How performance-based rankings are shaking up the rigid world of government

It hurts when you are a laggard. It hurts even more when it is in public display, every month, every week, every embarrassing day.

Pratyaya Amrit, principal secretary of Bihar’s energy department, knows that feeling. In the power sector, like in many others, Bihar is a laggard. It has among the highest AT&C (aggregate technical and commercial) losses in power in the country. “We would be slightly better than Northeastern states,” he says.

The performance has been poor all along. But there is a small change now. “We can now see our status and performance on the national portal in real time, with the latest facts and figures. You can now see desh me aap kahan hai (where you stand in the country). No one wants to be seen as a laggard,” he says. The feeling is so strong that the Bihar government and its bureaucratic machinery are working hard to change it.

Bihar was rushing to complete rural electrification by December 31. It managed to finish it a few days earlier, on December 27, says Amrit, with a tinge of pride. This year, all households, rural and urban, have to be electrified by December-end under the Saubhagya Yojana. Amrit is confident that they will meet the target three months ahead of the schedule. “I see it positively. Competition is a very healthy thing,” he says.

Spurred by the positive impact of competition, the Bihar government is rolling out a slew of internal rankings. Last year, for the first time, the state ranked the education departments of all 38 districts on the basis of parameters like mid-day meal, student attendance and child marriage. It now ranks districts on the “seven resolves” Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has promised its citizens. “Every month he reviews the progress in various districts, with a dashboard streaming live data. It is transparent, healthy and infuses serious internal competition,” says Amrit.

Going a step further, the state now wants to rank and grade all banks based on their performance on loan disbursement. Business from the government, like deposits and transactions, will reportedly be influenced by these rankings.

On Your Marks
Bihar isn’t alone. Andhra Pradesh is ranking all its tehsils and rolling out its own happiness index to rank its districts. A competitive wave is shaking up the rigid world of government. An intense race is on at virtually every level the government wields control, from cities to panchayats, universities to discoms (power distribution companies). “With 29 states jostling for attention, it whips up the bureaucracy. Ranking is a great tool in public policy,” says Vinayak Chatterjee, chairman, Feedback Infra. Agrees Jun Zhang, head (India), International Finance Corporation: “The driving factor is the desire to outrank others. Some of these competitions have led to quality work (by government bodies).”The Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) at the Centre is ranking states on the Ease of Doing Business. Pushing the Swachh Bharat Mission, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs is ranking 500 cities to pick the cleanest and dirtiest cities. The Railways is ranking not just railway stations and premier trains but also the zones. The Ministry of Rural Development wants to rank all panchayats. “This idea of competitive federalism is a good thing. This name-shame-and-fame and putting things in public domain infuse a huge sense of competition. People can now see who is performing well, why and who isn’t,” says Amitabh Kant, CEO, NITI Aayog.

The Centre’s quest to identify the top 100 cities for its smart city projects has states vying for maximum entries. Department of Telecommunication (DoT) is going a step further — it wants a ranking system for telecom operators to improve service quality.

The laggards want to get better. And the toppers want to hold on to their positions. Says Sanjay Shukla, principal secretary (energy department), Madhya Pradesh: “There is constant pressure to be among the first three or five in all the rankings. And not to slip once you make it.” MP is among the top five states in the ease of doing business. Its city, Indore, is ranked the cleanest under the Swachh Survekshan 2017. “Once you do well there is constant monitoring right from the CM’s Office to ensure that the state continues to improve,” says Shukla.

The Madhya Pradesh government has been putting together five-year vision documents — for 2013, 2018 and now 2023. The documents are getting sharper, specific and outcome-oriented rather than vague in their tone and tenor. For example, by 2023, the state wants to have all the households in its town to have piped gas and water supply. “All this outside appreciation (good rankings) is helping us work harder and get better,” says Shukla.

States are getting consultants on board to improve their rankings. Telangana has engaged PricewaterhouseCoopers for the ease of doing business (EODB) ranking. “States want to improve. Nobody wants to be at the bottom. With transparent, live data, investors look at rankings. Politicians too now have to answer to informed electorates,” says Gaurav Taneja, partner (government and public sector), EY India. In 2016, of the top 10 EODB states, Taneja says EY supported six in the preparations.
Power of Nudge
Human beings are programmed to be competitive. Wanting to be No. 1 is a universal motivator, which is why ranking is often deployed to boost performance in classrooms and sports fields, companies and countries. Rankings inform the world who is the biggest, the richest, the happiest, the saddest, the most powerful or the most successful. In the 1990s, Stephen Nickell at the Centre for Economic Performance in the London School of Economics and Political Science, led a research to find out what boosts productivity. It found out that tougher and intense competition provided a large and persistent boost to a firm’s productivity. Adding an aura to competitive ranking is the voguish field of behavioural science where peer pressure, quirks of mind and nudges are used as powerful weapons to bring change. The works of Nobel prize winner (2002) and Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman have been revelatory in this field.
Relative status, competitive ranking, power of shame and fame are all tools being increasingly used to shape behaviour and improve performance. Recently, Alex Laskey, cofounder of Opower, a software company that serves utilities around the globe, ran an experiment on energy conservation using the power of behavioural science. First, he tried to convince people to lower their energy consumption to save money or help planet or become a better citizen. Nothing worked. Then he infused some neighbourly competition and ran a social experiment launching an open platform, letting people compare their energy consumption levels with their neighbours’. The strategy worked well, effecting behavioural shifts and reducing power bills.

