Saturday, June 29, 2013

The behavioral challenge with reforming harassment corruption

I am now firmly convinced that behavioural psychology plays an important role in all public service environments. Therefore, any effort to reform public systems that revolves around regulation and incentives, and overlooks the cognitive challenges, is most likely to be ineffective or certainly less effective than expected.

Harassment corruption, or those involving delivery of statutory services (birth registration, caste certificates, water and electricity connections, registering FIR in a police station, property tax assessments, issue of driving license etc), is the commonest form of corruption endured by citizens in any developing country. It is a classic monopoly and therefore most of the discussion to address this has revolved around process re-engineering, competition, transparency, and accountability.

An equally important dimension to the problem that has got limited attention is what I call ego depletion due to work over-load. People have a limited quantity of mental resources which they can draw on to exercise self-control and will power, at both individual level and in their inter-personal relationships. Every transaction and decision, of any kind, and its dynamics, uses up mental resources.

Let me illustrate. The service standards for a counter clerk in a customer care center in the US mandate that he/she deal with say, 20 customers an hour. Apart from an exceptional day, they deal with no more than that. This provides them the minimum time required to transact without feeling mentally strained. Similarly, a building inspector or police officer or tax assessment official, has all the time and logistics (eg. transportation facilities to inspect the property or crime site) to diligently follow-up on their mandated responsibilities without excessively depleting their mental resources. It provides them the time and mental space to connect with their client/customer, recover themselves, and then go to the next customer.

Consider the same official in India. On most days a clerk in a customer care center deals with many times more applicants than can be processed in a cognitively optimal manner. A building inspector services several applications each day, which are geographically widely dispersed, without any logistical support or clerical assistance. Additionally, most often he is entrusted with other unrelated responsibilities. To give a sense of the magnitude of the challenge, New York with 3500 eateries has 180 food inspectors, whereas Hyderabad with similar number of formal eateries and many times that many unregistered eateries (push carts, chai shops etc) has just four food inspectors.

Similar spatial, transactional, and functional over-load characterizes all other functionaries, anywhere in India. When people are exposed to the same ego-depletion day-in day-out, without any prospects of improvement even when they move up the ladder, a form of cynical and negative internalization of transactional and inter-personal norms is inevitable.

No amount of process re-engineering, while essential, can mitigate this behavioral challenge. The prevailing socio-political environment militates against either higher user fees or increased budgetary support (both of which can presumably be used to improve logistics or effectively outsource certain services) or hire more officials (which undoubtedly has its share of negatives), which are two possible approaches to start thinking about reforms. Informed opinion makers and mainstream debates sweep them under the carpet. Some others who appear to partially get it prefer to argue with homilies like increasing commitment among public officials.

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