Sidharth Santhosh summarises key findings from Meghalaya's experience of mandating social auditing for welfare schemes, including the need for stronger coalitions between citizens and the state, and greater autonomy of the institutions conducting oversight. These findings are complemented by the experiences of bureaucrats and civil society organisations which engaged with the state government on the facilitation of the audits, and an analysis of the functional challenges of conducting audits.
In 2017, Meghalaya became the first Indian state to mandate social auditing for welfare schemes, with the enactment of the Meghalaya Community Participation and Public Service Social Audit Act. The Act mandates the implementation of social audits for over 20 welfare schemes, including Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana - Gramin, National Social Assistance Programme and National Food Security Act1.
In a recent policy note published by the Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research (Seth et al. 2023), we unpack the genesis of social audits in Meghalaya and assess how the state has performed since the Act was passed in 2017.
Exploring social audits in Meghalaya
Social audits are a citizen-driven form of social accountability. In a social audit, state documents are made available for public scrutiny and public hearings are held with the officers responsible. Conducting social audits was mandated by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005 for greater transparency of the related scheme functioning. This mandate was crucial as it codified social audits in a parliamentary act for the first time.
In the context of Meghalaya, the first use of social audits can be traced back to 2005, when the state government decided to relocate the Meghalaya Board of School Education from Tura to Shillong. This decision led to citizen riots. In response, the state government conducted public hearings to understand citizens’ feedback. In our study, a senior bureaucrat who facilitated the audits at the time believed the same to be beneficial on two counts: (i) it enabled the state to understand citizens’ experiences and grievances, and (ii) provided citizens with a platform to learn about their rights. According to them:
“Social audits can be considered an ‘RTI [Right to Information] Plus’ experience where citizens could directly interact with state government officials to seek answers.”
In a move to support the burgeoning demand for social audits, the Meghalaya Pradesh Congress Committee included the implementation of social audits in its 2011 political manifesto. In 2017, after winning the state election, the state government constituted a team of bureaucrats to draft the legislation. A public consultation was held with civil society organisations (CSOs) and other citizen collectives to invite their views on the draft legislation; this was the first significant step the state government took to build a coalition between citizens and the state in designing and facilitating the conduct of social audits. It also signalled the importance of political will in making social audits a reality. In this engagement coalition, citizens can expect redress for their grievances by co-facilitating the audits, while the state supports this by governing the mechanism.
With this, the Meghalaya Community Participation and Public Service Social Audit Act was enacted in 2017. A similar consultation was held to strengthen the coalition between citizens and the state to conduct the audits – this was a valuable step.
In Meghalaya, social audits are conducted in the following manner. First, a calendar for social audits in a given year is prepared by the Meghalaya Society for Social Audit and Transparency (referred to as MSSAT or the Society in further sections) – the implementing Society tasked with facilitating the conduct of audits. This calendar is made available to the public for suggestions. Following this, 15 days prior to an audit, state documents are made available to the social audit facilitators. The facilitators then spend a week verifying these documents through door-to-door visits and interactions with village representatives. Following this, the team prepares and conducts an audit. The last step is taking action on grievances that could not be resolved during the public hearing by publishing Action Taken Reports online. This process of conducting social audits requires the involvement of a wide range of actors from citizen volunteer facilitators and line department functionaries, to citizens and elected officials.
Meghalaya’s experience since the implementation of the legislation
The state government has had much to celebrate since the enactment of the Act. The state’s success in implementing the Act can be understood from two different vantage points. First, by looking within the state machinery to reflect on the state’s experiences – this includes the experiences of the legislature and of the bureaucrats implementing the Act.
Looking within the state, we found that most actors agreed on the need for the legislation. From senior bureaucrats to functionaries at MSSAT all agreed that the Act brings citizen rights and entitlements to the last mile. This is an impressive victory for the state – these positive perceptions are important, as they indicate that the motivation for implementing the mandate is strong.
Following this foundation, we also noticed a strong alignment between the objectives of the legislation and those of MSSAT’s functionaries. Functionaries believed their work was satisfying as it enabled them to create awareness among citizens and expand their understanding of the state’s functions. As a functionary shared with us:
“We get to explore much here, especially at the grassroots level, meeting them [citizens]… We know all the skills – before we were involved only with MGNREGA, now we are a jack of all trades. We know every department. We get to know all the officers. The experience this job offers is like no other job!”
The motivation of functionaries in any bureaucracy is key. This further strengthens the resolve required to implement a herculean mandate of ensuring oversight and path correction of scheme implementation.
Second, reflecting on the coalition between the state and citizens, the state has shown constant interest in including citizens at different stages of designing and implementing the Act. The state government has attempted to engage with citizens by partnering with CSOs to conduct audits, before and after the enactment of the legislation, and by conducting public consultations on the legislation's features. The state government also invited a CSO with experience in designing and facilitating audits to pilot new forms of audits and develop ‘rules’ that would complement the Act.
