Efficient Public Service Delivery: LSPR in Conversation with Yamini Aiyar

Vrishank Singhania and Prannv Dhawan speak with Yamini Aiyar in an exclusive interview for LSPR

Yamini Aiyar is the President and Chief Executive of the Centre for Policy Research. She is a TED Fellow and a founding member of the International Experts Panel of the Open Government Partnership. She has been a member of the World Economic Forum’s global council on good governance and has also worked with the World Bank and Ford Foundation. Her research interests are in the field of social policy and development.

In this exclusive interview, LSPR asked her a wide range of questions on public service delivery in India


LSPR: You mentioned in your talk that you believe that there would be a paradigm shift in how the Indian electorate would vote in the future. How and why do you think this shift would occur?

Yamini Aiyar: I think that economic well-being matters and people are taking to the streets over it. The agrarian revolts by the farmers is a good example of this. There is a hunger for wanting a better-life and a realization that what the Government has offered is not enough. This is something that has always been a part and parcel of the electoral story. The term “anti-incumbency” was after all coined because the electorate was impatient with the Government. Take the example of education: Two decades ago the big challenge was enrolment- Getting children to schools and getting schools to children. While this problem still exists in pockets, a transformation has occurred. Today more and more parents are putting their children into schools. Importantly, enrollment in prviate schools has seen a steady increase and data shows that school fees is a significant component of household expenditure. This shows that there is a desire for mobility and the electorate views education as a means for mobility.

A combination of economic growth, technological advancement and the aspiration for mobility has resulted in people expecting far more from the Government. Even politicians have begun to recognize this. For example, look at the big schemes such as Ayushman Bharat that the Government is going to fight this election on. Another example is Aam Aadmi Party’s experiments with education. Regardless of the merits of these reforms, the important thing is that they have now entered the mainstream political debate. I am beginning to see both an impatient voter and a political response of, some sort,  and I think the political movement is beginning to evolve.


LSPR: The NITI Aayog was meant to solve some of the structural problems that mired the Planning Commission. Looking back at the four years of NITI Aayog do you think it has been successful in that regard?

Yamini Aiyar : The dissolution of Planning Commission was welcome at one level because while it played an important role in creating an overly centralised governance architecture in India. Moreover, in the post-liberalisation context, the role that an institution like the Planning Commission would occupy had to be re-assessed and changed. But what is unclear is the degree to which the new institutional structure has addressed the lacuna of the old.

As is quite frequent with this Government, it makes grand announcements but it doesn’t have the patience to think through and articulate its vision. It just set up this body without any clarity on what was going to happen to the gap in the funding i.e. the fiscal role that the Planning Commission played; the role of creating an institutional space for Centre-State dynamics to play out and building long term national policy on some core development issues. None of these have been effectively resolved. In a sense, what we got what was an old wine in a new bottle. The basic structure of organisation is also the same – you have a chairperson, some members and some state participation. Though state participation has been perfunctory at best. The attempt at creating vision documents is essentially the same as plan documents but without the robustness that a plan document had.

One of the problems with the Planning Commission was that you had multiple verticals and a Planning Commission. So you had line departments at the State and the Centre and the Planning Commission was sitting in between, with state planning never really being integrated. A lot of structural issues had to be resolved. But none of those were resolved with the NITI Aayog. So you changed the name but the structural institutional problems still remained unaddressed. NITI Aayog was meant to be a Government’s think tank, but it has not managed to create a new way of internal research for the Government. – which would have been an interesting and exciting thing to do. It has tried to do some long term thinking on the role of technology but has not effectively built mechanisms of integration of ideas back into the system. It has tried to do these rankings which has become the new norm of governance. You ranks states and make them compete with each other on different metrics but never considers whether the underlying conditions for effective and fair competition actually exists in the first place. You also get a hotchpotch because there isn’t coordination with other Departments. For example the MHRD is doing its own learning outcomes ranking and NITI Aayog wants to do its own quality of learning index. Its aspirational plans don’t really answer how all the parts make up the whole. Four years later citizens are still wondering how the NITI Aayog is any different from the erstwhile Planning Commission.


LSPR: Decentralisation and the importance of local bodies in governance is often spoken about. However, in reality these local bodies serve more like administrative vessels which merely implement policy and are not seen as independent functioning units. How do you think we need to transform the role of these local bodies in India?

Yamini Aiyar: I think no one would disagree that the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments have been a lost opportunity. Local Governments are politically hotly contested but as institutions of self-governance have not been empowered or made capable of functioning effectively. What worries me a lot is that in all this narrative of competitive and co-operative federalism which has very much been a part of the rhetoric of the Government in Delhi, there has hardly been any mention about local bodies except perfunctorily in the context of flagship schemes like AMRUT or Swachh Bharat.

