Playing ‘truth or dare’ with governance

One of the tactics used in the game of ‘truth or dare’ is to choose a dare when one doesn’t want to reveal the truth. Transport this analogy to the world of governance and you start to see numerous instances where governments are unwilling to reveal the truth and instead choose to get busy creating a smokescreen of feverish action. In this world, often announcements and campaigns substitute for action.
An important truth of every government is the state of public services and the outcomes (health, education, nutrition, justice, etc.) on citizens. Naturally, the ability to deliver these services depends completely on the varying degrees of capacity across its various institutions – the police, tax inspectors, ration shops, schools – for which budget allocations are made every year. How do we find out whether these budgets help realise any of the outcomes that matter?
To answer that question in the context of the Indian government, you would hope the outcome budget report published annually would come in handy. Unfortunately, if you look through the report, you would have to conclude that no one in the government, or at least in the finance ministry, really understands what outcomes mean. Just to be clear, this is the way these reports have been since they were introduced in 2005. The failure of the outcome budget exercise is not in that we didn’t get it right the first or third time. The failure is in the fact that a decade into this exercise, we still do not have the capacity to identify, monitor, measure and present outcome indicators.
According to the Civil Services Survey 2010, “although opportunity to take advantage of one’s position is not considered as an important reason for joining civil services, 62% respondents seem to think that visible symbols of power such as chauffeured cars, official bungalows, etc., are important.”
But is that the entire truth of the system? Are our middle to lower-level bureaucrats, police officers, teachers and doctors just not interested in performing efficiently the duties assigned to them? Often it is easy to jump to these conclusions without taking into account the political realities of our system. Usually governments follow up with top-down impositions such as the technology-driven biometric attendance tracking systems or ideas such as a punitive Lokpal or ombudsman. Or, they enact a law that starts with rights with no regard for its enforceability on the ground. These are then presented as bold actions where the government dared to initiate action.
These reactions usually just allow not only the political leadership, but also the top bureaucrats to escape all accountability. The politics of patronage that usually underpins these institutional weaknesses also get a free pass. It also falsely reinforces the impression that if we fix the inputs alone, all will be well. Nowhere is this fallacy clearer than in primary education, where an overbearing focus on brick and mortar has done little to improve the quality of education outcomes of our children.
So what is the way forward? Improving service delivery remains a daunting challenge, whether implemented by the state or central government. Alongside empowering appropriate levels of government to enact and implement bold reforms, we need to invest more into discovering, acknowledging and addressing the truths of our governance systems. Only then can we see our governments take on a real ‘dare’.
A longer version of this post is my latest livemint column

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