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Information Alone is Not Enough: It’s All About Who Uses It, and Why

Leni Wild's picture

It is 10 years since the World Bank launched its landmark World Development Report (WDR), Making Services Work For Poor People. A decade later, what have we learnt about the science and politics of service delivery – and what are the emerging issues that will shape future priorities? The recent anniversary Conference in Washington D.C., co-hosted by ODI and the World Bank, with support from the UK Department for International Development, discussed new developments, data and trends in public service delivery since 2004 across a range of service delivery sectors.

In the conference report, ODI experts share their reflections on the conference and on future directions in five key areas for service delivery: information and incentives, behavioral economics and social norms, financing service delivery, fragile states and the politics of delivery. This article by Leni Wild talks about information and incentives.

There is still a gap to be filled between having more information and figuring out whether and how services improve. However, February’s joint ODI and World Bank Conference marking ten years since the World Development Report (WDR) on Making Services Work for Poor People flagged up where progress has been made, and what we are learning about the role information can – and cannot – play here.

Information was at the heart of the WDR 2004, which emphasised its role in ensuring better performance from service providers and greater accountability between politicians and voters, whether via citizen report cards, public-expenditure tracking surveys, data on the presence or absence of service providers, and so on. What is striking is just how much work and research has been done over the past ten years on this theme, reflected in very rich discussions at the conference.

Three points really stood out for me. First, the debate has clearly moved on from grand statements about the ‘power of information’, to thoughtful reflections on when, why and how it actually supports change. It was equally inspiring to hear stories of failure as well as success – including Rakesh Rajani, who shared Twaweza’s hard-won experience that the value of information depends on whether anyone uses it (and the acknowledgement that sometimes they don’t), to Justin Sandefur, who reflected openly on the difficulty of motivating decision-makers to act on evidence, including findings from randomized control trials. What emerged was growing humility in acknowledging what types of information are meaningful for different audiences, rather than assuming that everyone - from citizens to political leaders - will automatically become motivated and engaged if only they are given the ‘right’ information.

Second, I heard much more detailed discussions on what types of information can be used and by whom. We all know this matters – but it was good to hear just how much it matters and to hear some tangible ideas. Jakob Svensson cited his work in Uganda, revealing that information on performance may be even more powerful than results for citizens, while Tanzanian MP Zitto Kabwe reflected on his own embarrassment at getting a low score in a recent NGO scorecard campaign, spurring him to take action; and Gayle Martin offered rich insights into experience with the Service Delivery Indicators – a response to the need for different types of information for different aspects of delivery and different sectors (the information you need on curative health care, for example, is bound to differ to that for primary education). This is something we have explored at ODI, working with University of Birmingham colleagues to look at different information gaps and incentives across different sectors.

Third, there was a stronger focus on the potential role of information in generating an understanding of how different actors and organisations relate to one another – and on identifying how and where information can make a difference in these relationships. This reflected a major theme that emerged during the conference: the need to appreciate the interconnections between a whole range of different stakeholders and the overall incentives within a system, rather than focus narrowly on particular groups or inputs. The discussion on Service Delivery Indicators revealed that while we tend to focus on getting better information flows between citizens and frontline service providers, less attention has been paid to the need to improve information flows between middle managers/supervisors and frontline providers. If these flows can be improved, we could see better results. Watch this space for some forthcoming ODI research into CARE’s experience with community scorecards in four countries (Ethiopia, Malawi, Rwanda and Tanzania) where we are finding something similar – which supports the need to look much more at those ‘middle managers’ within systems who may be able to lead improvements.

What does this mean for the future? I think there are two major areas that need more action:

First, while WDR 2004’s diagram of a ‘core trio’ of relationships linking service users, service providers and policy-makers is helpful, we all know it presents a simplistic picture. Instead, we need to face the reality that what we are dealing with are systems and networks, through which a much wider set of stakeholders are connected. The nature of these connections matters, in terms of power balances, incentives and norms. With this in mind, we need to stop thinking of ‘information’ itself in a fairly narrow sense, in terms of information to get somebody to do something for someone else, (whether a politician, service provider or citizen).

Instead, we need more understanding of the role of information in building collective action, collaboration and networked approaches. Indeed, in the final session of the Conference, ODI’s Marta Foresti reminded us about the importance of organisations – these were left out of the original WDR 2004 framing but we know they are crucial to bring together individuals and create shared, collective interests. Improving our understanding of how systems, networks and the individuals and organisations within them operate seems to be the new frontier for those concerned with the power and role of information in supporting change processes.

This brings me to my second point, and an area that seems to be a missing piece to this puzzle – that is, how to match it up with growing calls to be more iterative and adaptive a la contributions from Tim Harford and Matt Andrews. Indeed, Matt’s work at Harvard on public-sector reform suggests that, rather than looking for exhaustive evidence up front, perhaps we should take stock of the best we have, and then work iteratively, to try things out.

To me, the real challenge here is to imagine what such a process looks like in practice: I believe it has to involve identifying what incentives funders, implementers and reformers have to act on the information they do receive, or what incentives they have to support change processes even when information and evidence is lacking, and identifying strategies for shifting those incentives, even incrementally, when necessary. How can we do more to unlock the potential of information – not to mention social norms and behavioural change – to address this? Again, watch this space for future ODI examples and insights on this theme.

Photograph courtesy of Arne Hoel via The World Bank Photo Collection, available here.
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Submitted by Meera Mehta on

One thing we have found to be useful is to first have a good, credible, regular system of information on service delivery. This takes considerable (years of) efforts, patience and some incentives to make it happen. However, once you have this system and stakeholders believe in its credibility, it is gradually used. The information system will need to be simple and online as far as possible to make it really useful. Such a system also helps create a culture where regular and useful information is available when needed.

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