E-bureaucracy: Can digital technologies spur public administration reform?

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Editor's note: This blog post is part of a series for the 'Bureaucracy Lab', a World Bank initiative to better understand the world's public officials.

Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank

“By introducing an automated customer management system we took a noose and put it around our own necks. We are now accountable!”

This reflection from a manager in the Nairobi Public Water and Sewerage utility succinctly captures the impact of MajiVoice, a digital system that logs customer complaints, enables managers to assign the issue to a specific worker, track its resolution, and report back to the customer via an SMS. As a result, complaint resolution rates have doubled, and the time taken to resolve complaints has dropped by 90 percent.

MajiVoice shows that digital technologies can dramatically improve public sector capacity and accountability in otherwise weak governance environments. But is this example replicable? Can the increasingly cheap and ubiquitous digital technologies—there are now 4.7 billion mobile phone users in the world—move the needle on governance and make bureaucrats more accountable?

There is clearly no shortage of hype about the transformative and disruptive powers of new technology. And the application of technology in government, as many World Bank task team leaders of complex IT management information systems projects have painfully learned, is fraught with difficulties and disappointments. But the good news is that with some of the right “analog complements,” digital technologies can indeed significantly improve governance relatively quickly.

Here is what we know:

First, digital technologies can help reduce service provider absenteeism through improved monitoring .

We have seen some cases where teachers, doctors, and nurses are often absent from schools and clinics in poor countries partly because monitoring their attendance is difficult, particularly in rural areas. Also, supervisors themselves can be absent from their jobs or collude with the people they are meant to monitor. Mobile phones can alleviate both of these problems with traditional monitoring because they provide a relatively tamper-proof record of attendance and enable information from remote corners to be quickly aggregated and visualized. Impact evaluations from India, Pakistan, and Uganda show that mobile-phone based monitoring works, reducing absenteeism rates of government service providers by as much as 25 percentage points.

Second, e-government, by automating tasks and reducing the discretion of public officials, can increase state fiscal capacity, reduce leakages in spending, and improve transparency. The introduction of biometric registration, verification, and payments systems in India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the world’s largest workfare program, reduced diversion of funds by 35 percent. Electronic tendering of contracts increased procurement competitiveness and the quality of roads in Indian and Indonesia. And the electronic filing and payment of taxes reduced tax compliance costs, as measured by the time to prepare and pay taxes, by an average of 16 percent in a large sample of countries. 

Third, automation of processes works particularly well when combined with digital user feedback mechanisms, such as in MajiVoice. One-stop computerized service centers are active in a number of countries—Albania, Azerbaijan, Brazil, India, Kenya, to name but a few. These integrated service centers enable businesses and citizens to receive a variety of administrative services (e.g. licensing and registration) in one location. The centers rely heavily on information technology: to process applications, to track progress, and use customer satisfaction to rate the performance of service providers.

The centers in rural Karnataka, a state in India, enable citizens to receive a variety of critical documents like birth and death certificates. On average there are 3.4 fewer visits, 58 fewer minutes spent per visit, and 50 percent less chance of being asked for a bribe in the centers as compared with the typical government office.

However, in all of these examples, digital technologies require at least a modicum of the analog complements—committed managers, political support—to have impact. Digital monitoring of absenteeism only worked if there were some rewards and sanctions tied to attendance and non-attendance. In Uganda, monitoring needed to be combined with performance pay for teachers, and in India and Pakistan, the impact of monitoring was at times watered down by politicians who refused to sanction absent providers.

Without strong political ownership, automation projects can fail as bureaucrats and vested interests resist the reforms. User feedback works only if citizens have an incentive to use the channel, and only if the feedback provided is actionable for the service provider. For example, citizens are more likely to be concerned with a private good such as the household water supply than public goods like roads and municipal services.  

However, the evidence does show that digital technologies can empower committed pro-poor politicians and bureaucrats, who can be found in even the most challenging governance contexts, by giving them a tool to experiment and take on erstwhile seemingly insurmountable problems. E-bureaucracy can, therefore, be an entry point for reforming bureaucracy.

How can digital technology help public officials become more accountable? Read here 

Can digital technologies spur public administration reform? Read here 


Zahid Hasnain

Lead Governance Specialist

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