The capable state

No magic pill solution or quick fix can make up for basic administrative deficiencies

Written by Gulzar Natarajan | Published: July 31, 2013 5:45:32 am

No magic pill solution or quick fix can make up for basic administrative deficiencies

In a review of Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen’s latest book in the Financial Times (July 12,2013),historian Ramachandra Guha questions whether the Indian state is “up to the job of doing more to tackle poverty”. Mainstream debates about the persistence of poverty and pervasive failures in public service delivery in India tend to overdraw on the state’s innate ability to deal with this.

Take the recurring instances of midday meal poisoning,the latest being the tragedy in Bihar’s Saran district. If the headmaster follows the minimum protocols for management of the kitchen and school inspectors do basic supervision,and all these processes are embedded in an institutionalised system of accountability,such incidents could easily be averted. In its absence,even a mundane task like running a school kitchen,when done in scale,seems fraught with complications.

“State capability” can be broadly defined as the ability of a government bureaucracy to get things done. It is a measure of the state’s institutional capacity and organisational capital to effectively implement its programmes and deliver basic public services to its citizens.

An inadequacy in state capability invariably manifests itself as implementation deficits. In its absence,process innovations and technologies can get you only so far in managing large groups of stakeholders in complex and dynamic environments. They can help a good system become great,but are less likely to be effective in getting a system trapped in a bad equilibrium to shift to a better one.

The standard response to governance failures is to address them through one of four approaches. The commonest refrain,especially among the urban middle class,predominantly employed in the formal private sector,is an increased role for the private sector. This feeling is at least partially fuelled by the representativeness bias arising from contrasting high-profile examples of “successful” private businesses with pervasive government failures and the internalisation of their own workplace norms. And it is reinforced by opinion makers and the mainstream media.

The other common response is to embrace participatory governance,which promotes the empowerment of communities through decentralised decision-making. Women’s self-help groups and microloans are the commonest examples of this approach. It is argued that such “bottom-up” strategies alone can ensure accountability and transparency,critical to the achievement of sustainable and inclusive development.

Another strategy places faith in innovative approaches to address governance failures. Accordingly,conditional cash transfers,unlocking the energy of social enterprises,establishment of a strong anti-corruption ombudsman,extensive use of the latest in information technology,process re-engineering within public systems,applying insights from behavioural psychology and so on are paths to improving governance and eliminating poverty.

Finally,influential academics believe that programme design and evaluation,using rigorous field experiments,can be an antidote to governance failures. Accordingly,they advocate an evidence-based,incentive compatible design of policies and their evaluation.

I believe that all the aforementioned approaches take a partial view of the complex development process. Provision of basic public goods,an effective welfare state,delivery of statutory services and the protection of basic civil and property rights are the responsibilities of governments everywhere,and will continue to be so. The private sector can,at best,be a marginal contributor to alleviating failures in these. The limitation of the community development driven approach,as Harvard professor Lant Pritchett provocatively argues,is that it is “all bottoms and no ups” — more effective as a social empowerment than an economic growth strategy.

The attractions of innovations lie in their deceptive “quick-fix” appeal. But complex socio-economic and political problems are usually not amenable to such “magic-pill” solutions. Instead of starting with the problem,academic researchers construct interventions on randomly selected ideas using theoretical insights,and in the process,not only miss the broader perspective but also overlook its implementational challenges.

This is not to flippantly explain away the relevance of multiple strategies to making development happen. It is just that no extent of private participation or decentralisation or innovation or alignment of incentives can make up for basic administrative deficiencies. While action is required on all these dimensions,they are secondary to improving state capability. In fact,the absence of adequate institutional capability can prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to any of these strategies,just as a capable state can amplify their effectiveness.

The commonest causes for degeneration in state capability include politicisation of bureaucratic processes,administrative indiscipline,erosion of accountability in the discharge of official responsibilities,weakened supervision and monitoring,and ubiquitous corruption.

Given how deeply intertwined state capability and political and civil society dynamics are,there are no easy answers to these problems. But the broad contours of a plan can be sketched. Administrative reforms that minimise politicisation,enhance professionalism and improve accountability are critical to any effort in this direction. Another important imperative is the decentralisation of functions,funds and functionaries,but in a manner that does not over-burden local public systems.

Of more direct and immediate concern is improving the state’s capacity to monitor and supervise its functionaries and interventions. The effective use of data — appropriately analysed and rendered in a cognitively resonating manner — can become a powerful decision-support for supervisors in this effort. Over and above,nothing succeeds until administrative resources are strengthened by adequate provision of the required personnel,logistics and finances.

We need to realise that even in the most advanced economies,governments are critical to underpinning economic prosperity and social stability. Their administrative systems have the capability to deliver basic governance. Instead of being misled by catch-all phrases like “maximum governance and minimum government”,we need to get working on improving state capability,or risk being saddled with “minimum governance and maximum government”.

The writer is an IAS officer,batch of 1999,and a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School,US.

Views are personal

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