Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Can mobile phones improve governance?

As mobile phone penetration increases across India, governments can directly reach out to beneficiaries to generate quick, independent feedback about program delivery

Mumbai: Whether it is subsidized food reaching the poor or healthcare reaching a remote village, last-mile public service delivery is an enduring challenge in India. One simple, cost-effective tool to improve the delivery of public services could be mobile phones. As mobile phone penetration increases across India, governments can directly reach out to beneficiaries to generate quick, independent feedback about program delivery.

In a new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, Karthik Muralidharan of the University of California, San Diego and others, illustrates how this type of mobile phone-based monitoring could be used to deliver public programs better.

Working with the government of Telangana, the authors tested how mobile phone-based monitoring changes the delivery of the Rythu Bandhu scheme, a flagship agricultural scheme transferring 4,000 per acre to land-owning farmers for each agricultural season. In the scheme, payments were delivered by Mandal Agricultural Officers through checks handed over to farmers.

To assess scheme performance of Rythu Bandhu, the authors established an outbound call-centre and called more than 20,000 farmers across the state to garner feedback about the scheme’s performance.

And to test the effectiveness of this form of monitoring, only 25% of randomly selected Mandal Agricultural Officers were informed that this monitoring was happening and that they, along with their managers, would receive individualized reports about their performance.

The authors find that informing Mandal Agricultural Officers about phone-based monitoring led to a 1.5% increase in the number of farmers receiving the scheme’s benefits, with the effect more pronounced for poorer farmers. Phone-based monitoring was also highly cost-effective: costing only 36 for every additional 1,000 delivered.

Karthik Muralidharan and others argue that this simple call-and-ask approach can be similarly extended to improve delivery of other flagship public programs. They also suggest that combining phone-based monitoring with rewards or sanctions to motivate officials could further improve program delivery.

Also Read: Improving last-mile service delivery using phone-based monitoring (bit.ly/2L4dsjF)

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