The forgotten Principle of Subsidiarity

Roop Kunwar Singh
Dec 18, 2020 · 4 min read

My take on the lack of alignment between policy and implementation and what could be the possible way out of it.

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Enter any government school and ask a teacher or principal, what do they spend most of their time on. Along with classroom teaching (and sometimes at the cost of it), you’re most likely to get a long list of action items and report requirements that they have been asked to comply with by their superiors sitting away from ground functioning. Usually, this is supplemented by concerns over the utility of a number of those tasks.

This is not exclusive to education. Not a lot of functionaries on ground in any government undertaking hold themselves back in expressing their disregard for decisions taken at the higher level. Their concern is not completely without merit either.

The two years I taught in a government school in Delhi and the last two months I’ve spent with the district administration in Charkhi Dadri, Haryana, have made me aware of a truckload of requirements from the state departments that district-level functionaries have to comply with (and the furtherance of same by district level officers to the front end functionaries, turning the work into a game of parcel where the one who ends up with simply takes it as a punishment). Add to this all the time spent on grappling with all the daily fire fighting, and there’s hardly any room left for initiative and proactive strategizing for public welfare. Top-down mechanisms also tend to discourage innovation. When you’re appreciated for compliance, why take any risk?

The principle of Subsidiarity holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution (Well, that’s what Wikipedia says). This is hardly the case in government functioning in India, where a slight variation from the standard operating procedure requires you to move mountains (I’m sure even Hanuman Ji would have struggled with the red tape in trying to save Laxman). But why is that? It’s not like the top-level functionaries don’t have access to Wikipedia. So, why the concentration of power?

Well, the answer is quite outright- Lack of trust, which is again not unfounded. There is an acute lethargy pervasive all across government functioning, with a majority of people have taken up their roles, not out of passion or interest, but to avail the financial and job security that a government job tends to accrue.

A stretched apathy and lack of initiative from the ground tends to push top-level functionaries into a design and delegate mode, with a data compilation based accountability mechanism. And let’s not even start with the role of corruption in building this mistrust (not that there is no corruption at higher levels).

Well, that’s the vicious circle- lack of initiative from lower-level functionaries brings about ready made programs from top functionaries, which further discourages initiative. The loser, as always, is public.

Not that there are no success stories. There are people at both levels committed enough to their work to put in an extra mile to go beyond mere compliance. From the lower level functionaries, this tends to come in the form of some brilliant strategizing or the extra work hours, or at times courage to disregard the superiors putting their jobs at risk. Nuh’s Mohalla Pathshala is one prominent example that comes to mind. From the top-level functionaries, this tends to come in the form of being humble enough to acknowledge the inferiority of their understanding of context as compared to that of their subordinate closer to the ground or placing their trust in their subordinate and in turn making their own fate dependent on the subordinate’s accuracy. The problem is that these are very rare exceptions rather than popular choices.

While there are certain domains and areas where a standardized solution clearly specifying the DOs and DONTs is necessary, the majority of problems tend to demand a localized solution and can only be resolved with a combination of big picture perspective and understanding of context.

Such functioning does demand some technical movements but the problem facing us is majorly adaptive and something needs to be done. Someone needs to break the circle.

Ground-level functionaries need to show more commitment in resolving issues under their control. They need to be proactive in communicating issues, their goals and plans, and also in seeking the exact support they need.

Top-level functionaries need to place more trust in their subordinates. Their default stance needs to be that of enablers and even if lack of initiative is detected, their first go-to action should be that of pushing for contextualized solutions from those closest to ground, and only when even this path ends up not producing the desired effect, should they choose the design and delegate path. Corruption still seems like a roadblock to this, but let’s be honest- it finds its way around the most robust of policies. It is one area where innovation just doesn’t seem to get subdued.

The role of middle-level functionaries cannot be ignored either. Their role in facilitating and translating communication from both ends for the accurate understanding of each, if done rightly, can reduce redundancies and misunderstandings. However, it is also essential that they are empowered enough to perform their functions.

All this cannot and will not be achieved overnight. It will require innumerable instances of stakeholders engaging in open dialogues, and setting structures based on trust rather than fear, before even a beginning of change can be claimed. But then again, as they say, sustainable change does not come through a revolution, it comes through evolution.

durbeen

Durbeen is a young perspective on working with the…

Roop Kunwar Singh

Written by

durbeen

durbeen

Durbeen is a young perspective on working with the government. It is published by the Chief Minister's Good Governance Associates program, a collaboration between the Govt. of Haryana and Ashoka University.

Roop Kunwar Singh

Written by

durbeen

durbeen

Durbeen is a young perspective on working with the government. It is published by the Chief Minister's Good Governance Associates program, a collaboration between the Govt. of Haryana and Ashoka University.

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