Every civil society organisation, says Ramesh Ramanathan of the Bangalore-based NGO Janaagraha, should have a theory of change, its idea of how it hopes to bring about changes in government and society. Having such a theory helps in many ways; others can judge the organisation's actions to check if they are consistent with the theory; the strengths and weaknesses of the theory can be debated; and the theory can be judged on whether it is producing the outcomes sought. Moreover, others who advocate a different approach can also set themselves such a standard.

I've been thinking about theories of change a lot lately. As an editor at India Together, I observe government with a particular lens - with ideas of public participation, accountability and transparency. As an urban transport researcher, I see government another way - with responsibilities for implementation and capacity building. And lately with my work for the Administrative Reforms Commission, a third lens has appeared, allowing me to see government as directed by policy changes, based on ideas about social organisation and the roles of public and private institutions in promoting the common good. From these different vantage points, it seems to me that there are four ways in which change in government is sought, by and large. Each has some strengths, and each is able to influence government to some degree, for good as well as bad.

Advocacy of decency

The first kind of engagement that demands - and obtains - the attention of government is advocacy in the name of people who are so obviously disenfranchised that the government is unable to offer any rational counter-argument to the demands. A very good example of this is the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act last year, assuring a hundred days of work for desperately poor families from the nation's most backward districts at a minimum wage.

Despite the protestations of many that this program would cost too much and would in any event become yet another case of expenditure whose goals are thwarted by corruption - a quite plausible claim - there was, in the end, not enough momentum to halt the law's passage. Why? Because opposition to ensure the basic economic sustenance of the worst-off citizens would, and did, attract strong criticism. It's very hard to argue publicly that Rs.60 a day for a hundred days of the year is too much to spend supporting one poor family. Call it political correctness, if you will, but I think of it as the price of the inequalities we have accumulated. With such grotesque poverty among millions, a degree of shame is bound to attach itself to any conversation about the plight of the poor, and advocacy to alter it is likely to succeed, if only mildly.

The Right to Information Act too was of this kind; in this case the obvious collapse of honesty in governance provided the necessary cover to ensure that the law would pass Parliament, in one form or another. I suspect that other such legislation now looming - e.g. the provision of social security for unorganised workers - could receive similar boosts to their chances of succeeding. A revision to the Minimum Wages Act of 1948 might also be enact-able, considering how far below dignified wages the law and its enforcement have now fallen.

Direct impact

A second influence on government stems from arenas that directly influence the finances of a large section of the population. We've seen this often in the past, with politicians promising various kinds of free or subsidised services for the poor, and there is no shortage of examples of those even today. But recently there has been a more interesting example - the widespread use of mobile telephones, and the impact of this growth on the government's role in regulating the communications landscape. For the foreseeable future, we can be sure that the cost of communication will continue to drop, and we will witness a move to even lower prices through Voice-over-Internet (VoIP) technologies. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has already signalled its intent to help consumers own their phone numbers, which would make it easier for citizens to switch service providers. I imagine that as in the developed countries, communication companies will be forced to fight long and hard for ever-diminishing margins, and some noteworthy brands may even disappear altogether.

All of this is, and will be, quite surprising considering how little the government has acted to fulfil its regulatory obligations in so many other industries. Certainly, mining, soap-making or cotton marketing don't get this kind of attention. Long after Dayanidhi Maran has ceased to ride the communication horse with a whip, we will find that customer expectation has a way of forcing government to play its part. Similar changes will appear in other domains too, as their 'direct impact' potential grows. As ATM usage grows, for example, banking regulators will be under pressure to keep fees for their use modest. Similarly with interest rates for credit cards. Some of these changes may be farther away than others, but that shouldn't blind us to the key lesson - advocacy for change that benefits people directly, especially economically, will have some traction.

Capacity-building in government

Supportive engagement of administrators and capacity building assistance are in practice very vulnerable to capture by the very forces that citizens try to overcome in process of making change.

 ·  Counting people, discounting worth
 ·  Leadership by non-believers

Related editorials
 ·  Information and public policy
 ·  Alliances with good insiders
 ·  Beware the benevolent partisan

Which brings me to the third kind of change, common among many of the larger NGOs and citizen action groups. Such organisations engage government energetically, and even offer to work with government to build its capacities for improved functioning. They take the view that whatever the state of governance today, we cannot stand by and allow further erosion of honesty and diligence in administration, that we must do something to fix this. Moreover, there may be many administrators willing to create and further positive change, but who lack the capacities and skills to do so, and we must provide them the necessary support.