Coalitions are important when conducting social audits as they improve trust deficits between citizens and the state. By inviting citizens to co-facilitate social audits, the coalition provides the citizenry with co-ownership of government oversight. However, as Fox (2015) highlights, citizen voices must represent different interests, and an aggregated unit expressing their unified voice must engage with the state. Meghalaya’s experience offers a lesson where the state has attempted to provide citizens with a platform to engage in co-ownership of the social accountability mechanism. However, this was met by different reactions based on contextual sensitivities.
Key challenges faced by the state government
Despite its due share of successes, difficulties persist in regularising the effective conduct of social audits in the state. A key challenge is the lack of appellate authorities who follow the resolution of registered grievances, which are central to a social audit. There is a lacuna in the Act and its rules when it comes to (i) establishing stringent timelines for redressal and (ii) defining penalties for failure to comply with resolving grievances or following processes. Many CSOs believe the Act needs to be amended for this change. Without this appellate authority, registered grievances go unanswered, and citizens are left with no channel to track them.
We also observed that CSOs faced many functional challenges in engaging with the state government. In some instances they were not reimbursed for expenses due to them for facilitating social audits, and in others they realised their engagement was not sustainable as they did not have the reach or internal capacities to carry it out to scale. The state government functionaries also expressed qualms about the state’s method of excessive documentation which makes it difficult for CSOs to facilitate social audits. This has led to a lack of trust in the coalition between citizens and the state which has so far been a strong point of the process.
Meghalaya’s experience also shows that there is a need to ensure that the roles and responsibilities of CSOs and the state government are clearly defined before engagement. For this, CSOs need to assess their resources and clearly communicate their capabilities, and the state government needs to design forms of engagement that can be regularised. A promising development is that MSSAT has begun training citizen volunteers from villages to form Village-level Social Audit Committees that can directly facilitate the conduct of audits in villages in close proximity to their own.
When It comes to the state’s capacity, Meghalaya has faced multiple functional challenges in ensuring that MSSAT is capable of conducting audits. Among these challenges are a lack of necessary funds and human resources, and meagre salaries for functionaries. We found that an underlying cause of these challenges is the lack of necessary autonomy afforded to MSSAT.
Ensuring MSSAT’s autonomy to improve functioning
MSSAT was initially constituted in November 2014 to comply with the MGNREGS Audit of Scheme Rules. Initially, the Society functioned as an extension of the State Rural Employment Society (SRES) under the Community and Rural Development Department. With the passing of the Act in 2017, the Programme Implementation and Evaluation Department (PI&ED) became the nodal department for managing the Act’s finances and selecting Directors. The Department chose Directors from among administrative service officers, and their main responsibilities included directing departments that were to be audited by MSSAT.
For MSSAT to function efficiently, there is a need for the Society to have an independent Director without additional charges. This structural independence reduces any potential conflict of interest by increasing the distance between the actor asking for accountability (MSSAT) and the actors being held accountable (other departments being audited). Functionaries that we spoke to insisted that the Society functioned best when it had an independent Director in the past, and shared that the Director ensured that the Society received sufficient funds to meet its objectives.
In September 2022 MSSAT appointed an independent Director, and in January 2023, PI&ED improved on its corpus system of financing MSSAT by earmarking funds in its annual budget. These developments have the potential to make a significant difference in the state government’s endeavour to meet the ambitious scope of the Act.
Meghalaya’s experience of designing and implementing a social audit act is significant for other state governments deliberating similar legislations. An important lesson that can be learnt from Meghalaya is that coalitions between the state and citizens are essential for building trust and ownership of the social accountability mechanism. Further, there is a need for high degrees of structural independence of the implementing Society within the state government, as this reduces the chances of conflicts of interest between the actor asking for accountability and the actor providing it. This structural independence also paves way for a greater flow of funds that can solidify the capacity to conduct audits.
The author is grateful to Avantika Srivastava, Prateek Gupta and Neeha Susan Jacob at Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research for their editorial inputs.
- Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana - Gramin provides housing for the rural poor in India; National Social Assistance Programme provides financial assistance to the elderly, widows and people with disabilities through social pensions; National Food Security Act provides subsidised food grains.
- Fox, Jonathan (2015), "Social Accountability: What Does the Evidence Really Say?", World Development, 72: 346-361.
- Seth, R, S Santhosh, A Kapur, NS Jacob and P Malhotra (2023), 'Making It Work: Institutionalising Social Audit in Meghalaya in India', Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research.
- Pande, S (2022), 'Social Audits in Service Delivery: An annotated bibliography', Accountability Research Center.