Swachh Bharat is a very good example of the role local bodies need to play in governance. Behavioural change which is critical to sanitation policy cannot happen without the involvement and participation of Local Governments. Panchayats are merely conduits to move money. They are seen as arms of the administration rather than as independent institutions of governance. This however, is not only a Central Government problem. State Governments have also done everything in their power to undermine local governments. For example, we tracked the finances of local bodies in Karnataka, which is supposed to be a pioneer of local governance and we found that the State Government has subverted these institutions quite regularly. We really need a new discourse on the role of local governance and failure to do so is a failure of state capacity.


LSPR: The role of frontline workers is very important when it comes to delivery of public services. However, States have increasingly resorted to ad-hocisation of these workers for example “guest teachers” or ASHA workers in healthcare. How do you view this issue of ‘ad-hocisation’?

Yamini Aiyar: Firstly, I think we need to acknowledge that the Indian State is remarkably thin. There is always this discourse that the Indian State is bloated and overstaffed. It is bloated in unnecessary places and remarkably thin in the places that it needs to be thick. At the frontlines,  vacancies are huge and sanctioned posts are few. To begin with, we don’t even know how bad the problem really is. There is no central repository which can provide us data on the number of workers and the shortages in a particular block or district. Governments have failed to recognize this systemic problem and thus failed to solve it.

But the real challenge  lies in how do you ‘thicken’ the frontline and at the same time do so in a manner that enhances efficiency and accountability for performance. For example, in education, even the research we have carried out has shown that teacher accountability is a serious problem and obvious solutions like paying teachers more is no guarantee that teachers are actually going to show up and teach well. Thus, it is difficult to make a case for hiring more teachers wihtout addressing the challenge of accountability. The debat on strengthening India’s frontline , has to be part of the larger story of strengthening the accountability mechanisms, the embeddedness of effective outcome focused Government structures and the empowerment of local Government officers who can get the best of their employees. We need a new framework for thinking about professionalization and professional strengthening of the frontline cadres.


LSPR:  There have been certain concerns with terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission, particularly with the fact that the 2011 Census would be used as a metric. What do you think of this?

Yamini Aiyar: On first principles, it should not even be the population according to the 2011 Census but the population at present. Having said that, the bigger problem with the Finance Commission is not the population base. That is a political debate – an issue that can be resolved through appropriate weightage for different criteria. The bigger problem is the increasing centralisation. If you look at the language – “New India 2022” for example, there is a centralising tendency in the terms of reference. This in a way is trying to undermine the fiscal devolution that we saw under the 14th Finance Commission, which empowered States. This also takes away from what this Government itself sought to do around co-operative federalism.

This problem in my opinion can be linked the issue of the Planning Commission. While this is a hypothesis, I wonder whether the directive and centralising nature of the terms of reference of the Finance Commission is the consequence of an absence of an institutional space such as the Planning Commission for linking Centrally Sponsored Schemes to the activities of States. All this being said, I think we have to leave it to the judgement of the Finance Commission. Finance Commissions at the Central level have historically been very sound institutions that have taken decisions on the basis of evidence and first principles. We can argue and quibble over whether the decision was right or not, but broadly the recommendations of the Finance Commission are accepted by the Government. I have faith in that Finance Commission and hope that it will respect its role and base its decision on evidence and not politics.


LSPR: Which do you think is better for public service delivery – the public investment model that we saw under the UPA or the insurance model (such as the Ayushman Bharat) that we see under the Modi Government?

Yamini Aiyar: Before we come to these, I think one of the biggest challenges with public service delivery in India is the fiscal challenge. The fact is that the fiscal challenge is only going to be resolved when we expand the tax to GDP ratio. This has to be given a lot more emphasis than it is given currently. It is not a challenge of tax administration only. For example, efficiency gains can lead to an increase in tax collections. The larger challenge is to strengthen the tax base especially when the tax payer views payment of taxes as the “price of civilization” or “tribute to Leviathan”. Ours is a political economy where by and large trust in the State is low, and for all the right reasons given the appalling condition of our public services and where a large proportion of the direct income tax payer has privatized their services. In such a political economy, the willingness to pay higher taxes is very low. A person would not want to pay higher taxes to a Government he or she receives almost nothing from. That is the political economy conundrum we have to find a solution to.

