Corruption, Politics and Public Service Reform in the Digital Age

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// week, we invited Jennifer Bussell from UC Berkeley to present her fascinating study on corruption, politics and public service reforms in the digital age. The study is based in India and draws on a wealth of qualitative and quantitative data collected in 2009 from 20 subnational states, investigating how pre-existing institutional conditions influence e-Governance reforms.
Public service reforms in the digital age constitute a new era of relations between the citizen and the state. However, scholars have argued that much of the discourse on e-Government has been normative, with fairly optimistic predictions, and wanting deeper moorings in public management theory (Coursey & Norris, 2008; Heeks & Bailur, 2007; Yildiz, 2007).

It is in this context that Bussell offers welcome perspective as to why some public service reforms (in the form of citizen service centers) succeed more than others and how pre-existing conditions of corruption affect digital reforms.
The study reveals that, contrary to belief, it is not the most economically developed states that are providing better citizen services but those where political parties in power expect such reforms to affect ‘economic resources essential to current and future electoral status’. Bussell argues that ‘costs to political elites of digitizing public service delivery…arise primarily from threats to corrupt income derived from manipulation of state institutions.’ Level of corruption, specifically, pre-existing conditions of petty and grand corruption influence the scope, scale, timing of reforms and the number of public services that are offered digitally. 
I took away three lessons and implications for our work, as we think about public management and service delivery reforms in the digital age:

First, complex political and sequencing issues in public management reforms apply to reforms for digitization of public services. More so in light of the uneven pace of e-government reforms and optimistic projections that have not been universally realized. Implementation of e-Governance at the state level in India, for example, provides a rich source of data on cross-national variation demonstrating the uneven trajectory of reform. In this context, a number of studies (Stanforth, 2010; Heeks, 2008; OECD, 2007) investigate e-government project failures and successes. Heeks asks whether practitioners take into account design-reality gaps within the country context. There are a number of readiness related questions worth asking before rushing into implementation. Is there a push to computerize without adequately defining the problem to be addressed? Are design elements considered in developing a solution that meets the needs of citizens and stakeholders within a larger socio-political context? Are assessments of e-Governance readiness made for reform? Are management/data/records in place; laws, permits; institutional arrangements; staffing; strategy and leadership; political will and level of corruption assessed? Or do assessments emphasize technology and infrastructure gaps with limited diagnostics of public administration, governance and adaptive constraints? 

Second, for a pro-poor and inclusive development focus, the number and types of services that may be offered through e-Governance reforms could be considered more consciously. It would be helpful to determine whether digital services are being financed as a public good or as a strategic policy good that target citizen groups in specific ways that shape policy outcomes. One of the examples in the book shows a middle and upper class bias in one of the states, with 50% of services targeted to middle and upper class and 42% to all citizens (for example, property, income tax payments, building approvals, profession tax payments). Birth and death certificates are offered to all citizens and hawkers certificates are targeted to lower income groups. It would be worth reflecting on how many of the e-government services being offered or reformed explicitly improve the lives of the poor and marginalized. 

Third, weightier emphasis could be laid on assessing the impact of e-Governance projects to understand what works, what doesn’t and, why. For instance, a 2008 Department of Information Technology assessment in India found that citizens perceived greater value from Income Tax and Company Registration (MCA21) reforms than the reforms of online services for passports. For passports, the reforms were only partially e-enabled (resulting in multiple manual touch-points, repeat visits to government offices) and significant numbers of citizens used intermediaries (as I too found anecdotally in a walkthrough for drivers’ license using e-Governance processes in Kerala), increasing the scope for petty corruption. In this respect, citizen feedback and active participation in the design and effectiveness of services can help improve the quality and targeting of service delivery reforms. 

