How do we minimize leakages in welfare programmes? How do we improve the quality of service delivery in public institutions? How do we ensure quality in construction of infrastructure assets? These questions are central to public policymaking in India. A possible answer might lie in third-party assessments.
Implementation failure has been a frustratingly persistent feature of even the better conceived government programmes. Traditional bureaucratic supervisory mechanisms, responsible for implementing the myriad development schemes, suffer from numerous deficiencies.
Apart from a badly misaligned incentive structure, dysfunctional chain of command and poorly motivated individuals, the existing supervisory architecture is overburdened across many dimensions. Field supervisors invariably have to deal with too many locations, spread over too large an area, and with a gamut of activities—all this without adequate training, logistics or resources.
In the circumstances, third-party assessment contracts with professionally competent and independent agencies have the potential to significantly improve the quality of public service delivery and programme implementation. Since the current supervisory mechanism constitutes the very people whose services are monitored, the theoretical case in favour of external assessment is unexceptionable. Such independent monitoring is all the more necessary, given the unmistakable shift in focus from a merely quantitative to a more qualitative assessment of the government’s functions.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in improving the quality of construction works in recent years has come from the introduction of mandatory third-party quality control (TPQC) checks. Typically, government departments call open competitive tenders and entrust engineering works—roads and drains, water and sewerage, buildings and so on—for execution through contractors. Regular department officials then supervise the quality of execution.
However, this arrangement poses an inevitable conflict of interest, wherein the supervisory engineers often collude with the contractors to dilute the quality of works. In this context, third-party audits— consisting of random and surprise inspections of works at each stage—by competitively selected external agencies emerged as a preferred strategy to elicit an independent qualitative feedback. In fact, its success has meant that TPQC is now a mandatory requirement in all the major projects implemented by Union and state governments.
Going beyond engineering works, it is natural to seek an independent and periodic feedback about the functioning of public institutions such as schools, hospitals and various government offices, apart from the quality of service delivery in welfare programmes. The feedback can range from the specific—which teacher, doctor or official is taking bribes, or is irregular or ineffectual at work—to the general—sources of leakages or bottlenecks or delays in service delivery, and so on.
In fact, instead of third-party assessments duplicating the existing regular supervisory mechanism, a mandate involving randomly sampled inspections may be adequate. The certainty of follow-up action, punitive or remedial, will be a powerful enough deterrent to ensure its effectiveness.
The critical ingredient for success in this market is credibility of the external agency—third-party assessment agencies are in the business of selling integrity. In a complex socio-political environment in which the avenues for incentive distortions are numerous and mostly unanticipated, managing such a business can be a Herculean task.
Most often, a successful engineering TPQC agency, which starts off as a small group of committed people with exceptional integrity, loses way as it expands to take in more work. In a rapidly emerging market where success immediately begets more success, with a resultant proliferation of business opportunities, firms often bite off more than they can chew. In the process, they end up diluting performance standards, and ultimately lose credibility. With time, many of them end up being indistinguishable from the government supervisory mechanism.
Rigorous internal quality controls are, therefore, fundamental to success in this business. Once lost, credibility is very difficult to recover. The general lack of qualified professionals, coupled with the need to attract people with integrity and keep them honest, would require the development of a robust business model.
Clarity in the definition of scope of work and objectives is critical to ensuring that third-party assessments do not become an excuse for further erosion of already weak systems. It should complement, not replace, the role of the regular supervisory framework. Primarily, the outputs of the third-party agency should be a feedback for only the highest level of administration, preferably only the head of a department.
Critics will surely allege that this provides a back door entry for private agencies into basic governance functions, the hallowed turf of governments. But, far from dismantling the regular government bureaucracy, external assessment would contribute to keeping them honest. Further, it needs to be borne in mind that the success and widespread adoption of TPQC with engineering works have not generated voices calling for scaling back regular engineering quality supervision.
Though there are likely to be several formidable systemic problems, it cannot be denied that third-party assessment equips officials with a powerful force multiplier that dramatically increases their span of control and, thereby, supervisory effectiveness.
For all those development venture capitalists in search of an idea to fund, partnership with the government in the creation of a competitive market for independent service quality assessments would contribute, at least partially, to addressing the implementation woes of the Indian bureaucracy.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are the author’s personal views.
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