“By introducing an automated customer management system we took a noose and put it around our own necks. We are now accountable!”
This reflection from a manager in the Nairobi Public Water and Sewerage utility succinctly captures the impact of MajiVoice, a digital system that logs customer complaints, enables managers to assign the issue to a specific worker, track its resolution, and report back to the customer via an SMS. As a result, complaint resolution rates have doubled, and the time taken to resolve complaints has dropped by 90 percent.
MajiVoice shows that digital technologies can dramatically improve public sector capacity and accountability in otherwise weak governance environments. But is this example replicable? Can the increasingly cheap and ubiquitous digital technologies—there are now 4.7 billion mobile phone users in the world—move the needle on governance and make bureaucrats more accountable?
State capacity is clearly fundamental to development, and the motivation and productivity of the personnel working in the state is clearly fundamental to state capacity.
, and 50 to 60 percent of formal sector or salaried workers in developing countries. This fact alone warrants a detailed understanding of the functioning of public sector labor markets and their influence on the broader labor market, particularly as the characteristics of public sector workers—their gender, age, and skills profiles, for instance—can be quite different from their private sector counterparts.
But more importantly, the motivation of government workers and thereby the productivity of government bureaucracies impacts almost everything else in an economy, from business regulations, to infrastructure provision, to the delivery of services.
On 24th July 2016, Judith Tendler, former Professor at the Department of Urban studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, passed away. She was 77. A Ph.D holder from Columbia University, Judith Tendler spent several years at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) before a long career as a Professor in MIT. A significant share of Prof. Tendler’s work focused on the Americas, but she also studied South Asia and parts of Africa over her long career.
Prof Tendler’s book: ‘Good Government in the Tropics’ (1997) is one of the most influential books in the field of international development — an essential reading for students of governance and public policy studies. In the book, Prof Tendler and her research associates studied four cases of successful government in Ceara, a relatively poor state in north-eastern Brazil. In each of the cases, the government at different levels played an effective role, facilitating and brokering relationships, and submitting itself to mechanisms which could be used to hold themselves accountable. Those were rare, but rich, examples of ‘good government’.
These cases highlighting the achievements of ‘good governments’ challenged the dominant pessimistic thinking about governance in the so-called ‘third world’. Prof Tendler argued that much of the advice from international development agencies to developing countries was based on an analysis of poor performance of the public sector and governments. This resulted in a tendency to ‘import’ good practices from the successful developed countries, as well as a resistance to looking deeply into poor countries to identify variations in performance. In many ways Prof Tendler consistently challenged the pre-suppositions that development agencies and policy advisors nurtured and which, as a result, shaped the advice they dispensed into narrow straitjackets often unfit for the context in which they were to be applied.
It’s human nature to fill the time and space available to us. This phenomenon, known as Parkinson’s Law, states that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Other variations of the principle include “The more money you earn the more money you spend,” or “The bigger the available space, the more junk it can hold.”
This principle comes from the opening line of a humorous essay by Professor Cyril Northcote Parkinson published in The Economist in 1955.
The essay explains the results of a study he conducted of the British Civil Service. The British Civil Service grew between 1914-1928, with a noticeable rise in administrative positions and a concurrent decline in ‘fighting’ positions. In 1914 there were 2,000 Admiralty officials with this number growing to 3,569 in 1928, creating “a magnificent Navy on land.” The interesting part of this shift, however, is that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The British Navy during that period had diminished by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. From 1922 onwards it was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement, signed among the major nations that had won World War I, which limited naval construction to prevent an arms race. Thus, the number of people employed in the bureaucracy increased even as the British Empire collapsed — an event that decreased the amount of work available.
How useful is 'focusing on results' for development work? It may make an organization more cost-efficient but not necessarily more effective as it is usually unrealistic, time-consuming and misleading.
How do donors aim for “results” without setting up a counterbureaucracy that disrupts rather than encourages good development programs?
A recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact report has taken the U.K. Department for International Development to task for doing just that, which in turn demands a serious reconsideration of how DfID thinks about results and accountability.
Of course, these critiques are hardly new. However this isn’t another nongovernmental organization or academic report slating the “results agenda,” but an independent body that has specifically been set up to ensure the effectiveness of aid and — based on 44 previous reports — is providing evidence about how the results agenda unfolds in practice.
In a nutshell, ICAI argues that DfID today knows better than ever before when and where taxpayers’ money is being spent, but not what that spending actually achieves. ICAI found that the results agenda has tended to prioritize short-term economy and efficiency over long-term, sustainable impact. It has brought “greater discipline” and “greater accountability for the delivery of aid” but also a focus on quantity of results over quality.
Not everything ICAI has to say is bad news; but most of it is. The ICAI findings undoubtedly hold broader relevance for other donors who are taking a similar approach to their result agenda.
A common notion in public policy is that policy-making and implementation are divorced from each other, in the sense that politics surrounds decision-making activities (to be carried out by the elected political leadership) while implementation is an administrative activity (to be handled by bureaucracies). However, researchers have found that such distinctions are not helpful in understanding policy implementation in developing countries.
Gosh, INGOs do find themselves fascinating. Into my inbox plop regular exercises in deep navel-gazing –both excessively self-regarding and probably necessary. They follow a pretty standard formula:
- Everything is changing. Mobile phones! Rise of China!
- Everything is speeding up. Instant feedback! Fickle consumers! Shrinking product cycles!
- You, in contrast are excruciatingly slow, bureaucratic and out of touch. I spit on you and your logframes.
- Transform or die!
Long-established bureaucracies can, sometimes, appear to be a little cynical. Toward their mission, toward their work routines, toward their staff, toward their chances of success. This cynicism can damage morale and become a self-fulfilling hypothesis. So it doesn’t hurt when bureaucratic organizations get an infusion of optimism from time to time that lets them rethink goals, capacities, and strategies.
June 30 marks the end of the fiscal year at the World Bank, and an annual reminder of the stark irony of working in a bank that does not let you save – money is allocated to a particular fiscal year, and if not spent during this time, disappears into a vortex where it is reallocated elsewhere in the institution. This is a problem that is not unique to the World Bank - last week’s Science news had an article reporting on the findings of a blue-ribbon panel of business leaders, u
When 150 marriages are solemnized in a day within 60 minutes in the same venue, the challenges are not just with the brides and grooms to stick to their own soul mates, but also to the municipal authorities to keep track and issue marriage certificates in a reasonable time frame. As many Keralites located all over the world chooses Guruvayoor Temple for their marriage, delivering their marriage certificates adds to the troubles of a small municipality with less than 10 staff in the section.
On a recent visit to Kerala as part of the World Bank supported Kerala Local Government Service Delivery Project (KLGSDP), I found that in 2010 September, Guruvayoor Municipality solved the problems with marriage certificates, and opened a window of transparency and efficiency in its service delivery to the general public, through an e-governance platform. Meeting us in his current office in the Attingal Municipality, N Vijayakumar, former Municipal Secretary of Guruvayoor, took us through the journey he and a highly committed team made for bringing an e-revolution in the Municipality.