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Not just about getting things done

Effective implementation of time-bound guarantees is also about getting citizens to update their beliefs and expectations about the state

Written by Shrayana Bhattacharya |
March 28, 2013 3:58:58 am

Effective implementation of time-bound guarantees is also about getting citizens to update their beliefs and expectations about the state

While many disagree on the size of government,the need to focus intellectual and material resources to improve the state’s ability to implement policies is a no-brainer. Hence the enthusiasm for guarantees to time-bound services in 14 states,and the proposed national Right of Citizens for Time-bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill (hereafter GR bill) is warranted. By imposing fines and disciplinary action on government staff who are unable to deliver within specified timelines,these bold laws try to incentivise public officials based on citizen-centric measures of administrative performance.

So,can such performance-based incentives reduce our poverty of implementation? Those familiar with Indian policy chatter probably already know the cliché response — yes,if implemented well. But how can a reform measure meant to improve the Indian state’s capability to implement policies itself escape the curse of poor policy implementation?

Before outlining operational requirements for effectively implementing a time-bound service guarantee,let me explain the principle guiding these prerequisites. The core implementation challenge in imposing penalties on administrators if they deviate from guidelines is the ease with which one can identify,report and adjudicate the information on the deviation.

Time is a good way to frame what to expect from a service provider. “Did you take 30 days to provide a birth certificate” is a “thin” question on which we can readily agree and,if necessary,have a third party verify our facts. It is easy to create high-powered incentives on thin information: “I will cut your pay by Rs 1,000 if the birth certificate arrives later than 30 days from the date of the application being submitted” seems like an enforceable contract because the time period of 30 days can be easily verified and is contractible.

Thus,the first operational prerequisite for effectively using time-based guarantees to improve implementation is the creation and promotion of citizens charters that specify expected timelines and unbundle administrative functions and business processes. These charters can not only provide a clear set of expectations and contracts between citizens and the state,but also specify what government officials can expect from each other. Timelines set for service delivery can’t afford to be arbitrary. These should push speedy decision-making without being unrealistic about the workload of public officials. This is particularly important as an average administrator in any line department manages multiple tasks. Some lend themselves to measurement,others don’t. Economists warn that the use of high-powered incentives based on easily verifiable performance indicators such as time can push us to ignore tasks where our performance cannot be measured as easily. Penalise a cricketer for not making a certain number of boundaries,and he may start to ignore the more subtle aspects of his game. Using time-based penalties without accounting for general work-flow within the administrative system shall yield perverse outcomes. We’ll end up forcing public officials to exert more effort on doing things quickly and risk reducing effort on unmeasurables such as the quality of civic responsiveness. To do this,it is important to use time-motion studies of administrative systems. Such serious unpacking of the service delivery chain allows us to set fair timelines that hold each administrator to account and pinpoint process bottlenecks; not merely command and control the bottom of our bureaucracy.

The second prerequisite is to develop independent channels of information on administrative performance. Any policy premised on gathering information on how state actors execute their duties focuses on people and institutions with power to exclude themselves from the realm of investigation. Often,administrative facts — like,when did you submit your request for a birth certificate — can become works of fiction. Let me explain. Much like the GR bill,a Jameel Poverty Action Lab experiment set out to penalise auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs),if they were “absent” for more than half of their working days. The result: ANMs collaborated with health authorities to use “exempt from duty” as an excuse to continue being absent without facing penalties. Similarly,MGNREGA uses the threat of legal action as a stick to incentivise delivery. Result: while administrative data suggests that nearly all demand for works is met,a World Bank study shows that in reality,only 56 per cent of rural households that wanted work managed to get it. The attempt to create performance pressure through high-powered incentives such as wage penalties or legal action drove administrative records and reality further apart. Relying only on government records to track government performance incentivises obfuscation of performance measurement. Independent monitoring of grievance redressal centres and citizen feedback is a must. The time taken to deliver public services is one tractable measure of state capacity that can be used to benchmark standards of service delivery,where data collection can be a tool to activate pressure on public agencies. Also,technology platforms can be used to make interactions between citizen and state more transparent.

Third,without adequate human and institutional resources,the threat of penalties,legal or monetary,remains empty. We don’t live in a fiscal utopia. In a world of scarce resources,the right to time-bound services is a strategic use of finance and the rights-based mechanism due to positive externalities. Time-bound delivery of documents that prove eligibility and residence can reform the way the marginalised make claims of citizenship while activating demand for public goods. Some states have instituted a guarantee to time-bound delivery of business permits,stimulating enterprise growth. Further,a guarantee to time-bound delivery of documents and decisions does not risk introducing distortionary pressures in the economy and is an efficient use of public resources.

The final prerequisite for implementing a time-bound service guarantee is to know where it can be effective and not,and where it needs complementary inputs. Time-bound guarantees only work in the cases of services where the delivery process can be broken into mechanistic bits and bytes. Speed is not a universal indicator of high state capacity. A government ought to take more time thinking about land reallocation than issuing a birth certificate,as the former involves weighing many more trade-offs. Also,merely tinkering with explicit rules and formal incentives won’t help if the internal culture of the organisation subverts these through informal practices and learned habits. State capacity depends on the career concerns of its workers. These,in turn,are influenced by organisational culture and leadership. The career trajectories of lower level government functionaries are often predicated on patronage and how well you serve internal cliques as opposed to how well you impartially serve citizens. Old school reforms such as on-the-job training,staffing and recruitment in combination with newer forms of incentive restructuring are areas of massive gains. Research has shown that simple things such as training police officers in personality development skills can improve client satisfaction.

In our personal relationships,repeated interactions,negotiations and the influence of societal norms allows us to define what we can expect from each other. These ideas serve as cognitive maps that guide us to complain and seek redress in situations where we feel cheated or let down as our friends or family deviate from the standards of behaviour expected from them. In our relationship with state authorities,many of us have learnt to expect little. Low expectations sustain low state capacity,as apathetic citizens who don’t trust any provisions offered by the state will prefer to bypass formal channels and continue to use connections or speed money to get things done. Consequently,if the demand for rule-bound implementation remains low,supply will be scarce too. While this status quo works for those with powerful networks and economic resources,the asset and socio-politically poor continue to be treated unfairly in any queue for government services. For any Indian,the thought of dealing with public officials evokes expectations of confusion,indignities and red tape. Getting citizens to update their beliefs and expectations about the state is a cognitive feat partly achieved by signalling intent through legislation and social mobilisation,but fully accomplished by demonstrating credibility. Effective implementation of time-bound guarantees is a great place to focus energy and resources to not only reform how things get done,but win this battle of perception as well.

The writer is a researcher with Accountability Initiative,Delhi

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