Notes from a paper about behavioral sciences and public policy

The title of the paper is “Overcoming behavioural failings: Insights for public administrators and policy makers“. The authors are Gulzar Natarajan and Dr. TV Somanathan. I found the points in the paper applicable in my own life, and suspect most of you will as well.

  1. Most modern advances in what is referred to as “new public management” focuses, they say, in institutions, processes and protocols. “Missing is the individual”.
  2. They focus on two areas: personal and professional. My notes today are form the first half of this paper, that is, the personal:
    1. Read and digest basic management principles from any one ‘standard’ text. Keep referring to this book throughout.
    2. Do not lick upwards and kick downwards.
    3. Classify work into three categories – the important, unimportant, and the rest. Be assiduous in following-up the important, ruthless with ignoring the unimportant and letting the system take care of it, and use judgement to delegate and intervene only when essential in case of the rest. Be prepared to accept reasonable or satisfactory quality in unimportant matters but seek excellence in important matters.
    4. Learn that you are part of a team, and work accordingly.

      (What this means in practice is that it is the institutional work that matters, not your own personal glory or legacy.)
    5. Writing is a skill which can be learnt and improved. Devote time and attention to improving your writing. Do write and re-write important drafts on policy matters until they convey exactly what you want them to convey. Think of possible ways your writing might be misinterpreted and change the wording accordingly to avoid ambiguity.

      (Write!)
    6. Be as courteous as possible as consistently as possible in your personal and professional life. Courtesy is twice blessed: It helps those who meet you, and enhances your professional effectiveness.
    7. To the extent that any decision is an exercise of judgement, benefitting one party or favouring one viewpoint, it is perfectly reasonable and fair for democratically elected governments and hierarchical superiors to make their informed choices even if contrary to the views expressed by us. As long as the due process has been followed, and there is no illegality, it is our duty to respect the decision and act on it. We need to move on with doing our work.

      (I am not sure I agree with this point. Or at least, I remain conflicted about how to think about it.)
    8. Never stop learning!
    9. Set up ways for feedback to reach you as quickly as possible, as anonymously as possible and as often as possible.
    10. Internships matter.

      They make the recommendation for IAS officers, but it is oh-so-true for academia! That is, more people in academia should step out of their cocoons and see how the real world works.
    11. Build out your network. Nurture it, grow it, tend to it.

      I am really, really bad at this!

Two Very Different Takes

Ajay Shah had what I thought was a pretty good piece in the Business Standard the other day (h/t Murali Neelakantan). While the headline of the piece was “Price controls for vaccines?1, it was essentially about the best way to ensure delivery of the vaccine to every nook and cranny of India.

The great Indian vaccination story has begun. Private health care firms will be required for reaching the masses. A basic tenet of economic policy is that price controls work poorly. If price limits are brought in, this will limit private outreach to cities.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/price-controls-for-vaccines-121030700896_1.html

And to make his point, he used the example of demat securities settlement.2

In the event, non-interference prevailed: The price charged by DPs was left to market prices. Competition developed, and the prices charged to customers crashed. Competition ate away the profit rate in the easy urban sites and DPs got the incentive to go forth into the great Indian hinterland, looking for more business. This generated outreach.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/price-controls-for-vaccines-121030700896_1.html

Ajay Shah makes the point that this is how markets can work when allowed to, and uses this analogy to make the argument that governments should not cap the prices of vaccines (and their delivery).

So far, from an economists point of view, so good. Markets work when allowed to, and all is well with the world. But Gulzar Natarajan has a different point of view:

This is deceptive and an extremely misleading story. In fact it is shocking that this comparison could even be made. As I shall explain in brief, this extrapolation from the world of demat shares settlement to that of administration of vaccines is all logic with little understanding of the differences between the respective markets.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/03/markets-are-not-solution-to-vaccine.html

He raises the following points:

  1. The tendency of those in rural areas to defer medical visits because of poverty/affordability concerns
  2. Share markets are about the luxury of choice. Vaccination isn’t.
  3. Vaccinations lead to large positive externalities3
  4. Market allocation in the face of deep inequality is problematic
  5. Private health clinics may not follow all follow-up protocols.4
  6. Effective markets need strong state capacity. Without it, price gouging, sub-standard medical equipment, fake vaccines are all more than possible.