This is a defensible enough view, on the face of it, but in practice very vulnerable to capture by the very forces that citizens try to overcome. Too often, governments set the terms for citizen engagement of their work in questionable terms. For example, a public hearing for an environment clearance process for a new industrial plant might be scheduled several dozen kilometres away from the site of the plant, in blatant contravention of the laws and rules. What are citizens to do? Should they attend such a public hearing and seek to voice their concerns anyway, or should they protest the illegality of the terms set by the government, and demand adherence to a more legal process? Usually, some citizens will lean one way, and others will take the alternate view. And this is often enough for the government to claim that is had played its part correctly - after all, if some citizens do choose to engage it on the terms set, then it must mean that the terms are defensible. Right?

Wrong. The unfortunate truth is that citizens who take government at face value may be playing into the hands of administrators who deliberately subvert legal and ethical processes. This is not to the discredit of the citizens; they cannot be blamed for wanting to engage their governments to whatever degree possible. But the risk that governments will selectively admit them into narrow spaces that do not allow much citizenship is very real. To minimise this risk, therefore, they must be clear that their engagement of the government is not construed as a tacit acceptance of terms set by administrators. The trouble is, if they're too obviously careful of this, the governments may decide not to admit them even into the limited narrow spaces on offer otherwise!

The challenge, therefore, is to strike the right balance - where supportive engagement is accepted, but not construed to be an embrace of unethical practices. One way to do this is to consciously construct a public face to capacity building efforts. Services from government, for example, should catalyse/generate demand by design, and must be seen to be doing so, inviting participation from citizens, which then becomes a powerful driver of the change that is sought. Supportive engagement can receive a significant boost from the vox populi too.

Right place at the right time

And finally, a fourth kind of change - which happens through interventions in policy spaces. Lobbyists of all political persuasions do this, seeking to bypass the need for mobilising support for their objectives, and instead seeking to directly implant their views in the legislative and executive arena. This is also easier in India, where legislators themselves are often not adequately versed in law-making, and their roles are therefore vulnerable to usurpation by unelected others.

This can appear undemocratic, and judged with a 'process' lens would certainly be found to be undemocratic too, since particular citizens are better able to draw decision-makers' attention more than others. A small mercy, in this scenario, is that this is not a particularly effective method of introducing new directions in government. Typically, those who are able to intervene in policy spaces in this manner do so through their personal - or business - connections with those in decision-making roles. Often, there is already some congruence between the influenced and the influencer, and so the potential for new directions to be determined through such ties is small. Legislators and bureaucrats may give various people a friendly ear, but are rarely persuaded to change course as a result. What is more likely is that they go further along agreed paths due to such pressure (e.g. RSS influence on the BJP, or union pressure on the Left). This kind of responsiveness isn't really useful as a process for change when the two role-players disagree. (e.g. RSS demands of the UPA!)

Dignity and autonomy

Between the many views of how change occurs, I much prefer the first and the second, therefore. Advocacy to restore a dignified minimum humanity to the disenfranchised poor has some chance of being heard - and perhaps even heeded, in the present circumstances. The recent imbroglio over the Narmada dam should remind us of this; whatever one's view on development, it is undeniable that the state has wronged the people of the valley, and it is this fact that lends the greatest legitimacy to protestors. Going forward, it is likely that legislation to increase state-funded health coverage, or to set decent minimum wages, would have such advantages; clearly the status quo in these domains is so far below the norm for democratic societies that the arguments for improvement will encounter less convincing opposition.

Arguments that seek financial or other autonomy for individuals hold a similar potential for creating positive change; governments refusing these are directly accountable to voters on the issues themselves, something that is nearly always lacking in the political process currently. Autonomy is also a compelling argument not just for the poor, but for many others too. Even middle-class citizens can identify with economic issues that allow them more choices - for example, from increased access to credit at non-usurious interest rates. While such changes would be particularly advantageous to the poor, it is the broader support of a much larger group of potential beneficiaries that will lend such changes the necessary political muscle.

The way forward for civil society may therefore lie in these two directions, primarily. Looking around at the worst-off among us, we can advocate changes that would address their concerns, above all. And looking elsewhere, but with our eyes still firmly on the public good, we can advocate a level of independence - in finances, particularly, but social independence too - for citizens. The autonomy of each voter is a much stronger tool for informed citizenship than collective representation.