Field Level Leadership in Public Water Agencies: 20 Years of Grassroots Governance Change to Promote Wellbeing among Urban and Rural Poor Citizens

Erin McDonnell, University of Notre Dame
Sanjay Pahuja, World Bank

Public sector organizations around the world profoundly affect the wellbeing of citizens around the globe—for better or worse. This is particularly true in lower income countries. Yet public services in lower income countries are often seen as sources of problems, and only rarely as sources of innovative solutions. In 2003 a severe draught threatened water security in India, politicians promoted a series of new schemes that achieved little, and neoliberal global reforms threatened to privatize the public water utility. Amid these pressures, a small group of engineers in rural Tamil Nadu began to work together to develop a distinctive public service culture, one grounded in a particularly non-western notion of community embeddedness and individual obligation to community as foundational ideals. They selectively reappropriated global scripts from western corporate trainings, practices from ethnographic village social work, and resources from global entities like the World Bank. Through a process of iterative adaptation, they honed a training program to introduce more public officials to their distinctive approach for empowering grassroots bureaucrats to do localized problem-solving, cultivating a quiet revolution in public service delivery that put poor citizens—not university educated government bureaucrats—squarely at the center of value-creation. Numerous grassroots innovations came from program graduates that dramatically reduced water wastage, improved inter-agency coordination services to farmers, improved milk yields dramatically, and led to the adoption of new technologies including new crops requiring less water and new micro-irrigation technology. They began training officials in disparate cultures from Ethiopia to Mozambique. In each many small innovations followed, improving customer satisfaction and service delivery. We analyze how this program re-localized global scripts, practices, and resources to create an approach that is resonant with grassroots bureaucrats in lower-income countries, and distinct from conventional change management reform approaches; it is insider-led, empowers those traditionally marginalized, and centered on 'small wins.'

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 Presented in Session 137. State Power and Environmental Administration