Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Limits of technology in public policy interventions

We consistently underestimate the last mile gaps that are pervasive in society. Despite several ubiquitous examples of failures, we mistakenly continue to believe that technology fixes or regulatory diktats will help address social policy issues.   

Sample the fate of the parking ticket vending machines installed at a few locations in Hyderabad city,
The much-talked about parking meters installed in the State capital to automate the disbursement of parking tickets is proving to be futile as the vehicle-owners are not evincing any interest in utilising the facility... But due to the lack of public participation... (the company) which maintains the machines, is now forced to employ contract workers to issue the tickets... a motorist has to go and take the parking token. But none of them prefer to do it... Motorists are used to paying money and obtaining the tickets and so they are reluctant to walk down to the parking meters.
It is obvious that the opportunity cost of walking across to the parking meter, dropping the coins and generating a parking ticket is too high. There are two elements to this cost. One is the deeply internalized behavioural inertia against this additional exercise, especially when motorists are so used to getting tickets from parking attendants.

Two is the minimal cost associated with not generating the parking ticket. Without strict supervision, motorists would simply drive off without making the payment. However, if supervisors are appointed and monitoring is made rigorous, then (given the numbers required to supervise even small stretches) the cost becomes prohibitive and defeats the purpose of installing such devices. We could as well have a more efficiently run outsourced parking attendants (equipped with electronic billing machines) based system. And there is always the danger that the supervisors will themselves start collecting illegal parking rents.

Lowering the opportunity cost would involve inculcating a sense of civic responsibility among motorists and also increasing the cost of non-compliance (by prohibitive fines or vehicle tow-aways). But both these solutions run into problems when examined from the lens of real-world implementation. The first takes a long-period of continuous use of such parking meters, apart from issues related to general socio-economic development. The second poses significant enforcement challenges and compliance costs.

So, at this stage of the country's development, except for a few locations (where civic responsiveness is likely to be higher), the traditional attendants based parking regulation appear the more realistic proposition.The availability of cheap labour only serves to increase its attractiveness.

No comments: