Jennifer Bussell on reforming Indian Public Services in the digital era

The central premise underlying Bussell's discussion this week is the reality that public service provision is often flawed in the developing world. Reforming public services entails significant efforts to increase the quality of public service, and there have been two important recent trends in this space: privatization and public-private partnerships and increased use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). The one-stop services model (which has been adopted globally in various forms, from Singapore's eCitizen Centre to Germany's Buergerbuero or "Citizen's Bureau"), exemplifies current trends.

In her research, which focuses primarily on the case of India, Bussell asks the following questions: why do or don't governments reform public service delivery? And when governments decide to implement reforms, why do they or don't they employ ICTs in these reforms?

The Indian strategy to public service reform has been to create stand-alone, one-stop citizen service centers. These centers are computerized and frequently have private-sector participation. Aside from these typical characteristics, there is significant state-level variation on several points, including timing of policy adoption, quantity and type of services, degree of automation, and ownership and management models.

Bussell discusses a variety of hypotheses that offer insight into the potential factors influencing the character of Indian reforms. First, she notes that politicians faced mixed electoral incentives for and against reforms. After all, there is evidence that eServices can improve service characteristics and reduce corruption. On the other hand, reforms may also reduce politicians' opportunities to amass funds to run for re-election. After all, bureaucratic discretion and opaque processes enable the siphoning of funds and bribe taking in service delivery. Politicians use "transfer authority" over bureaucrats to access bribes. More transparent services, due the implementation of reforms, threaten this access to bribes. At the same time, reform may also offer new opportunity for rents. Private partnerships to run centers entail new contracting processes. Larger-scale bribes may be available from ownership and management negotiation.

Based on these mixed direct and indirect incentives, Bussell predicts that reform will require expected net benefits to ruling politicians. States with higher petty corruption should implement policy reforms later. Meanwhile, states with higher grand corruption might lead to more partnerships with private sector.

So what factors actually explain variation in when different Indian states adopted reform? According to Bussell's research, the level of corruption was the most statistically significant variable affecting the timing of reform adoption. However, whether or not there was a coalition government in power was also significant. This means that an increase of 1 point out of 10 in the state's corruption level led to a 63% decrease in the chance of a reform being adopted in a given year. The quantity of services covered varied widely in the sample of states from less than 10 to more than 40 services. On average, moving from a state with below average corruption to a state with above average corruption causes a drop of 14 in the number of services covered.

In addition to examining the variation in reform adoption across Indian states, Bussell also looks at the consequences of reform. Despite reforms in the state of Karnataka, to give one example, demand for services continues to outstrip supply. Visitors to Nemmadi (privately-run computerized centers) were able to access services faster, while paying less money, making less visits, spending less time waiting at each visit, and seeing a reduction (on average) in the number of days before receiving the service. Despite quantitative improvements in average efficiency, however, perceived efficiency actually declined. Now, there is a 7-day minimum for service delivery and a 21-day maximum. Although average has declined as a consequence of these new requirements, it is now impossible to bribe officials in order to achieve service delivery in one day.

According to Bussell, these results bring up some interesting policy implications. First, it is important to consider the institutional incentives underlying the established model in order to ensure that reforms are effective. The incentives faced by both top politicians and street level officials must be taken into account. Second, it may be best to design policies that establish a strong, if narrow, initial model. After all, growing citizen demand affects electoral benefits and the calculations of politicians. Third, more research must be done regarding the various factors that influence policy outcomes. According to cases in South Africa and Brazil, there is some evidence that differences in electoral competition can affect policy outcomes. In South Africa, for instance, less electoral competition has led to less incentive to reform. More research will help to clarify the factors of importance in public service reform implementation.