Monday, October 1, 2012

The importance of decentralization - Lessons from Camden

Times has this (HT: Andrew Fraker) story of the county of Camden in New Jersey which has decided to disband its ineffective and unionized police force. 
The police acknowledge that they have all but ceded these streets to crime, with murders on track to break records this year. And now, in a desperate move to regain control, city officials are planning to disband the Police Department. The reason is that generous union contracts have made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street. So in November, Camden, which has already had substantial police layoffs, will begin terminating the remaining 273 officers and give control to a new county force. The move, officials say, will free up millions to hire a larger, nonunionized force of 400 officers to safeguard the city, which is also the nation’s poorest...Camden’s decision to remake perhaps the most essential public service for a city riven by crime underscores how communities are taking previously unimaginable steps to get out from under union obligations that built up over generations... the plan to put the Police Department out of business has not prompted the wide public outcry seen in the union battles in Chicago, Ohio or Wisconsin, in part because many residents have come to resent a police force they see as incompetent, corrupt and doing little to make their streets safe.
And what was the trigger for this reorganization? Budgetary problems arising from the Great Recession.
Camden’s budget was $167 million last year, and of that, the budget for the police was $55 million. Yet the city collected only $21 million in property taxes. It has relied on state aid to make up the difference, but the state is turning off the spigot. The city has imposed furloughs, reduced salaries and trash collection, and increased fees. But the businesses the city desperately needs to attract to generate more revenue are scared off by the crime.  
Camden's police force is characterized by features that are commonplace among police and other public systems in countries like India - unionization, generous salaries and benefits, erosion of professional standards, and indiscipline manifesting in rampant absenteeism (30% at anytime!). And worst of all, they are ineffective. But the difference is that the people of Camden have decided that enough is enough and disbanded the entire system. This post is not to debate the merits and demerits of the correct contracting model of a police force for Camden, but about the popular indignation that led the residents of Camden into exercising their rights.

Why is it that Camden can take such decisions to enforce accountability, while small towns and villages in India, faced with even more apathy and neglect from the public officials appointed to serve them, can't? I will argue that the difference is decentralization. The police department of Camden are a distinct police force, appointed by the Camden county, paid for by them, and therefore accountable only to them. The accountability relationship of any Camden policeman is directly to the residents of Camden. The firing of one policeman or disbanding of the entire force itself is therefore a matter of concern only to the people of Camden and their police force. It has no regional or national consequences.

In contrast, most public functionaries in India are appointed by the state government. They form part of a large statewide labour force. They are transferred and posted by the state government officials and even receive their salaries from there. Their service conditions are part of a statewide set of standards and their powerful unions will do whatever it takes to ensure that no attempt is made to dilute its generosity. In other words, their fortunes are almost completely linked to their masters in the distant state capital. Their only link with the local community they are supposed to serve is that they just happen to have been posted there, and that too temporarily. Given this massive incentive incompatibility, is it any surprise that we have things as they are?

The teacher or the policeman could care less what the local residents think about them and their work ethic, however bad or perverse. In simple legal terms, the local residents have no role in deciding who should serve as their local school teacher or doctor, and can do nothing to punish errant officials. They cannot even stop their salaries, leave alone suspension and dismissal. Any action to change their service conditions to suit local requirements, leave alone disband them, will have statewide ramifications and is therefore not a possibility. Local residents have to accept whoever are foisted on them. And they do so with resignation because they have come to realize that it makes no difference and they don't anyway pay for these services.

In the prevailing regime, no Indian panchayat or municipality will face the budgetary nightmare that Camden faces, foreclosing that "forced" reform option.   


ahmedabad city police said...

You have describe it in very easy way that everyone can understand that properly.

Shamanth Jilla said...

Can you elaborate a little more on this?

"In the prevailing regime, no Indian panchayat or municipality will face the budgetary nightmare that Camden faces, foreclosing that "forced" reform option."