The capable state

No magic pill solution or quick fix can make up for basic administrative deficiencies

In a review of Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen's latest book in the Financial Times (July 12, 2013), historian Ramachandra Guha questions whether the Indian state is "up to the job of doing more to tackle poverty". Mainstream debates about the persistence of poverty and pervasive failures in public service delivery in India tend to overdraw on the state's innate ability to deal with this.

Take the recurring instances of midday meal poisoning, the latest being the tragedy in Bihar's Saran district. If the headmaster follows the minimum protocols for management of the kitchen and school inspectors do basic supervision, and all these processes are embedded in an institutionalised system of accountability, such incidents could easily be averted. In its absence, even a mundane task like running a school kitchen, when done in scale, seems fraught with complications.

"State capability" can be broadly defined as the ability of a government bureaucracy to get things done. It is a measure of the state's institutional capacity and organisational capital to effectively implement its programmes and deliver basic public services to its citizens.

An inadequacy in state capability invariably manifests itself as implementation deficits. In its absence, process innovations and technologies can get you only so far in managing large groups of stakeholders in complex and dynamic environments. They can help a good system become great, but are less likely to be effective in getting a system trapped in a bad equilibrium to shift to a better one.

The standard response to governance failures is to address them through one of four approaches. The commonest refrain, especially among the urban middle class, predominantly employed in the formal private sector, is an increased role for the private sector. This feeling is at least partially fuelled by the representativeness bias arising from contrasting high-profile examples of "successful" private businesses with pervasive government failures and the internalisation of their own workplace norms. And it is reinforced by opinion makers and the mainstream media.

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