Read the whole post, please, as usual. Towards the end, he makes the point that it is not about one or the other:

None of this is to say private market should not be part of the vaccine drive. A low enough price should be fixed and vaccines administered privately too. But coverage of the vast majority of Indians in remote and rural areas will have to be through the public system, as has always been the case with all other vaccines.

https://gulzar05.blogspot.com/2021/03/markets-are-not-solution-to-vaccine.html

None of this is meant to be a criticism of either Ajay Shah or Gulzar Natarajan, of course. The point of this post, instead, is to show you three things:

  1. “How might the author be wrong?” is a useful way to read everything.5
  2. The truth lies somewhere in the middle is a thumb-rule that fits almost everything. Especially Indian things. While there are disagreements that I have with Gulzar Natarajan’s piece, he is making the point that ignoring government (or public) delivery of vaccines is fraught with risk – and I agree.
  3. The guy who writes these posts (me, that is) himself didn’t focus enough on pts. 1 and 2 when reading Ajay Shah’s op-ed. Note to self: work harder!
  1. This will be behind a paywall, sorry[]
  2. Don’t worry if you don’t know what this means. Run a simple Google search and plunge right in to the first three articles. You’ll get a reasonably clear idea.[]
  3. I’m quoting him, ok?![]
  4. Of course, neither may public hospitals![]
  5. It’s also a useful way to attend classes[]

Notes on In Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah

A book that I have recommended unhesitatingly to students who ask me about how to go about learning public policy is “In The Service of the Republic” by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah.

In this Monday post, I plan to write my observations from having read the book.

The book is divided into six sections:

  1. Foundations
  2. Diagnosing the Indian Experience
  3. The Science
  4. The Art
  5. The Public Policy Process
  6. Applying These Ideas: Some Examples

Part V and VI are the meat of the book, and that’s a good thing! If you are a student reading this book, it will be really helpful to have many, many examples of what the actual applications of the theoretical parts are.

What follows below are my highlights from having read the book, divided into four sections, with some commentary below each excerpt. The book is, it goes without saying, much much richer – and you should definitely read it, especially if you are interested in the field of public policy!


The Big Introductory Idea

The first question in the field of public policy is: What objectives of public policy are appropriate?

And for whom? For the government, for the people in society, for the elected representatives or somebody else? These questions need to be asked (and answered), for that changes the answers to the question in quotation marks above!

While the state is often seen as benign or benevolent, almost like an uncle or a parent, we have to remember that at the heart of the state, there is violence. The state acquires a monopoly upon violence. States establish conditions where nobody is permitted to engage in violence, but the state is able to inflict violence.

If this definition of the state strikes you as unusual, you should read, at the very least, this Wikipedia article.

The big idea of liberal democracy is to limit state violence into a controlled, predictable and just form.

That’s the plan, at any rate.



 

 

 

On State Intervention and Market Failure

The free market tends to overproduce things which induce negative externalities and underproduce things that induce positive externalities.

The price mechanism matters!

Markets work, but nothing ever works perfectly. People can (and should!) always debate how perfectly markets work, but it is simply an unavoidable reality that they sometimes fail.

Now, when they fail, it is usually because of one of the following four reasons:

Market failures come in four kinds: Externalities, Asymmetric information, Market power and Public goods.

When such a market failure occurs, a state intervention may be necessary. Without one or more of these factors being present, it absolutely isn’t necessary. But even with their presence, we’re on thin ice when we recommend that the state intervene:

When faced with a proposed state intervention, our first question should be: What is the market failure that this seeks to address? When market failure is not present, we should be sceptical about state intervention.

The state can intervene in three ways:

In many fields, we see three pillars of intervention: production (e.g., government running schools), regulating (e.g., government regulating private schools) and financing (e.g., government paying kids to attend private schools).

But the state can also intervene when there isn’t a market failure:

Forcing companies to spend 2 per cent of their profit on ‘corporate social responsibility’ is a use of the coercive power of the state that is not connected with market failure. Companies are rational economic actors, and if there is a problem with non-compliance, monetary penalties would suffice. When the law threatens to put individuals in jail for violating the rule, this is an excessive use of force.

