A question of accountability
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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.
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