s theory, Mangla opens up the black box of Indian bureaucracy. Based on twenty-eight months of field research—including 507 interviews of state actors, 346 interviews of non-state actors, 103 focus group discussions with parents and women’s village associations; participant observation of education bureaucracies, along with village-level ethnographies—he traces the policy implementation process from state capitals to rural districts, down to village primary schools.

The study finds that legalistic bureaucracies encourage compliance with policy rules, leading to improvements in school infrastructure and enrolments, but they perform poorly on complex tasks that require coordination with societal actors. Worse, they tend to undermine the participation of marginalized social groups in school governance. By contrast, deliberative bureaucracies encourage more flexible problem solving by state officials, who tend to facilitate the coproduction of education with societal actors. Deliberation with society enables public officials to adapt policy rules to meet the practical needs of marginalized communities, thereby improving the quality of education services. Contrary to received wisdom, bureaucracy in India can work, depending on the norms that guide public officials. The argument has relevance for the delivery of education and other public services, especially in settings of inequality. It offers new thinking about bureaucracy’s role in promoting inclusive development.