How to make government officers more efficient
The productivity of government workers is a major public management problem that can be addressed by simultaneously improving the recruitment and selection of public officials; enforcing incentives to reward performance or finding other ways to motivate staff; and leveraging technology to streamline delivery
Last month, the UN celebrated its annual Public Service Day highlighting the importance of public servants for development and recognising the work of public servants across the world. It is easy to see why competent public service matters and especially in India – because whether it is a teacher neglecting their duty (one study in India revealed that 24% of teachers are absent on any given day) or corrupt field staff diverting funds into their own pockets (by one estimate, as much as 36% of in India’s public distribution system does not reach the intended recipients), inefficient workers can cripple the delivery of well-intentioned public services and even harm the poor. A productive, scrupulous government workforce is an important, first-order input for effective public service delivery and broader economic gains – however acquiring this workforce is a challenge and requires systematic, evidence-based reforms.
The natural place to start is the selection of public officials delivering public services. India faces severe staff shortages in critical public service functions like education and health. One report last year estimated a shortage of one million government school teachers while India’s doctor-patient ratio of 1:1,674 is below the WHO norm of 1:1000. A major reason for these shortages is limited budgets — creating additional roles is expensive especially since government jobs pay significantly more than their private sector counterparts. This higher pay combined with unparalleled job security also means that government jobs are heavily oversubscribed. Yet the higher salaries and larger candidate pool may not translate to better productivity in all cases. For example, evidence from an evaluation conducted by researchers affiliated with the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) in Andhra Pradesh revealed that contract teachers are as effective as public teachers and less likely to be absent. These research insights ask us to explore alternatives to adding on more government employees, like contractors or apprentices, to fill the shortfall, with effective workers and without burdening the exchequer. Another possibility is screening for traditional government roles can be changed. There is evidence to suggest that ‘pro-social’ traits like empathy and openness could be better predictors of performance than a candidate’s qualifications.
After selection, the major challenge is ensuring that workers remain motivated and perform. An effective incentive (or disincentive) is one way to do this. Incentives could take two forms: output-based (like rewarding teachers for improving student learning outcomes) or input-based (rewards or punishment based on an input like attendance). Globally, evidence suggests that performance-based incentives can be a useful tool if performance is easy to observe (like in education and tax collection). For instance, in India, performance-linked pay in schools in Andhra Pradesh improved learning outcomes as teachers exerted more effort in classrooms. However experiments with incentives for absenteeism have been less conclusive. A new attendance-recording system for health centres in Rajasthan worked initially but enforcement gradually weakened. Any incentive system hinges on implementation and follow-up; otherwise behaviour can revert to the status quo, as it did in Rajasthan.
Typical government departments are characterised by rigid bureaucracies and inflexible budgets, which make implementing incentives and changing a status quo difficult. In this environment of inertia, where even the intrinsically motivated can lose enthusiasm, driving change may require more innovative solutions. For instance, the World Bank is experimenting with a values-based leadership approach with water departments in Tamil Nadu, where trained facilitators lead officials through a series of intensive, day-long group sessions to engage in open dialogue and introspection. At the end of the workshops, officials are re-energised, rediscover their motivation for public service and establish connections with fellow-entrepreneurial public officials to drive improved performance. While this is in the process of being evaluated, ideas like these could improve worker productivity without disrupting existing institutions and entrenched interests.
Finally, technology can improve service delivery by supplementing government officials’ work and obviating opportunities for corruption. In India, biometric authentication in program delivery significantly reduced corruption in Andhra Pradesh by ensuring the right beneficiaries received the right benefits. Similarly an electronic fund-flow reform in Bihar, which directly transferred money from state to field level officers decreased corruption and improved program efficiency. Implementation of any new technology has technical, logistical and political challenges — that can be overcome by pushing for policy reforms based on evidence from approaches that have been found effective.
In sum, the productivity of government workers is a major public management problem that can be addressed by simultaneously improving the recruitment and selection of public officials; enforcing incentives to reward performance or finding other ways to motivate staff; and leveraging technology to streamline delivery. The existing evidence have given us some ideas on how to do some of this but more research is needed. Ultimately public personnel reform requires changing a deep-rooted status quo – this needs strong political will along with the willingness to continuously test and evaluate ideas.
Vishnu Padmanabhan is policy manager at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL)
The views expressed are personal