On The Optimal Incentivization of Bureaucracy

Incentives matter. That is how I (and every other economics professor lucky enough to teach principles of economics) begin my classes every year.

Consider these sentences:

The central tasks of a modern state can be placed in three broad categories — maintaining the rule of law, providing public goods to citizens and using fiscal tools to redistribute income.

An efficient bureaucracy is essential for a successful state.

The efficacy of a bureaucracy is dependent on the incentives or disincentives that individual civil servants face when they take decisions.


Bureaucrats, policymakers, students of public policy and us professors should read this excellent paper. But if you are a student of economics, just beginning your journey in the Dark Arts, you should definitely read this paper.

Why? Three main reasons:

  1. It is a wonderful way to understand why incentives matter
  2. It helps you understand why government offices (and their cousins) function the way they do
  3. Trying to understand the Indian economy without understanding this aspect of it is an impossible task.

The paper is titled “Bureaucratic Indecision and Risk Aversion in India”, and is freely available here. The authors are Sneha P, Neha Sinha, Avanti Durani, Ayush Patel and Ashwin Varghese. It is an extremely accessible paper, in the sense that there are hardly any pre-requisites for you to read it in its entirety, and if you take notes, the paper is guaranteed to leave you with a ton of reading material. All those are the cherries on top: the biggest advantage is that you get a much better understanding of why the Indian bureaucracy is the way it is, and what could be done about it.

Here are my quick reflections after having read the paper:

  1. If you are a student reading this paper, you might enjoy encountering prospect theory at the outset. Again, it is a great way to connect the dots between what you learn in a classroom and its real life application. (There’s further reading, if you are so inclined)
  2. The second section is (to me) the meat of the paper. The title is “The Causes of Bureaucratic Risk Aversion”, and the authors list out 12 in all. These are grouped under three separate headings. As a mnemonic for myself, I think of them as Structure, Culture and Nurture
    1. Structure is Organizational Design: whether through over-monitoring, not enough discretion being given, an overload of bureaucratic responsibilities, the typical bureaucrat simply doesn’t get the time, the bandwidth or the incentive to not be risk averse. In plain simple English, the authors are saying this: if you or I had been a bureaucrat, we would have done exactly the same things that our bureaucrats have been doing for years. And this is so because like our bureaucrats, we too would have responded rationally to the operating structure we are a part of. It is not the bureaucrats that need to be changed, in other words, it is the organization design of bureaucracy that needs to change. Or that is my understanding of the first half of this section.
      But when it comes to structure, the latter half of this section speaks about the way candidates are selected, about how they are trained and mentored and about how they are (under)paid. Each of these are important to understand, and I especially liked how benchmarking and comparisons were made using examples from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Speaking of which, please read Gulzar Natarajan on entrepreneurship as a desirable trait in a bureaucrat, and please see this website from Malaysia.
    2. Culture is Institutional Norms and Culture: Please (pretty please!) read the whole section. It is an eye-opener. Plus, it is full of delightful nuggets. For example, I learnt by reading this section that the Official Secrets Act doesn’t define what a secret is, but forbids government employees from revealing them.
      The authors say that accountability to process, rather than outcomes is a problem. Now that gives me a delightful problem to mull over for a long time to come. How to reconcile this point (which is, I think, fair and valid) with this post (which also, I think, is fair and valid? Thoughts and suggestions welcome!
      Shleifer and Vishny (1993) and Becker and Stigler (1974) are two papers cited in the last part of this section, and as a student, they are absolute must-reads.
    3. Finally, Nurture is Political Pressure: This section is about your political boss (or bosses, in some unfortunate cases). Anybody from the corporate world will immediately draw the link between this and the dreaded “dotted line manager”. Similar problem, and similar outcomes.
  3. What can (and should) change is what this concluding section is about.
    1. I loved the idea of linking public sector salaries to private sector wage levels (although as statistician I can’t help but think about how that might actually work in India)
    2. The Committees timeline is wonderful for students, in the sense that gives you a quick way to understand what has happened in this space since independence, and the enthu-cutlets can dramatically expand their “To Read” list.

As additional reading, should you have the appetite for it, here is what I would recommend:

  1. All posts tagged “Bureaucracy” from Gulzar Natarajan’s excellent, excellent blog.
  2. An old, tangential but delightful read: English August
  3. Ch06 of this year’s Economic Survey

A Conversation With Rationality

I’d gone to the RTO the other day for some work, and I suppose you know what comes next.

