THE BLOG

How Policymakers Can Overcome the Constraints Of State Capacity

27/02/2017 12:35 AM IST | Updated 02/03/2017 8:40 AM IST
Getty Images/Moment Open

This is the third installment of a three-part series on the theoretical underpinnings of governance and policymaking. Read part 2 here and part 1 here.

James Hacker: "Who else is in this department?"

Sir Humphrey Appleby: "Well briefly, Sir, I am the Permanent Undersecretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary ... Directly responsible to me are 10 Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries..."

James Hacker: "Do they all type?"

Sir Humphrey Appleby: "No. Mrs. McKylie types. She's the secretary."

Yes, Minister

Now that our policymakers in the government have decided to intervene based on some pre-defined market failures and have navigated the tortuous terrain of politics, the next tasks facing them are: mobilising a notoriously inefficient bureaucracy; building state capacity and simplifying and strengthening the supply chain of ideation, policy creation and its cogent implementation as a single whole instead of a contraption with multiple moving parts.

Mobilising a laggard bureaucracy

As the pithy colloquy above, from the terrific satire Yes, Minister, shows, an intransigent bureaucracy, more often than not, instead of solving the problems and making it easy to implement policies is often found wanting in these aspects due to the inherent somnolence caused by the byzantine maze of rules and regulations which act as spanners in the wheel rather than enablers.

How do we mobilise and harness the latent capacity of this sluggish bureaucracy? The answer lies in fundamental and far-reaching structural and institutional reforms.

For instance, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is the locus of Indian public policy but for far too long it has faced numerous challenges, including lack of talented human capital and unbridled political influence and interference. This has hollowed the core of the civil services to an extent that policy paralysis or rollout of ill thought out schemes is the norm rather than the exception. The World Bank's Index of Government Effectiveness (2014), which measures the quality of the bureaucracy of a country, among other such adjunct things, ranks India in the 45th percentile worldwide—a poor indicator by any means for the world's, ostensibly, largest democracy. It is imperative to understand the civil servants do not operate in isolation; political interference is a natural ally and previously research has shown that loyalty to the political masters rather than one's competence in framing and executing policies often represents a fruitful path to professional mobility.

How do we then mobilise and harness the latent capacity of this sluggish bureaucracy? The answer lies in fundamental and far-reaching structural and institutional reforms. A recent study by Milan Vaishnav and Saksham Khosla offers some insights on the reform agenda that the government needs to undertake:

  • The Government of India and the multiple state governments need to enact pending legislation(s) that protect bureaucrats against the politically entrenched and nefarious impedimenta of transfers and postings.
  • The Central government should analyse data on civil servants' abilities, education, and training when placing officers early in their careers. As officers gain experience, these performance metrics can inform key decisions about promotion and allocation.
  • Civil servants with strong local ties, usually thought to be vulnerable to corruption, have been found to be linked to improved public service delivery.

Improving state capacity

In conjunction to mobilising the bureaucracy, we actually need to bolster the machinery of the government to actually deliver performance. So comes into play the concept of state capacity—the ability of state institutions to effectively implement official goals.

Due to lack of state capacity, governments often resort to the desultory means of banning/ abolishing something rather than addressing the market failure in a systematic and compelling manner.

A strong state capacity is central to many of the issues that governments face. For instance, Bessley and Persson show that the absence of state capacities to raise revenue and to support markets is a key factor in explaining the persistence of weak states. Subsequently, weak states tend to be characterised by hapless poverty, and a distinct inability to put into place basic financial functions to raise the revenue required for efficient delivery of public services to the common citizens. Summarily, a low and inefficacious state capacity can have the following unfavourable consequences:

  • Persistent and unintended market failures
  • Due to lack of state capacity, governments often resort to the desultory means of banning/ abolishing something rather than addressing the market failure in a systematic and compelling manner.
  • Low state capacity and capacity constraints have added more excuses to the roster of justifications that politicians usually deploy to justify their inability to take decisions

To solve the problem of low state capacity the following measures need to be undertaken:

  • Clearly defined clarity of purpose of the department/agency: It is important for policymakers to be able to measure the outcomes on clearly delineated quantitative and qualitative metrics within the larger goal of the ensuing public good. If the mission/aim of a department/agency is ambiguous, then it is not possible to have stringent accountability of the institution and their outcomes.
  • Lord Acton once remarked, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". In today's times for modern governments a slightly modified version of the adage also holds true: "Power corrupts, and lack of rule of law and regulations corrupts absolutely." Government departments/ agencies need to follow laws and regulations in letter and spirit, and understand that laws are not just a by-product of political philosophy; laws are high efficiency tools for framing and implementing successful policies and schemes.
Most of the government departments/ agencies in India try to combine legislative, the executive, legislative and judicial responsibilities and fail spectacularly at each one of them.
  • Separation of powers: In 1802, Mr. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, introduced the doctrine of separation of powers—executive, legislative and judicial. Woe unto us that we have been unable to follow this doctrine diligently. Most of the government departments/ agencies in India try to combine legislative, the executive, legislative and judicial responsibilities and fail spectacularly at each one of them.
  • All government departments/ agencies should constitute the following structure of tackling policy issues:
    • A proper system which lays down the broad framework for the policymakers to operate within.
    • Well defined and detailed processes which lay down the nitty-gritties of the things to be followed for implementation of policies with precise exactitude.
    • A responsive and self-actuated accountability and verifiable audit trail which acts as the feedback loop of the processes.
    • All the above things should be encoded in IT systems.

***

In summary, the current policy ideation supply chain followed by policymakers is akin to:

  • Exploratory analysis, collection of data, research on policy ideas.
  • Formation of committees and building of consensus.
  • A period of latency in which no action is taken.
  • A breakthrough moment appears due to political considerations and policymakers are directed to frame laws which will then be enacted by the legislative council.
  • Government departments/ agencies try to implement these policies while grappling with the acute constraints of low state capacity.

The reformed policy ideation supply chain followed by policymakers should be:

  • Identification of market failures to prevent the government from meddling in matters where it has no role to play.
  • Navigation of the terrain of political will and realisation of the fact that policies which partially fulfil their motive are better rather than waiting to implement policies that fulfil their motives fully.
  • Mobilisation of the bureaucracy and augmentation of the state capacity.
  • Accordingly, every government department/ agency should have three separate wings which look into all of the three above, independently and in consonance with each other.

ISRO Launch

More On This Topic