And, pleasingly enough as an economist, every now and then, externality problems can be solved by the market itself:

In Maharashtra, there are professional beekeepers now charging farmers anywhere from Rs 1000 to Rs 3000 for renting out boxes for a month. 2 This presence of a private market for pollination services shows that this contractual solution is a feasible one. Through these private contracts, we have solved the externality problem, without a requirement for state intervention.


———————————————————————————————————————

Management is Hard!

It’s hard for anybody, anywhere. It is much harder for government:

There is quite a management challenge in identifying the 0.1 billion poorest people, and accurately delivering Rs 100 to them every day.

It is made harder for the following reasons (each of which is discussed in detail in the book):

Public policy failures are born of: (1) The information constraint; (2) The knowledge constraint; (3) The resource constraint; (4) The administrative constraint; and (5) The voter rationality constraint.

And “democratic decision making” is often problematic (also see Garett Jones‘ book about this):

Direct democracy also suffers from majoritarianism, the idea that policy should be made based on the views of 51 per cent of the population. We must question the extent to which ‘the voice of the people’ is the oracle that must be followed. There is much more to liberal democracy than winning elections.

Incentives matter, and policies have unseen, unintended consequences. The entire book is about this, but the following was my favorite passage by far:

In 1902 in Hanoi, under French rule, there was a rat problem. A bounty was set—one cent per rat—which could be claimed by submitting a rat’s tail to the municipal office. But for each individual who caught a rat, it was optimal to amputate the tail of a rat, and set the rat free, so as to bolster the rat population and make it easier to catch rats in the future. In addition, on the outskirts of Hanoi, farms came up, dedicated to breeding rats. In 1906, there was an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed over 250 people.

Update: Aadisht sends in this, from Discworld:

Shortly before the Patrician came to power there was a terrible plague of rats. The city council countered it by offering twenty pence for every rat tail. This did, for a week or two, reduce the number of rats—and then people were suddenly queueing up with tails, the city treasury was being drained, and no one seemed to be doing much work. And there still seemed to be a lot of rats around. Lord Vetinari had listened carefully while the problem was explained, and had solved the thing with one memorable phrase which said a lot about him, about the folly of bounty offers, and about the natural instinct of Ankh-Morporkians in any situation involving money: “Tax the rat farms.”

The Tinbergen Rule is really and truly important, and not just in public policy:

Public choice theory predicts that public organizations will favour multiple objectives as this gives reduced accountability. Clarity of purpose is efficient for the principal and not the agent.


Thinking about how government functions:

The five pillars of checks and balances—data, intellectuals, media, legislature, judiciary—all work poorly upon state governments.

As it turns out, not only is management hard, but management at the state level is even harder.

Why is there such a dearth of research when it comes to public policy?

At present in India, there is no community which systematically looks for fully articulated solutions. Academic journals do not publish policy proposals, hence academic researchers are not keen to invent policy proposals.

Or to use the jargon of public policy, we are missing incentive compatibility.

As Isher Ahluwalia says, nothing gets done by writing it in a government committee report, but nothing ever got done without it being repeatedly written into multiple government committee reports.

Public policy proceeds along the margins, and then very slowly!

Don’t fix the pipes; fix the institutions that fix the pipes. Old saying in the field of drinking water

The public policy equivalent of give a man a fish versus teach a man to fish

 


All this apart, the authors of the book also outline the “full pipeline”  of the policy process:

Stage 1: Collect data

Stage 2: Descriptive and Causal Research

Stage 3: Inventing and Proposing New Policy Solutions

Stage 4: Competing Policy Proposals are debated

Stage 5: Internal Governmental Debates, and Choice

Stage 6: Translate Decisions into Legal Instruments

Stage 7: Construction of State Capacity, Enforcement

I would personally add a stage 8: Monitoring, Evaluation, Feedback Loops.

But that quibble apart, the book is quite an education for anybody who hopes to learn more about the art and the science of public policy. If you are such a person, this book is certainly for you.