Are we in India condemned to poor public services forever?

People who care about something will be able to specify their preferences to an extremely precise degree and get exactly what they want. For others, actually setting those preferences or defining what they want may take more attention than they care to devote to the task. So the design challenge of the future will be to create good defaults with easy editing/customization tools for those who care

This is Esther Dyson, on Project Syndicate – on the use of data to serve consumers better. While this works well for goods provided by the market, as she acknowledges, state services are a different challenge

In the public sector, the one-size-fits-all approach still prevails. In democracies, each citizen gets one vote. So shouldn’t everyone get the same benefits?…

…consider all of the qualitative services and conditions for which individuals have different preferences, needs, and outcomes that are now more predictable. If we can predict individual outcomes, what is an individual’s responsibility, and what remains a collective task?

Look at India – equity is a compulsion for the public sector. This usually translates into a ‘one size fits all’, which doesn’t seem desirable. Often though, the determinant is the quality of service – in many state-provided services, quality (defined in whichever way possible) is usually what is considered the minimum acceptable level (if one is lucky, and also provided cheap or free) – for any consumer desirous of a higher quality of service, she can access the same from the market. Think hospitals, schools, housing, etc. The private sector options in these three services are usually better quality, but come at a price. This then makes the public sector look bad – poor quality cannot be the hallmark of a service provider. Is this likely to be the case where the state has a monopoly? Possibly so.

There are exceptions, where the state offers upgrade options within its service offerings. Think public buses in Delhi – the basic ones and the low-floor air-conditioned ones, etc. Think also internet service providers such as MTNL or BSNL with their differential rates for different data download/upload speeds. In higher education, the colleges in Delhi University are a fine example – with a slight twist – they are all priced the same and the system rewards merit (mostly!) at the time of admission. These exceptions should give us hope that the state is capable of parsing between consumers and offering a range of options, customised to demand.

Also, between public buses colleges in Delhi, we seem to have covered two different models that exist under the umbrella of public services – a single service provider in the former, as opposed to multiple (and competing) service providers in the latter.

Thus the question arises – besides the usual criticisms of the state/public sector of inefficiency and corruption, are public services designed to be low quality in the first place? An obvious answer might be that these services have to be low cost and therefore, end up being low quality as well. Also, as government revenues from taxes remain low and given the competing priorities for subsidies in the country, the state is compelled to keep the quality such if it prioritises fiscal discipline. So what are the options open to the public sector to break out of this trap?  

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Competing approaches to social accountability

My latest Mint column is up – this one is on understanding Social Accountability, looking at a couple of approaches and the assumptions that underlie them. The point about a mix of hypotheses, or theories of change, is an important one for me – they aren’t entirely different, but are distinct enough for practitioners to ensure that they understand the implications of their chosen approach. Another over-arching observation that these approaches are for the most part, focused on the public sector – what of services that are privatised?

As a set of approaches for “good governance”, social accountability tools represent an interesting collection of hypotheses. One, that involving citizens in local planning, budgeting and spending decisions will ensure that the design and implementation of public services is pro-poor. Local governments and decentralized systems for local planning and service delivery are the usual form in which this approach manifests itself.
Two, that information regarding the state of public services (and in comparison to ideal service standards) in the hands of citizens will mobilize citizens to action. Social audits or Community Score Cards implemented with citizens groups in urban or rural areas provide such information to citizens.
A third one, that citizen (specifically, users of public services) feedback or performance outcomes presented to service providers would act as a catalyst for change for these organizations. Exercises such as the Annual Status of Education Report (for primary education in India), report cards on service providers (such as Citizens Report Cards in Bangalore) are instances where such data may be collected and used for advocacy to generate pressure on service providers to reform service delivery and improve their performance.