Across the world, governments — often saddled with inefficient bureaucracies, with well-paid but poorly motivated staff — are trying to improve productivity. In the US, the Obama government had set up a social and behavioural sciences team, also known as the president’s nudge unit, in 2014 to improve public policy and its outcomes. In the UK, Behavioural Insights Team, a company spun out of the government in 2014, is pioneering the use of nudges in policymaking rather than taxes and laws to shape behaviour. Countries like Australia and Qatar and multilateral bodies like the World Bank and the UN are all joining the wave.

The Indian government too is embracing it. NITI Aayog is reportedly toying with the idea of tying up with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to set up a nudge unit to bring behavioural changes and improve policymaking. “This is not just about competition and ranking of states but also working in partnership to help them improve. Frequent workshops and sharing of best practices by top performers play a critical role,” says Kant.

Power of Technology
There are many reasons why competitive ranking is turning into a powerful tool. Technology is one. With outdated or missing data, government policymaking in the past was often blind, and performance assessment largely anecdotalbased. Technology is changing things. Amarjeet Sinha, secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, says all the programmes of his ministry such as the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) are on MIS (management information system) where payments are online and data is displayed live. “We know their performance real time in every block, panchayat. It helps us zero in on areas that are lagging.”

A senior bureaucrat in the Swachh Bharat Mission (Gramin), or SBM (G), says two years back they rolled out an app called Darpan with a dashboard where information is constantly uploaded. When a new road or a toilet gets built, its picture gets uploaded on the app, making it easier to verify progress. “It is tough for the government when it is working with outdated data. Rankings are powerful when they are based on real-time baseline data that measure delta change on a current basis,” says Kant. The government is taking help in this regard. Kant says a big volunteer team from Tata Trusts and the Gates Foundation is helping government capture data. For example, SBM (G) is being helped by 400 Zila Swachh Bharat Preraks, who are volunteers from Tata Trusts to gather data.

 

Andhra Pradesh, led by Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, is aspiring to moving up the charts. It is conducting studies and surveys, ranking districts and even 600-plus tehsils on the basis of a digital dashboard that aggregates live data on a range of socio-economic indicators. Sanjay Gupta, secretary (planning), Andhra Pradesh, says: “It helps us prioritise and allocate resources judiciously.”

Data collection is happening at multiple levels. Take, for example, thousands of fair price shops under the public distribution system where shop owners have been given a PoS (point of sale) smart device. “This is generating realtime data for governments, aiding in decisions like where to procure what,” says Taneja of EY. Similarly, thanks to the RFID tag, the journey of vaccines from warehouses to primary health centres can be tracked. This means, chief ministers, like that of Chhattisgarh, can work with a dashboard of live data that are monitored closely on a monthly basis.

Competitive spirit is backed by some serious peer learning, helped by technologies like video conferencing. Andhra Pradesh has a knowledge exchange programme where best performing units share best practices with others. Sinha of the Ministry of Rural Development says every month he and his team travel to meet more than three chief ministers, updating them on the state’s performance with detailed inputs on where they are lagging behind, why and how to fix it.

At workshops and conferences, Sinha says, “we do the least amount of talking and let the top three states share their experiences, best practices and how they made it happen. That is far more effective”. At the SBM(G), there are ODF (opendefecation free) Saturdays where Parameswaran Iyer, secretary of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, connects with batches of district collectors via video conference to exchange notes. They often try to pair poorly performing districts with better performing ones. He hosts fortnightly lunch-and-learn sessions in Delhi where 10-15 collectors are invited. Virtual classrooms too have been set up to propagate best practices. “The objective is not so much to name and shame as it is to identify gaps and help them improve,” says Sinha.

Despite all the upsides, the government must temper its competitive zeal with some caution. The biggest fear is window dressing to game the ranking. Gupta from Andhra Pradesh says the criteria of ranking must be consistent. Changing them every year is like moving the goalpost.

Over competitiveness has side effects, like bad practices creeping in to short circuit the process. Lobbying hard to influence ranking isn’t a rarity. While many rankings use third-party audits, not all of them do so. In areas where data is lacking, rankings call for self-certification and selfdeclaration, where embellishing the data is a possibility.

Government bodies and PSUs have historically struggled to perform and deliver. Competitive ranking helps but it is important to keep in mind that it isn’t a panacea. And it isn’t an end in itself. As Kant rightly points out: “For us the learning curve is that this is not just about ranking but working in partnership with states to help them improve.”

It Keeps Govt On its Toes
Jun Zhang, country head (India), International Finance Corporation, on the power and significance of rankings. Edited excerpts:

On the rankings rolled out by the Indian government
The rankings and competition launched by the government (such as the Smart Cities Challenge) have infused a sense of competitive spirit . This process generates significant baseline data on important civic parameters which, if kept current in a sustainable manner, is a very useful planning tool. These also provide a fertile platform for innovation; the process leads to some innovative civic solutions that could be adopted by others.

On the unleashing of competitive spirit and its long-term impact
Rankings and competitions do much more than infuse a competitive spirit. This process generates significant baseline data on important civic parameters which, if kept current in a sustainable manner, is a very useful planning tool. These also provide a fertile platform for innovation; the process leads to some innovative civic solutions that could be adopted by others

On global learnings from rankings
Experience from benchmarking processes in other parts of the world indicates that the challenge is to keep doing these periodically in a sustainable manner. The utility of these processes is not just in the rank-based outcome. Sustainable benchmarking has multiple benefits: a) it provides much-needed data which could strengthen citizens’ voice; b) it keeps the government on its toes; and c) it helps cross-learning from each other’s successes.
Source: Economic Times

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