Often, the most impactful things to address a problem are the simplest and most obvious ones. But, for a variety of reasons to do with cognitive biases, people generally overlook them and instead explore more difficult and innovative things and invariably end up falling short.
This has relevance in debates to improve state capability. Most of the search for state capability improvements revolves around technology interventions and e-governance, process re-engineering, additional manpower, new institutional arrangements and so on. A simple and obvious area of better management of administration is often overlooked.
Consider the following questions and the areas of administrative management they highlight.
Given the vast responsibilities and scarce (capable) personnel and resources, what should be the prioritisation of work by officials? What is the basis for this prioritisation? Is it aligned toward maximising realisation of organisational objectives?
Is work-allocation among different officials within the agency optimal? Does it take into account the realities of vacancies and the preponderance of recalcitrant and inefficient officials?
What is monitored by officials at each level? Is it right-sized, in terms of neither too much nor too little? What is the periodicity of monitoring? How is the monitoring done at each level? What is the mechanism to ensure adherence to monitoring protocols and assess the quality of monitoring?
Are meetings organised most effectively - in terms of their periodicity, whether clear and brief agendas are communicated in advance, what gets discussed, and how the minutes are recorded? How are the meeting outcomes followed-up? How are failures to comply addressed?
How do managers manage their staff? What are the thumb rules followed to extract work from the different categories of officials (by capacity and attitudes)? How is managerial accountability enforced?
I'll venture to argue that the typical administrative unit and its bureaucracy in a developing country is entrapped in a very low-level equilibrium. In the circumstances, in line with the objective of moving from poor to average or good, even a satisfactory performance on each of these can have dramatic effect on the entire system, one which is far higher than that realistically possible with the more commonly pursued interventions and innovations. In most systems, the prevailing status is most likely so poor as to leave us with low-hanging fruits in terms of potential productivity improvements.
All that is required is a leader who is committed enough to exert some basic level of administrative oversight and aware enough to pursue some basic management techniques and impose the same across the organisation. It is for this reason that it's common place to see hitherto moribund systems or organisations becoming abruptly galvanised by the arrival of a leader with a high level of commitment and professional competence. And also relapsing back to its original state after that person gets transferred.
While waiting for such a leader is not an institutional solution, it's a pointer to prioritising the adoption of basic management practices. This is about the adoption of very simple and basic work, people, and situations management techniques, and not the sort of stuff one learns from management schools. Unfortunately, it's not an area that receives any attention in conventional academic research and management consulting.