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“Do schools get their money?” This is one of the key questions which drives the PAISA (Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions: Studies in Accountability) project at Accountability Initiative (AI).

Tracking financial flows in the Indian social sector for research and advocacy can be a challenging. To understand the role of data in advancing transparency and accountability, we spoke to Ms. Avani Kapur, a Senior Research and Program Analyst at Accountability Initiative.

What does Accountability Initiative do?

Accountability Initiative, a research organization established in 2008 in New Delhi, is working towards a transparent and accountable public service delivery system by tracking government spending on key social sector programs and improving access to information for citizens. In one of their flagship projects, PAISA, they focus on key social sector schemes, especially those in the field of education, to monitor the flow of funds from the central government to service delivery points such as rural public schools.

They conduct comprehensive district surveys, known as PAISA District Studies, in seven districts across five states. These cover up to 140 rural government schools in the district. They are also one of the partner organizations of the ASER survey to conduct a nationwide survey of the grants received by schools.

Apart from the two surveys, AI in some cases uses the RTI to get district, state or central government data. Also, for their other research products like Budget Briefs, they rely on publicly available secondary data from the government.

Data sources for PAISA

To thoroughly track government spending, they have three different units of analysis – centre and state, district, and school.

Til the district level, financial data is mainly available in the state budgets and annual plans for schemes such as Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan (SSA) or annual plans from the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD).

At the school level, field surveys are the only source of data. The survey questionnaires, which are designed based on policy expertise and pilot studies, are state-specific. So end-point data collection from more than 1,300 public schools is a crucial part of PAISA’s district studies.


Using a community-based model for scaling data collection

AI’s comprehensive field surveys are managed by its permanent associates in each of the seven (now expanding to twelve) districts, and conducted through volunteers and master trainers – who undergo three to five days of district-level training workshops. Given the objectives of the survey, the volunteers are also trained to read passbooks and financial data.

For every school site, they send two volunteers, who are paired according to their performance in the training. Their work includes filling out the long — usually 20-30 pages — paper-based surveys. The volunteers check the school passbooks, take inputs from the school principal, and rely on their own observations to fill the forms.

Data verification and analysis for PAISA

Once collected, this data undergoes 5-10% telephonic and 5-10% physical verification, in addition to manual verification of all the forms. After the data entry phase in Delhi, the AI team analyzes the data and creates a storyboard.

Among other things, they try to look for inter-state linkages and state-wise best practices. The ideas that emerge after brainstorming and data analysis are designed to provide both short-term actionable inputs and long-term policy reforms. The findings are used to engage the government in a dialogue at multiple levels, which includes MHRD committees and state, district, block and cluster-level authorities.

In addition, attempts are made to strengthen the feedback loop by sharing the data back to the community, schools, and/or School Management Committees (SMCs) as well. It is important here to appreciate the anchoring role of the district-level associates, who engage with the local government and district authorities on a regular basis for survey and feedback purposes. In order to facilitate this process, these associates are also provided a comprehensive PAISA course on decentralized governance, public administration and finance.


Data and intelligent frameworks lead to impact

The link between data on financial flows and transparency and accountability would seem pretty straightforward to most people. However, the feedback loops between the government and citizens can be full of intricacies and knots.

The PAISA story, with its granular complexities and multiple levels of government and community engagements, demonstrates how data needs to be part of well-thought frameworks for grassroots level impact.

This is a part of our Data Ecosystem series, an effort to highlight organizations and nonprofits leading the curve towards data-driven decision making.

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An ICT engineer, ethnographer and research associate at Sarai-CSDS, New Delhi. Tweets at @SandeepMertia

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