Transforming systems is key to policy gains

Two Indian initiatives have found places amongst the ten best global initiatives selected by the Rockefeller Foundation for its Food Systems Vision Prize 2050. One is the Nandi Foundation’s work with tribal communities in Araku in South India. The other is ‘Eat Right India’, the countrywide movement for food systems change being shaped by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

The capability to implement large scale change in complex systems is the key for India to realise the benefits of any well-thought policy or plan. The National Education Policy is the most recent example of a far-reaching policy wherein all commentators are concerned about how it will be implemented. Eat Right India, the only government-led initiative amongst the ten selected by the Rockefeller Foundation, has been examined by the World Bank to understand how a small government agency, with a limited budget, could induce systemic change in a complex subject like food availability and consumption. Eat Right India involves 1.3 billion consumers, and millions of tiny businesses—hawkers, food stall owners, farmers, and others, as well as multiple government stakeholders at the Center and in the States.

Eat Right India has been examined by the World Bank to understand how a small government agency, with a limited budget, could induce systemic change in a complex subject like food availability and consumption.

Insights from the concept of Eat Right India and its implementation provide valuable insights into how large-scale change can be facilitated by a small government agency. Here are six key lessons.

1. A ‘whole system’ approach

Donella Meadows, who worked on the Club of Rome’s report in the 1970s on ‘the limits to growth’, and who promoted systems thinking, pointed out that “every system is perfectly designed to produce the results it is presently producing.” Therefore, to understand what is required for India to Eat Right, one must begin by understanding why India is not eating right at present. In this way, the many causes, physical as well as behavioural, as well as the roles that many stakeholders are playing while satisfying their own interests, which together are producing undesirable outcomes for everyone, can be located.

2. Learn to listen well

The Harvard Kennedy School commends the power of listening for complex systems change. In its report, “Systems Leadership for Sustainable Development: Taking Action on Complex Challenges through the Power of Networks”, it says:

“To change a complex system, stakeholders must first understand how the system works – the components, actors, dynamics, and influences that together create the system and its current outcomes. Most stakeholders have experienced and learned about the system from one point of view. Truly understanding its many dimensions requires absorbing new information and learning from other stakeholders’ viewpoints and perspectives. This means constant dialogue, underpinned by radical and empathic listening, enabling each actor to have a deeper appreciation of the multiple perspectives on a particular system.”

The Eat Right India initiative shows how large-scale change can be facilitated by a small govt agency like FSSAI

3. Catalysis, not control, for ‘whole of government’, multi-stakeholder collaboration

Broad systems change in any complex subject, such as food production and consumption, or education, or public health, requires many changes to be implemented at the same time. All cannot be the remit of one agency. Therefore, many agencies, and many stakeholders outside the government too, must cooperate. The nodal agency cannot be their controller: it must facilitate cooperation amongst them. Government officers (and even private sector managers) find this hard to do. ‘Give me authority over the others, and the budget required, and I will get it done’, they say. They do not know how to lead by influencing and enabling others.

4. The quality of a system cannot be changed by prescription and inspection

The conventional approach to regulation of a system is to lay down the rules that its participants must follow, and then inspect to ensure the rules are being followed. This approach can lead to too many rules and too many inspectors—the problem India is struggling to break out of to make it easier for businesses to do business. Industries often use this approach for their internal quality management too with engineers spelling out the processes and standards and inspectors checking to see if workers are following them.

Japanese industries adopted an alternative approach after the War with which they converted their industries into globally competitive enterprises. They adopted Total Quality Management wherein changes are made by teams at many levels in an enterprise, even workers on the shopfloor, who by using systems thinking, analyse and eliminate root causes of poor quality.

Systems transformation requires many stakeholders to change their own parts of the system while others are changing theirs. They must learn together.

The World Bank report points out that “FSSAI realized that it would need to go beyond the traditional standard setting and regulatory-only approaches. It used a mix of regulatory, enabling, and capacity-building approaches, going beyond traditional safety regulatory mechanisms in an effort to tackle the informal economy.”

5. Systems improvement is a process of societal learning

The World Bank makes an important observation: “Eat Right India initiatives have evolved over time, reflecting feedback from stakeholders and testing on the ground”.  It was not designed by a group of experts and consultants who passed on the blue-print to an implementing agency, which is the conventional approach for complex projects. Systems transformation requires many stakeholders to change their own parts of the system while others are changing theirs. They must learn together. The role of the nodal agency is to stimulate a process of systematic learning of new ideas and acquisition of new capabilities across the system.

6. Learning at a deeper level while doing

All ‘vocational’ skills, including skills for making and implementing policies, are best learned while doing.

The hope is that insights from Eat Right India, into how regulatory and systems approaches should be changed, may enable much faster systems improvements in other areas.  

Therefore, action must be aided by reflection in a quest for learning how to make improvements. For transformational change, learning must be at two levels: at the level of the task in hand—such as improvement in food safety or education; as well as at a deeper level for improving the underlying approach to policy making and implementation.

“Modernising and innovating regulatory approaches and systems remains a key focus for Eat Right India”, the World Bank notes. The hope is that insights from Eat Right India, into how regulatory and systems approaches should be changed, may enable much faster systems improvements in other areas.  

(The writer is a former member of the Planning Commission and author of “Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit”) (With inputs from Pawan Agarwal, former CEO of FSSAI)