Making government work

Jul 26 2013, 12:24 IST
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SummaryDecentralisation and competition incentives can effect positive changes in the governmental machinery at the state and local level

India’s government works very well in some ways (functioning democracy, stability, responsiveness, and so on) but is maddeningly inept in others (improving provision of basic public services, ranging from health and education to water and electricity supplies). Lant Pritchett, formerly of the World Bank, and now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, has coined a new term for this situation. He calls India a “flailing” state: “a nation-state in which the head, that is the elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but … this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs. In many parts of India in many sectors, the everyday actions of the field level agents of the state—policemen, engineers, teachers, health workers—are increasingly beyond the control of the administration at the national or state level.” It may be debatable whether the deterioration is in absolute terms, or relative to expectations and aspirations, but the question is what can be done to change this situation.

Pritchett’s solution to the problem that so many have identified, and which he has so picturesquely named, is unclear. He suggests that India’s “administrative modernism” is out of step with the country’s politics and society. He argues that political competition focuses on loyalty to identity groups, rather than provision of effective public services. He suggests that India will eventually muddle through with incremental reforms and learning by doing. Here I would like to offer some different perspectives on the problem and the possible solutions.

Ultimately, as Pritchett and others have recognised, a major issue is that of weak accountability of government employees. Accountability can be internal, within an organisation (for example, to one’s boss), or external, such as to citizens as voters. There are a variety of ways in which accountability can be improved. Several years ago, OP Agarwal and TV Somanathan, themselves senior bureaucrats, suggested some structural changes for decision-making within central ministries, including letting more policy implementation be managed below the top level, providing better career incentives for performance by elite bureaucrats, and broadening the input of expertise into policy-making.

The suggested changes can, in fact, be thought of as embodying two fundamental principles, those of decentralisation and competition. Decentralisation allows for better matching of skills and tasks, at least when training is appropriately provided. Competition provides incentives, sometimes pecuniary, but sometimes non-pecuniary, for better effort. The interesting idea here

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