The second challenge really lies in our vision of what it is going to take to strengthen State capacity. Across political parties, especially the UPA II began to articulate this position – the view that the challenge of the Indian State can best be solved by bypassing the State as much as possible. Therefore, Public Private Partnerships, Insurance schemes etc. were emphasised upon. The State came to be viewed as a regulator and not a provider. In my opinion, there is no getting around the State. Even if you want a State that only regulates but does not provide, you need to create a very sophisticated State to regulate effectively. For e.g. take Ayushman Bharat. One of the biggest challenges of any insurance scheme is pricing, which involves a plethora of factors. The US for Medicaid has around 5000 data analytical operators who are sitting in a little office outside Baltimore doing analysis on claims data that has been received all across the State. They are constantly using big data as a means by which they can determine the price.

India lacks the State capacity to run a scheme like Ayushman Bharat. We have very few administrators who can effectively run the scheme in an informed manner. A study carried out by Ila Patnaik and Ajay Shah showed that ombudsmen positions in health insurance are empty across the nation and there are over 9000 pending cases. With these sort of constraints how are we going to run a scheme the size of Ayushman Bharat?  We have totally missed the boat by assuming that the solution is to bypass the State. We first need to recognize what the problem is and then build capacity from the ground up.


LSPR: What do you think of the recent agrarian revolts that we saw in 2018 and how do you view farm loan waivers as a policy to help farmers?

Yamini Aiyar: The agrarian crisis has been unfolding over decades. There is a realization that the assumption we made post-1991 that the best way to solve the agricultural crisis is to get people out of agriculture may not have been correct. While that may make sound economic sense – you cannot get people out of agriculture without raising agricultural productivity first. The speed at which the farm to non-farm transfer has taken place has been much slower than anticipated. In the process, we have completely ignored critical aspects of agricultural productivity and policy.

In some senses, every single policy option is out there. We all know we need to restructure markets, change the subsidy regime, incentivise differently, we need to deal with the entire problem of land ownership and the size of land holdings. We know all of this. Yet our ability to implement reforms has been constrained for decades now. Perhaps it is time to say we need a new frame. But this clashes with the immediate moment of the crisis which is sticking to the old tools we’ve used such as MSPs and loan waivers. All of these are quick fixes but they don’t change the long term agenda. The solutions are on the table and we just need to design the policies to resolve the issue.


LSPR: How should India better leverage big data to improve public services?

Yamini Aiyar: There is a lot of data that is being collected because of the MIS System and the increase in digitization. Someone did an informal count of the number of MIS Systems. If you take DBT for example, there are around 400 schemes that are linked the DBT so that must mean there are 400 MIS Systems. But all of these systems operate in silos and there is no interoperability. We’ve now expanded to Geo-Tagging, GPRS Linking – there’s all sorts of things that’s going on. But we have not answered two core questions on data that is being collected on public services. One is what is the most relevant data from a citizen’s perspective and second what is the most relevant data from an internal administrator’s perspective. We are just collecting data but haven’t answered these questions. As a result we have a data overload and very few data users within or outside the Government.

The second issue with data is one of the important concerns that I have particularly with the particular Government. A good data ecosystem is one in which good administrative data is collected regularly but there is also engagement with a wider source of critical academic research that uses data to independently evaluate schemes. This allows citizens to cross tabulate data to get a real picture of what’s happening. Administrative data by definition is collected in real-time, is uploaded in real-time, and even in the best of systems it will have all kinds of problems. However, in the worst of systems such as ours it could be used to obfuscate rather than tell you the true story. For this reason, independent third party evaluation becomes critical.

Compare Swachh Bharat and NREGA – on one level there are some similar features in the sense that these were politically important, had electoral significance and there was lots of pressure from the Centre on District Administrators to implement them well. NREGA had this proliferation of civil society actors, NGOs and PhDs who conducted independent research. In fact, the Ministry of Rural Affairs created this large bibliography of independent research that was being done on NREGA, many of which questioned the assumptions that were made in administrative data. The Government did not try and stop this independent research. But the current political configuration is quite thin skinned about data and anything that is even remotely critical or asking important questions and this creates an environment of carefulness, As a result, you’re not seeing as many third party studies or civil society engagement on Swachh Bharat. A robust data ecosystem must be one that relies on administrative data but also one which has cross checks by independent third party studies and evaluations.

Finally, no matter how much administrative data or even outcome data that we collect, we never think of what happens afterwards. There is no mechanism through which an administrator is empowered to use data to improve the implementation of programmes at the ground level. As a result it becomes data collected for data’s sake without the ability to actually leverage it for improvement in delivery of public services.