A question of accountability

The recent move to digitise PDS records is another example of enthusiasm for technological fixes to bolster the flailing Indian state, which can effectively make, but not implement, social policy. Many believe poor implementation is due to the opaque nature of service delivery. Such opacity hides administrators and various parties who collude and extract rents from allocating welfare benefits, natural resources and government contracts without holding them accountable. In this view, technology that makes the opaque transparent is a game-changer. Cameras track teacher attendance, GPS tracks ration trucks, computerised records track procurement, biometrics track identities — and programmes can deliver better from design to the last mile. However, does transparency automatically improve accountability needed for implementation?

The question of accountability is partly about the accounting of fund flows and transactions — and technology can make this part quicker, better, easier to disseminate. But accountability is most importantly about the account — what is the story that people tell to justify their actions, to whom, on what terms of power, and what options and incentives do those listening have to respond? Accounting can be about the technological apparatus used to trace and record material transactions, but accounts are about people and power.

Experimental evidence highlights the difference. In one experiment in Rajasthan, teachers had to provide time-and-date stamped pictures to verify their attendance. Teacher attendance went up and so did student learning.

In another experiment, also in Rajasthan, newly hired auxiliary nurse midwives (ANMs) were told their pay would be docked if they were absent for more than half their days. New technology of sealed machines that recorded time of their clinic attendance were installed and an NGO helped validate the use and accuracy of these machine reports. ANMs being monitored by machines did see their administratively recorded absence decline over 16 months, from 24 per cent to 9 per cent. The problem was that their physical presence in clinics also declined, from 45 per cent present to only 30 per cent present. If you say, "wait, weren't ANMs either present or absent?" you are revealing yourself as a bureaucratic naïf. The facts are more flexible that that. "Exemption from duty" increased from 13 per cent to 54 per cent, so ANMs were not there in practice for their patients but were there on paper, for their paycheck.

Does monitoring technology help improve attendance? In the education case, cameras were placed in NGO schools, where teachers knew the NGO was free to discipline them and the fundamental ethos of the organisation was that people had to account for their performance. The time clocks inserted into public health clinics changed the accounting but did not change the fact that ANMs knew they could avoid being held to account for their actions, so they stuck to their story and got away with it. They simply changed the administrative fact of their absence to exemption.

The ability to get others to account for their actions in our public and private lives is a function of power. A famous athlete arrived home in the wee hours of the morning to find his wife waiting and demanding to know where he had been. "I've been at Joe's playing poker all night." "Really? Well I called Joe twice tonight and he said you were never there." Stumped that his lie was caught out, he thought for a moment and said, "Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it."

People, much like Joe's wife, often already know the facts. What they lack is the power to get Joe to account for his actions and the ability to use knowledge to take effective action against him. Amartya Sen's Pratichi trust report on basic education in West Bengal recounted how some villagers, tired of the absence of their teacher, took to stopping by his house on their way to work in the fields and accompanying the teacher to school. The result? As one villager said: "He was at school but read the paper, took his tea and had the children massage his feet. What can we do? We cannot stay with him all day." The teacher didn't feel he owed his students any teaching or their parents an account — and they were powerless to insist.

Technology is insufficient in altering power dynamics and accountability. The success cases generating enthusiasm about PDS computerisation — Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh — combined technology with political will and institutional reforms that allowed better accounting to feed into improved accounts to beneficiaries about what really happened to their eligibility and ration supplies. The combination led to better implementation. In Chhattisgarh, the state government gave gram panchayats, self-help groups and Van Suraksha Samitis charge of ration shops. Grievance redressal was an integral part of this shift. Cases were lodged against corrupt middlemen. In Andhra Pradesh, the administration invested heavily in community-based validation of beneficiary registers to deal with concerns about exclusion of the poor. In both cases, eligibility criteria for access was broadened, which reduced incentives amongst non-beneficiaries to game the system.

That technology alone cannot improve outcomes without institutional reform is common sense, but common sense can be distressingly uncommon in management information systems initiatives. Accountability Initiative's report on Uttar Pradesh's mobile phone based mid-day meal monitoring system suggests false reporting is a major problem, data collection relies only on the account of school headmasters and does not involve third-party validation by students or parents.

Unless technology is used to change the nature of accounting and the power structure of who has to account to whom, it is likely to be another fad. At present, mobile phone penetration in India is not being fully exploited to interact with citizens directly to get better information on last-mile delivery. These are areas of massive gains. Cash transfer payments through mobile phones can limit financial delays and irregularities. Information and complaints collected through MGNREGA social audits can link to grievance redressal — where discrepancies on wage payments identified by workers can be fed back into information systems.

In a world where the internet has reduced costs for governments to become more participatory through crowd-sourcing perspectives from citizens, the potential of technology-enabled accountability should not be viewed simply as hardware and software upgrades — but a means to redesign the operating system of government.

Shrayana Bhattacharya is a researcher with Accountability Initiative, Delhi. Lant Pritchett is professor of the practice of international development at Harvard Kennedy School (on leave), US

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