May 30, 2019

We need a quality revolution in public policy decision-making

The following article, co-authored with Rahul Tongia, originally appeared in Mint on May 30, 2019. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here.

As a second Narendra Modi government takes office, the demands it will face to deploy its renewed political capital will be immense. In every area of policy priority—from education and financial inclusion, to health and infrastructure, and energy and defence—an impatient electorate will expect it to deliver. But every policy challenge must necessarily confront trade-offs, even before further complications arise from bureaucratic or party politics.

There’s a popular adage in the tech world: “Cheaper, faster, better. Pick any two." This applies widely to Indian policy, a field where it sometimes assumes the form of a variant: “Cheaper, more, better. Pick any two."

Given India’s human development imperatives, the natural policy impulse has usually been to rush towards providing healthcare, energy access, infrastructure and education on a vast scale. Most evaluations of policy have focused on input measures: How much of a certain public good can be built, deployed, or delivered? Recent examples include the opening of bank accounts as part of Jan Dhan Yojana or household electrification. How such bank accounts are being used or how consistent the supply of electricity on a new connection is, are understandably not the immediate priority.

Moreover, given historical resource scarcity, a second Indian government priority has been to focus on achieving its objectives cheaply. In public tender issuing and procurement—which dictates a lot of public service delivery in India—this has manifested itself in a rigid focus on the lowest-cost bids, known as L1. Together, the emphasis on “more" and “cheaper" has almost always meant that “better" has been sacrificed.

But India has changed. In many policy fields, the challenge of “more" is now being addressed: school enrolment is near full potential, there is surplus power generation supply, housing is readily available but remains vacant, allocated capital budgets for defence are not spent in their entirety, and agricultural yields in certain crops have exceeded demand (resulting in drops in prices and farmer distress). The question of limited financial resources, while still a constraint, is less relevant today, in part due to better tax revenue collection, a natural consequence of the goods and services tax (GST) and digitization. The India of 2019 is no longer as resource-starved it was in the 1970s or 1960s.