"Embedding Innovation in State Systems: Lessons from Pratham in India"

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Suggested citation:

Bano, M. and Oberoi, Z. 2020. Embedding Innovation in State Systems: Lessons from Pratham in India. RISE Working Paper Series. 20/058. https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2020/058.

Methodology: Qualitative: In-depth interviews and ethnographic observations.

Open-access link: https://doi.org/10.35489/BSG-RISE-WP_2020/058

Insights about education systems from this study

  • Key takeaway: The mode and outcomes of innovation are mediated by local context.
  • Paper maps the factors that have allowed Pratham to work successfully across a number of states in India.
  • Factors that facilitate state uptake of NGO innovations include evidence of past success, ease of the proposed method, commitment form individual government officials, and informal relationships and interactions.
  • However, the paper finds that opportunities for large scale reform are usually tied to a specific political window, and that in situations (national, regional, or district) where government leadership lack the political will to adopt learning focused reforms embedding innovations in the government systems is extremely difficult.
  • Moreover, even in states where Pratham has been working for many years, the accountability it is able to induce remains stuck at the level of teachers and schools, they have been less successful in mobilizing accountability for political leaders. This suggests the limits of NGO ability to mobilize citizens to hold political leaders accountable.
  • Pratham’s key strength is its ability to mobilize citizens to engage in TaRL, an organic participation effort that is not common in many large NGOs implementing donor funded, short term projects. This underscores the importance of sustained local effort and mobilization to catalyze systems change.

For a summary list of education system insights from other studies, see the Policy brief builder.

Context and methods

The purpose of this study is to understand (1) what factors facilitate adoption of NGO-led innovations by senior bureaucracy and political elites; and (2) how to incentivise district-level field staff and school principals and teachers, who have to change their ways of working, to implement such innovations. To do this, researchers study Pratham's Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) intervention in India.


One way to improve outcomes in places where indirect routes of accountability (i.e., whereby the public can effectively hold their political representatives accountable for service delivery) are weak, is to work through direct routes of accountability (i.e., whereby the public holds the first-line service providers accountable). Some development agencies have tried to do this by encouraging state machinery to adopt innovative methods trialled by NGOs that are seen to improve learning outcomes. The assumption is that, led by dynamic leaders and working closely with the community, NGOs are more able than state machinery to trial new ways of working. Yet it is also widely recognised that evidence of success alone does not guarantee state adoption and the long-term implementation of NGO-led innovation.

Pratham, which is one of the most visible NGOs in the domain of education in India today, presents one of the rare case studies to identify the factors that can make states adopt NGO-led innovation and ensure its successful implementation. Its proposed methodology of TaRL has proved effective in improving learning outcomes in primary-school children in Indian state schools and has been adopted by a number of states in India.

Data and methods

This paper represents an in-depth, ethnographic case study of Pratham’s experience of working with state governments to embed TaRL into their respective education systems. The fieldwork for this paper was conducted in three states where Pratham has had a long-term presence: Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar.

At the outset in-depth interviews were first conducted with Pratham staff. These interviews lasted from one to three hours, or sometimes were conducted over the span of a couple of days. The positions held by the people interviewed included State Heads, Programme Heads, analysts, Pratham teachers, and local Pratham staff at block and district levels. Interviews with local government administrators were also conducted.

While in the field, ethnographic observations were made about the way the Pratham team engaged with all these actors. Since the field sites included small rooms used as day-care centres, government buildings for primary schools, informal school settings (such as an abandoned building converted into a classroom), outdoor spaces where mothers’ meetings or children's group study sessions were convened, and, lastly, private homes, it was possible to observe a wide range of interactions between Pratham staff, government officials, community members, and parents.


Factors that shape the adoption of NGO-led innovations:

  1. Evidence of success: giving bureacrats the opportunity to witness a program in action first-hand, narrows the gap between on-paper government programmes and on-the-ground realities, leaving bureaucrats more invested in the project. Coupling this with evidence from studies and external reports (e.g., RCTs and citizen-led surveys) also strengthens bureacrats' investment in a given project.
  2. Clarity of objectives and ease of method: bureaucracy likes clarity. This is becuase field level agents (e.g., teachers) of many low- and middle-income states are increasingly not in the control of the administration at the national or state level. Thus, embedding innovation at the ground level in such an institutional framework is a serious challenge. One way to address these challenges is to make the memorandums of understanding (MoUs) signed with state governments very detailed. Pratham’s TaRL, with its clear goals, methods, and expected outcomes, and its clear assignment of roles, makes it easy for bureaucrats to imagine its implementation, without too much effort. At the same time, the actual method is easy enough for even ordinary volunteers to follow it. This is encouraging for the bureaucrats who, as was often mentioned in the field, lack trust in the abilities of the field staff and the teachers.
  3. Presence of a committed bureaucrat: the presence of committed bureaucrats is critical in the adoption of pro-poor policy reforms. Convincing a key bureaucrat is important not only for the promulgation of a programme but also to ensure its implementation by lower-level administrative officials. ‘Pressure from the top’ was repeatedly identified in interviews as one of the main ways to sustain the ‘buy- in’ of TaRL at lower levels of the bureaucracy and among the teachers.
  4. Political backing: political backing is essential to widespread replication of a NGO-led innovation by the state. However, for such backing to be sustainable it is important that the state has the political will, and is not just cashing in on an opportunity to achieve short-term political gains.

Factors that shape the implementation of NGO-led innovations:

  1. Exposure to ground reality: practice classes involve a TaRL master trainer (MT) going to a school to attempt to teach children foundational skills using the TaRL methodology. These classes, run between 7 and 20 days, not only aid MTs in understanding TaRL better, but also play a role in motivating administrators to work toward successfully implementing the programme. They enable MTs to witness the realities of government schools and help them to see that TaRL methodology is successful on the ground.
  2. Handholding and confidence building: apart from practice classes, ‘handholding’ (i.e., providing constant support and monitoring) throughout the duration of a government partnership can maintain a sense of pressure to ensure that the programme is generating the desired outcomes, and it can keep motivating the ground-level government employees or resolve any issues that arise immediately. Hence, teachers and administrators do not feel that they have been left on their own in the deep end, but rather they have a safety net they can fall back on. This is important, as often issues tend to remain unresolved, or teachers and administrators are too hesitant to reach out to higher-level bureaucratsfor fear of being reprimanded.
  3. Informal modes of interaction and letting local teachers and administrators take credit: creating a bond with ground-level administrators is critically important. In the case of Pratham, a core foundation of this relationship was the fact that state-level Pratham staff were predominantly from the state where they worked. Hence, they had a better understanding of the local culture of work, and the language, and they could relate to shared norms and experiences. This helped them to connect with government administrators and teachers better, and integrate Pratham into the government framework with greater ease.
  4. Provision of new resources: introducing new technologies and Teaching-Learning-Material through government partnerships can help motivate both teachers and government administrators. One such example of a new technology seen in the field was Partham's new app called Pradigi. The district administrators took pride in showing the App to the research team, and during the fieldwork many government employees, including the teachers, said that Pratham taught them a lot, and each day was a new experience
  5. Use of official lines of communication and implementation: supplement rather than replace government modes of working. This is important when dealing with local government administration, as well as with teachers. Using official lines of communication during the promulgation and implementation process not only builds pressure but further demarcates lines of accountability and responsibility for both parties. This is especially apparent in the clear division of work between Pratham staff and government officials, which is maintained through official MoUs.

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