This article is the second in our two-part series on the middle managers who are responsible for implementing education reform policy in Maharashtra and how they navigate through challenges at their workplace by employing strategies and solutions. Click here to read part one.
Policy implementation is more complex than we think. Behind the scenes are people who have a deep understanding of local realities and needs that goes beyond the mere ticking off checklists and conducting surveys. “It is a very common practice of generalising problems and their solutions in almost all fields. Rather than generalising programmes and schemes everywhere, it is necessary to understand location-specific problems and act accordingly,” says a lower-middle manager working on Maharashtra government’s Pragat Shaikshanik Maharashtra (PSM).
In part one of this series, we looked at the important role played by lower-middle managers in implementing the PSM. While they ensure that the upper and lower levels of the administration stay connected, they often find themselves overburdened with responsibilities and invisibilised in the process. A 2018-19 study by Pune-based Leadership for Equity (LFE) and the Maharashtra Education Department to revise the roles and responsibilities of its cadre found that challenges faced by lower-middle managers need to be addressed to ensure their professional and personal well-being.
While the suggested recommendations are yet to be adopted and implemented, these lower-middle managers have already adopted their own strategies and solutions to improve their work lives.
Over time, the lower-middle managers have found personal and professional workarounds to allow them to continue their work despite their multifaceted roles. They are making efforts to foster healthy relationships with their colleagues across all cadres. The most crucial aspect for the lower-middle managers is to be efficient with their time, despite the repetitive and arduous nature of the work. “Lot of our time goes in collecting and updating data. Many times, the top officials call for the same data twice in a month,” a lower-middle manager shares. Periodically, with inputs and encouragement from teachers and headmasters, lower-middle managers are entrusted with preparing performance reports.
One of the best practices that emerged from the PSM in Maharashtra has been the inclusion of regular follow-ups with headmasters and teachers to ensure that a programme’s implementation is consistent. This new routine is often cited as one of the successes of the PSM. Besides these administrative duties, the lower-middle managers also find themselves involved in local level ceremonies for felicitating teachers’ contributions and encouraging stakeholders on the field.
Addressing the Many Elephants in Their Room
The lower-middle managers can clearly be seen as being responsible for a variety of functions and acting as the key link in implementing policies on the ground. The lower-middle managers say that these challenges hamper their professional performance as well as personal well being. In the process of dealing with these challenges over many years, self-initiated innovative strategies have been devised.
The first challenge is concerned with improving the work culture, towards one that provides recognition and values lower-middle managers’ work and time. It is important to strengthen the various components of their system—including infrastructural, manual, technical, and emotional support—that is extended to the cadre at all levels.
The PSM used a wonderful strategy of giving respect and recognition to innovative ideas as well as the hardworking staff; this practice should continue in order to motivate officers to perform well.
—An Upper-Middle Manager
A lower-middle manager recalls, “During the PSM, the whole staff was given training as per their requirement and request only. This saved a lot of time. Need-based training is a better idea than regular training.” Generalising training across the state often tends to ignore the need for location-specific and problem-specific training that could yield better results. Introducing training for improvement in technical skills and soft skills training such as Social Emotional Learning could go a long way in bettering middle managers’ welfare.
Many managers and clerks lack modern technical skills. It is important that technical skill training be provided to keep the managers technologically updated.
—A Lower-Middle Manager
In most cases, we see policy decisions pertaining to funding, planning, design, and implementation determined by political will. Growing political pressure and interference to introduce, continue or discontinue education policies that are beneficial for students, teachers and communities retard desired learning outcomes, and years of concerted effort.
Even when a programme is successful and beneficial, it has to be discontinued based on the new incumbent government. Even if we want this programme to continue, we cannot.
—A Lower-Middle Manager
A well-managed data management system (MIS) that keeps track of available data will prove to be an efficient system. Accessible, up-to-date, and organised data forms the back of a programme’s operation and logistics. It will reduce the repeated requests for data from the upper levels, which in turn saves significant amounts of time. There is also a need to recruit additional staff who are experienced in managing data and support clerical work.
Most of our time goes in collecting and updating repeated information requested from the upper levels. There is a huge need to not only develop such platforms but also use the available information effectively.
—A Lower-Middle Manager
During the study by LFE, it was observed that Kendra Pramukhs (Cluster Heads) were given delayed promotions for the post of Extension Officers (EOs). Similarly, the EOs very often do not get promoted to the post of a Block Education Officer (BEO). At times, headmasters who are working under the cluster heads directly get promoted to Block Education Officers and start working as seniors. The middle managers suggest that recruitment of BEOs be done only through the Maharashtra Public Service Commission instead of the present practice, which is promotions of headmasters as BEOs. Despite there being very few promotions in the government’s hierarchies, this system needs to change for the benefit of employees. If they are to remain invested in their jobs, their work needs recognition from higher-ups, and their efforts compensated in via timely appraisals.
The most important suggestions provided by the middle management were concerned with recruitments for vacancies, across all levels. As a result, managers are overburdened with additional duties and extra workload. The gaps created due to vacancies impact the performance of managers caused by submission of reports, working on weekends, and frustration and fatigue.
It is a well-known fact that every region is different from the other and so are their problems. Some problems are location specific and others may be process oriented. When policies are declared by the government they are to be implemented throughout the state, even if they are not needed or suited. For instance, starting a policy where all the schools are required to improve reading and writing skills of the students, but the school being in a remote location, the dropout rates are high. The policy for such a location needs to focus on student retention first. And so, generalising a particular policy without understanding its implications for that location may be a futile exercise overall.
Why Does This Matter Now?
The Foundational Literacy and Numeracy (FLN) Mission is one of the most important components of the New Education Policy (NEP). The most recent education reforms programme is the NIPUN Bharat Mission, which was launched in July 2021 by the Union Minister of Education. NIPUN Bharat aims to cover the learning needs of children aged 3-9 years and focuses on developing basic language, literacy and numeracy skills to make them better readers and writers. By 2025, the programme envisages making the foundational learning process holistic, integrated, inclusive, enjoyable, and engaging for the children.
While the government has launched several plans as part of NIPUN Bharat, the states too are in the process of preparing implementation plans for these programmes. These programmes are usually conceived from scratch and any shortcomings can not be anticipated. In such a scenario, given the states are still in the process of conceiving programmes, it will be worthwhile to pause and reflect on the lessons from the previously-implemented programmes. Maharashtra has had four years of experience in successfully implementing the Pragat Shaikshanik Maharashtra [Educationally Progressive Maharashtra], an FLN programme.
Greater emphasis is given to the learning outcomes and educational goals of these programmes, but the study by LFE has helped in highlighting the generally under-recognised role of the middle managers. Their role in the successful implementation of policies in India needs to be recognised and their pain points need to be addressed while conceiving new education reform policies. A well equipped and energised cadre on the ground will go a long way in determining the success of policies and transformation on the ground. With the NEP and NIPUN Bharat, there’s now an existing opportunity for policymakers and higher management to reimagine internal functioning and strengthen the backbone of policy implementation in India.
Featured image by Leadership for Equity (LFE) of a session by SCERT Maharashtra for Officer Professional Development (PD) on data analysis and effective productivity measurement.