Policy reforms in the public sector

Chris Blattman blogs about the RCT on police reforms in Rajasthan, India. While Chris reports the essential  summary of findings from the study (from a presentation by Esther Duflo at Yale) – these are the two points I found most interesting:

  1. The authors acknowledge that the most remarkable aspect of this study was the willingness of the authorities to subject themselves to experimental reform and evaluation. 
  2. The authors touch briefly on the problem of reforms being accepted and supported by the top brass of the police, while the police-men lower down the hierarchy weakened the reforms, sometimes by systematically sabotaging the interventions being tested for the study. 

Put together, these points reinforce the implementation problem with public sector reforms. Lipsky’s street-level bureaucrat is an amazing creature. Lipsky’s 1971 essay (Street-level Bureaucracy and the analysis of Urban Reform) starts with this passage –

In American cities today, policemen, teachers, and welfare workers are under siege. Their critics variously charge them with being insensitive, unprepared to work with ghetto residents, incompetent, resistant to change, and racist. These accusations, directed toward individuals, are transferred to the bureaucracies in which they work.

The above passage could easily apply (with contextual modifications) to the popular perceptions of the police force in most parts of India.

Here is part of a summary of Lipsky’s 1980 publication titled Street-level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services:

…in the end policy implementation comes down to the people who actually implement it. They are the ‘street-level bureaucrats’, and they exercise a large amount of influence over how public policy is actually carried out.

He discusses several pressures that determine the way in which street-level bureaucrats implement policies. These include the problem of limited resources, the continuous negotiation that is necessary in order to make it seem like one is meeting targets, and the relations with (nonvoluntary) clients. Some of the patterns of practice that street-level bureaucrats adopt in order to cope with these pressures are different ways of rationing the services, and ways of ‘processing’ clients in a manageable manner.

Lipsky’s street-level bureaucrat is everywhere – in the form of a village health worker, land records and/or revenue officer, school teacher etc. She/he is under pressure not just from those above him in the hierarchy, but also from the clients on the ground. As the police reforms experiments themselves show – unless we get the incentives right, not just for those higher up, but also for the grass-root implementers, effective policy reform may well be impossible. 

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