Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why incentives alone are not enough?

Econ 101 would have it that successful public policy is that which is designed with appropriately aligned incentives. However, the complexity of the real world means that when implemented, many of these incentives, doubtless laudable when seen in isolation, results in often undesirable outcomes. Here is one recent example.

Under the popular Arogyasri health insurance program run by the Government of Andhra Pradesh, government hospitals and its doctors are incentivized by way of cash payments for each patient treated. The presumption is that once the incentives are appropriately aligned, government hospitals would be able to attract patients under the scheme and use the incentive amounts to improve infrastructure and buy equipments.

However, it has been found that this incentive architecture has not been adequate to get government hospitals to attract patients under Arogyasri. Here are two possible reasons, which also informs us about the complexity involved in designing public policies.

1. It is an open secret that many government doctors, especially specialists, practice in private hospitals outside their regular working hours. There is evidence to suggest that these doctors are being offered much higher incentive payments by the private hospitals for every patient treated under Arogyasri. In fact, the government doctor even becomes a link to attract the patient to the private hospital. In other words, there is an unforeseen and even bigger incentive at work that nullifies the incentive structure built-into the scheme.

2. Most government hospitals do not have the required basic physical infrastructure and equipments to carry out many of the procedures. Further, even when they do have the equipments, the hospital environment is not conducive to attracting patients and for performing surgeries. Most often, the doctors in government hospitals face problems from lack of electricity or water, absent or recalcitrant nurses and attendants, equipments facing minor repairs or without consumables, and so on, all of which come in the way of their work. In contrast, in a private hospital, the doctor can merely walk into the operation theatre and carry out the surgery without any concern for managing the hoospital environment.

Therefore, despite the presence of the all facilities, patients prefer the private hospital and doctors exhibit an inertia to carry out operations. The last-mile cost imposed by the environmental challenges and the resultant behavioural inertia to do surgical procedures in the hospitals is often large enough to prevent the treatment getting carried out in the hospital despite the incentive to do so.

Both these reasons again highlight attention to the fact that while structuring incentives is necessary, it is far from adequate to ensure the achievement of public policy objectives. In this case, perversely enough, the program may have had the effect of widening the existing deep divide between government and private hospitals and creating a new divide between the good and poor government hospitals.


KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

Heres a refreshing lecture RSA Animate by Daniel Pink on "what motivates us" -

My speculation is this, motivated people who enter bureaucratic service - as Doctors / Engineers / Bureaucrats are slowly "captured" by the "system" that reeks of compromises - and slowly, under pressure both personal and professional - succumb.

This happens when the entire system is permeated by a work ethic that has stopped viewing such compromises as corruption.

Handing over contracts to friends, directing patients to a private practice etc., - in most cases has crossed the threshold of being viewed as corrupt - to becoming normative behavior.

I particulary sympathise with Doctors - more than any other profession, because many of them are intrinsically motivated to serve and join government service consciously avoiding a lucrative private career. [ I do not sympathise with lesser salaries, because that is a conscious choice that has other trade-offs - somehow, that is forgotten midway in the career]

If eventually they succumb, it only reflects a "greed is good" mentality that is the overarching fallout of poor role models, leadership and societal pressure.

The initial response to blowing the lid on any corruption scandal, almost always, is surprise at the "norm" being called into question - and a glossing over of corruption inherent in the decision.

The indian version of pragmatism appears to be "anything goes" as long as we are successful personally / electorally - we lack leadership.

Compare this with LKY's Singapore -where - pragmatism - is what works for the country - and that seems trifle old fashioned.


gulzar said...

thanks for making some excellent points. i fully agree with your concept of creeping socialization which transforms once good individuals. the widespread prevalance of such practices attenuates the social stigma associated with such practices.