I wouldn’t say it is impossible to get work done without the help of an agent, but it is certainly true that it isn’t a breeze either. And if one teaches opportunity costs, it makes sense to take the “help” of an agent. Sure you can do it yourself, but it then becomes eye-wateringly expensive in terms of time. And therefore, money.

And while I waited in the numerous byzantine lines to get my work done, I reflected, like every good economist should, on what could be done to reform the system.

Just ban agents, my understandably irrational brain screamed as a first pass solution. Why doesn’t the bureaucracy come up with a better process map that just gets out of the way instead, Cold Calculating Rationality suggested.

Because they aren’t incentivized to, C.C.R went on to reason, proceeding to shut me out of the conversation altogether. Although I was, truth be told, a very interested bystander by now.

But why aren’t they incentivized to – isn’t that the next logical question to ask, mused C.C.R.

I mean, won’t it make their job easier if they make their processes easier?

Well, yes, but they earn the same either way, no? It’s not like payments are linked to productivity increases.

How would they earn more?

Maybe through a Coasean solution in which there’s connivance with the agents, and they get a cut? That is, make the process impossibly cumbersome, and continue to keep it cumbersome, no matter what any well meaning committee proposes. That then facilitates agents stepping in and “helping” blissfully ignorant citizens get their work done faster – for a fee, of course.

They take a cut of the fee – and hey, there you have it! Bureacracts have an incentive – but not to simplify the system! They have an incentive to continue to clog up the system.

C.C.R needed a break at this point in time, so it and I played a couple of rounds of Fruit Ninja on my phone.

But why, C.C.R asked – for it can take only so many minutes of mindless swiping – would anybody want to be an agent? I mean, there are surely better, more remunerative ways to earn a living.

C.C.R. and I stared at each other in part jubilation, and part horror.

“There aren’t better ways, no?!”, we said in unison.

“I mean, if markets are weakly efficient, nobody would willingly work as an agent, surely”, said C.C.R triumphantly.

“And so”, C.C.R went on to say in that insufferably smug way that is its wont, “if you really want to reform the system, you need to create better employment opportunities everywhere else. Reforming this particular system is just putting a band-aid on a cancer. Because yes middle-mean are bad, but nobody grows up dreaming of being a middleman. Of course the middlemen, and that entire nightmare of a system is going to be up in arms if you seek to eliminate it. The lack of alternative, viable careers: that’s the real problem.”

“So, just more pro-growth policies, you’re saying?”, poor old irrational me asked timidly.

“Well, yes. Easy answer, tough implementation, I’ll concede that point”, replied C.C.R.

“I wonder where else we can apply this line of thinking”, I was about to ask C.C.R… but then it was my turn at the window, and I was so happy that I was finally done with the whole thing that I stopped thinking about it altogether.

So it goes.

India: Links for 23rd September, 2019

  1. Income tax reforms: in my opinion, an urgent necessity.
  2. ““If we wake up a little late after there is daylight, and go to defecate in the open, the railway authorities pelt us with stones or beat us with big sticks,” said Sumanben, a migrant Adivasi woman who lives on public land near a railway track. “Sometimes there is a watchman at night. If he is there then we cannot defecate that day.”.”
    Indiaspend, ostensibly, on the Minimum Wage stipulations – but it is about more than that.
  3. “We must therefore recall that if the India story plays out well in the world’s capitals, boardrooms, think tanks and editorial offices today, it is because of three developments: the development of a nuclear arsenal with a no-first use doctrine, the revulsion against international terrorism after 9/11, and India’s emergence as a high-growth economy with several globally competitive sectors. In the past two decades, India has come to be seen as an engine of global economic growth, a potential counter-weight to China, and a country that has taken a liberal democratic path to prosperity. It is high economic growth that created the conditions for India to tango with the US, be taken with grudging seriousness by China, and clear the way for better relations with East Asia, Australia and Europe.”
    High growth matters: the geopolitical argument.
  4. Amol Agarwal reports on the proceedings of ‘The International Conference on Indian Business and Economic History’. This deserves to be widely read, and widely shared.
  5. “What is needed is a change in the policy regime in many cross-cutting systemic issues, such as the role of politicians, stability of tenure, size and nature of Indian bureaucracy, accountability, monitoring of programmes, and civil service reforms, which will transform the individual competence of IAS officers into better collective outcomes.”
    In a sense, a frustrating article to read, because more than the what, which is clear to all, it is the how that is important – and that is missing.