We invited colleagues working on ICT, Social Development and Governance to comment and here’s what they had to say:

  • Roland Lomme, Governance Advisor:  “Corruption is one of many evils that citizens suffer from when applying for services. Others are legal uncertainty (many are undocumented),-administrative complexity (which hinders citizen’s capacity to navigate arcane procedures), affordability (of applying for services), abuse of power, dereliction of duty and unpredictable procedural delays. States are addressing these issues by enacting the Right to Public Services Act- a simple legislation that guarantees access in a limited timeframe. To realize the potential of digital governance in these states, the whole process end-to-end must be captured. Before applying for a service, citizens need to gather up to 4 different certificates which may take months and a few thousand rupees. Decision processes, back-office work and file-flows remain extremely complex – it takes up to 3 different signatories and the rate of rejection can reach 60% - for a birth certificate. You can imagine what would happen for a water connection or a more complex application for service. If one wants digital governance to make a difference and to mitigate different risks incurred for citizens– one needs to work on total transaction and opportunity costs for applicants and back-office reengineering. Corruption is often a symptom, not so much of greed to finance electoral campaigns, but a deeper issue that affects interaction between citizens and public officials – which is the social divide between the "rulers" and the "ruled". When working on corruption mitigating strategies, one should be aware of such structural constraints and aiming at where it hurts the most and how to best address institutional failures.” 
  • Samia Melhem, Lead ICT Policy Specialist: “Improving the lives of citizens is central, which means solving complexity of procedures - the problem of trying to map something as simple of birth certificates. There are countries that are committed to e-governance. They want to use technology to push reforms through for public administration and civil service change. Politicians want things to change in a few years. However, changing processes and developing services from scratch takes years and years. 20 years ago we did different things. With technology today, we have available off-the-shelf applications. It is easy to do a birth certificate online using reusable applications, rather than building a standard process from scratch. The key is to simplify, don’t reinvent the wheel and just make the change. Another perspective is whether technology is enough for citizen adoption of services. You can have the best service which no one uses, lacking a mandate or directive from government that trickles down from highest to lowest.  Introduce existing solutions that fit with client and create quick wins for adoption to be 100%.”
  • Shomikho Raha, Social Development Specialist: “It’s important not to delink social development variables. If we are, through this model, making a judgment on digital governance and the impact of technology enabled services, there are further serious questions. Can citizens do anything with online information, go to a citizen service center and engage? Even if you have a center, can you get the most marginalized to come to the service center to receive services?  Do we, in building digital governance initiatives and in evaluating them, spend as much effort in whether they adequately address the fears, incentives or the non-digital mobilization needs to even get people to engage with the initiative?”

Following the discussion, I also caught up with Grace Porter Morgan, Sr. Governance Specialist, working with the North-Eastern states in India, who offered the following comments:
“E-governance activities will continue in our client countries, regardless of the political economy challenges.  ICT is part of the urban landscape in most countries, especially via mobile.  Every day people, as well as government officials, understand its power and potential.  In addition, many of our country clients are eager for modernization, despite the implications of new, often automated, practices.  That said, I view e-Governance as a reform area which reflects the societal transition being made in the country -- usually from informal, face-to-face, normative practices to structured, transparent, and standard practices.  I believe that individual attitudes rest at the heart of both of these practices.  These attitudes surface in the approaches of service providers, beneficiaries, intermediaries - and of course policy makers.  In India, attitudes are changing rapidly but, often, we see a mix of the old and the new, creating a highly complex landscape.  Our challenge will be to navigate through this complexity, and to ensure our reform efforts utilize supply and demand side approaches to benefit those in greatest need.  I do not expect it to be easy.”
Clearly, a stimulating discussion spurred by the book, which is without doubt, a relevant read for those interested in the interdisciplinary field of technology, politics, public management and governance.
I would be interested to hear your views and perspectives from the field.Tell us what you think.
This post is part of a monthly series on Digital Gov. in developing countries. The series seeks fresh perspectives and insights into the policy, institutional and technical dimensions of technology and public management, in understanding how public services are modernized, organized and delivered to citizens and, in supporting openness and public accountability.  The fifth post of the series reflects on corruption, politics and public services reform in the digital age.


This post was republished on June 2, 2014 to incorporate minor edits.

Image source: Jennifer Bussell, accessed from


Tina George Karippacheril

Sr. Social Protection Specialist

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