First impressions can change
Before joining SAF, I owned a small company for 12 years, which sold furniture. As a businessman, I neither had the opportunity nor needed to interact with anyone from the government apart from going to local ward offices for registrations. From what I heard from others, government officials were rigid, lazy, and did not like to work.
Over the last year at SAF, my perception of the government and its officials has changed drastically.
When I first walked into one of the State Board offices to discuss the next steps with regards to the Career Mitra project, doubt and reluctance was what I encountered. The officials were so apprehensive about us and the use of technology that they did not even get into why the project was notable for secondary school students.
Today, the very same officials talk about the project proudly, discuss the benefits of technology in the media, and honestly believe that it will enable students to make informed education choices that lead to a meaningful career.
So what caused this transformation?
I learned that most government officials are reluctant to make changes in their daily operations because getting the ball rolling is a tedious process. They have to oblige to multiple compliances, seek permissions from various authorities, and take the effort and time to follow up while trying to adhere to project deadlines. Furthermore, the government being one of the primary sources of news for the media, key officials fear the spread of negative press and anybody challenging their theory.
Operating under this fear led to low levels of acceptance among officials working under various heads of departments. So much so, that they were doing the project related work only because it was obligatory with little to no buy-in in the project.
I remember when I had asked for the contact details of all schools to follow up with their test conduction process towards the end of the project, the officials refused to share that information with us. I found out later on that they did so out of fear of this spreading to the media who would raise questions on why some schools had not taken the test for their students yet. In another state, the officials refused to share seat numbers of students despite the project having the state government’s mandate. We finally received the seat numbers a few days before the test conduction period.
To overcome this kind of reluctance, we decided to take small steps in every state, making this project a success. After running the project on a small scale, officials started gaining confidence in not only the technology that was being managed by us but also in their ability to implement the projects on the ground. In one state, I got on daily calls and visited the government offices daily, so much so that I became a part of their day-to-day operations. We built a mechanism where we could transparently communicate with each other about our drawbacks and overcome them together.
These initial small steps, although time-consuming, resulted in not only the success of the project but has also built a long lasting rapport between us.
Working together is better for everyone
I read somewhere that a majority of NGOs feel uneasy, sometimes reluctant to work with the state. When it came to our projects and the problem we are trying to address, working with the government made the most sense. Over the last five years, we have learned that there are many more benefits to working together.
- Achieving scale: Creating societal change can’t be limited to just a few. Considering that we want to reach every student in India, that is only possible through the reach of the government.
- A partnership of resources and innovation: We realized that the government is open to partnering with us because we had the innovation and the vision to achieve our goal, while they could implement projects on a large scale, which took the burden of hiring resources off of SAF.
- Leveraging existing systems: The government has many systems in place already – for example, one of the states has one counsellor in every higher secondary school and all states have a training budget for teachers. It is a matter of ensuring that it is used effectively and putting processes in place to equip all of these stakeholders to do their job well.
Despite the enormous responsibility that comes with it, this kind of governmental partnership is required for sustainable change