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Policy Implementation: A Research Agenda

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture
The components of a bureaucracy are defined not by individuals but by positions that make up the structure
A common notion in public policy is that policy-making and implementation are divorced from each other, in the sense that politics surrounds decision-making activities (to be carried out by the elected political leadership) while implementation is an administrative activity (to be handled by bureaucracies). However, researchers have found that such distinctions are not helpful in understanding policy implementation in developing countries.
An ideal bureaucracy is an efficient implementation machine. Bureaucracies comprising appointed officials are supposed to possess technical knowledge and the skills for professional organisation. The components of a bureaucracy are defined not by individuals, but by the positions that make up the structure. Max Weber conceptualised bureaucracy as the supreme form of organisation, where bureaucrats are expected to be true to their position and follow hierarchy and the rules that govern the organisation. Researchers such as Willy McCourt (University of Manchester) have also shown that a meritocratic and rewarding work environment and operational autonomy from the political leadership can help public bureaucracies deliver better than even the private sector.

The political leadership, on the other hand, are surrounded by multiple interests, each competing for their attention and/or patronage. This is not an unusual scenario for observers of political systems in a country such as ours. The typical political reaction in such cases, clearly enabled also by their discretionary powers, is one of selective patronage dispensation. Populist policies that are aimed at winning the masses are usually born here, and even when policies being advocated may not entirely be populist, their implementation is hurried through an ill-prepared bureaucratic frame—think of the direct benefits transfer scheme, or the food security bill.
The interaction between the bureaucracy and the political leadership remains an important topic of public administration research, as we try to understand how to truly “influence policy” as outsiders. There are a few key points I will make in this column that show the complexity involved. First, it is important to understand the concept of constituencies that the political leaders and bureaucrats are interested in. It is useful to think of working with the political leadership in one of the following two ways—expanding the scope of their constituency to include issues that we care about that affect a certain group of the population; or drawing their attention to issues that affect a narrow constituency that they already care deeply about. Ideally, with the bureaucracy, one should not have to think of constituencies in the same sense that one associates the term with political leaders. However, research from developing countries, in South Asia as well as in Africa, has shown that the phenomenon of patronage dispensation often extends to bureaucrats as well and they may sometimes even compete with their political masters when it comes to identifying and serving their constituencies.
Second, the relationship between the two, as revealed in recent years in states such as Bihar and Gujarat, is apparently one where the respective chief ministers have used the bureaucracy to fast-track implementation of policies. As a result, there is an impression gaining ground that this is the most effective style of public administration, where a determined political leader (usually an individual or a very small group) purposefully directs the bureaucracy under him or her, while at the same time, providing them cover from political interference from other leaders in the state. Naturally, this style of management may lead to undesirable outcomes if the bureaucratic machinery is staffed with hand-picked officers who are then directed to implement anti-poor policies. Either way, it stands to reason that this relationship is likely to be found in contexts where the primary responsibility is ensuring effective implementation.
Third, the power equation between the political leadership and the bureaucracies is not consistent across levels of government. What holds at the central government is probably not true at the state government level, which in turn is different from the scenario at the district level and below. At the lower levels of government, we find bureaucrats who are appointed by higher levels of government and, therefore, compete with the grassroots’ political class for influence in policy formulation. In yet other contexts, appointed bureaucrats in their zeal to implement programmes seek to exclude grassroots political leaders from the policy formulation and implementation processes. We notice this most clearly in the case of local governments in India, where the implementation of government schemes follows the writ of the dominant bureaucrat at the district or block level.
To conclude, the nature of relationship between the political leadership and the bureaucracy is an important factor in determining the effectiveness of government programmes. As stakeholders in the development sector, our role in facilitating effective policy implementation is a critical one. It is not enough to work only with the bureaucrats, although the bureaucratic structure is the scaffolding on which governments stand. At the same time, advocating for our desired policies only with political leaders that we can influence is no guarantee not only of effective implementation, but more fundamentally, even of the promulgation of a sound policy. As two central pillars of the government, these groups may not always work together in harmony. As outsiders, what could our role be in facilitating an environment where they are better-off cooperating to deliver? This remains a key challenge for all of us in the development sector and certainly, an unfinished research agenda.

This post first appeared on livemint
Photographs courtesy of Ray Witlin via the World Bank Photo Collection, available here

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