Weekly interview

Transparent policy-making makes people less cynical of their government

March 25, 2017 00:05 AM Republica

Rohini Pande, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Co-Director of Evidence for Policy Design, is reputed for her pioneering research into economic costs and benefits of informal and formal institutions in the developing world and the role of public policy in affecting change. Michael Callen, who is an assistant professor at University of California San Diego, specializes in political economy, development economics and experimental economics. The two were recently in Kathmandu to train senior government bureaucrats on designing evidence-based policies. So how does Nepal benefit from such evidence-based policy-making? And what can it learn from other countries? Biswas Baral and Mahabir Paudyal caught up with the two while they were in the capital. 

Can you tell us little bit about the work you have been doing in Nepal?
Pande: We are working on the problems that policy makers identify as important for them. We believe that some combination of economic theory and evidence can actually help us better formulate such problems, all to give policy makers more evidence and to make them question their decisions. So Mike (Michael Callen) and I came to Nepal last summer and we have been very lucky to be working with Nepal Administrative Staff College to organize capacity-building programs on the use of evidence. In the process, when we were talking to the administrators, we learnt about the huge task facing the National Reconstruction Authority, which ranges from collecting a lot of data, use of data for evidence and how such evidence helps improve the choices they have to make. 

In your experience, does our policy making process here in Nepal lack an evidence-based approach?
Nepal is no different to other countries. You often have to make decisions very fast, based on limited evidence. On the other hand, we have been very impressed with the openness of Nepali policy makers to the evidence-based approach. Mike has also worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So he has a lot of perspectives from across South Asia.

Callen: I have been very impressed by the level of enthusiasm shown by Nepali officials here. People at the secretary level we have been dealing with seem to get right into it and there is real appetite for it. This is my early impression.

Your research also involves ways to empower disadvantaged groups. We are at the point when we are finalizing our constitution and there are many grievances about the exclusion of the historically marginalized groups. Do you have any specific policy recommendations on this?
Pande: These things tend to be context-specific. Nepal is at the unique juncture. It is moving towards a federal system. The experience of other countries has been that federalism can be a very powerful force to give the historically disadvantaged groups voice and to provide them with opportunities. We are very interested to see how federalism changes the voice of the disadvantaged and how it will bring them into the political mainstream. I see it as an open research agenda.
Callen: In Pakistan, we have been looking at what can be done to make more people participate as candidates in elections. We were doing experiments to see what kind of information would make people who aren’t a part of the party structure run for election. This could be relevant for Nepal, which is holding local level election in May, and especially for Dalits, women and other marginalized communities. We did four things in Pakistan. There, we provided information on career advancement and benefits that come with being in public office. We emphasized the potential you have to positively impact your community once you have the authority. These messages were conveyed privately. In another setting, we gave the same message, but this time at public forums where everyone is given this information jointly. In short, we found that in one-on-one meetings, this information did not make you more or less likely to file your candidacy. 

But in public forum, the message did matter. In public setting, when private benefits and career advancement benefits were emphasized, people were less likely to file for candidacy. But if instead you emphasized the potential of doing good in the community, people were much more likely to file their candidacy, in fact more than twice as likely. And those who file were more likely to win as well. It was a pretty surprising finding for us as it tells us about what motivates people to seek public office.

This is relevant also for Nepal where policy actors and NGOs are trying to encourage different groups to participate as candidates in election. This is one example of how evidence can help us to guide the policy on how to make people from diverse groups to file for candidacy.

Pande: Another thing we learned from the Indian context is the importance of representation. In India you have reservation for women in local election. In some states 50 percent of local ward candidates have to be women. We have seen that this kind of exposure is extremely important in getting them to run in future elections, which also changes representation and policy-making. In a place like Nepal where you have a lot of male migration out of villages and where you have many female-headed households, the kind of policy choices these women would likely make would be different than would be made by men who are going somewhere else for jobs. Another thing Nepal could think hard about is how to ensure enough women representation in politics, especially at the local level.

One of the debates we are having in Nepal right now concerns the kind of electoral system we should have, as we strive to find the right balance between Proportional Representation and First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) components. What kind of electoral system is desirable if the goal is inclusion of the traditionally marginalized communities? 
Pande: It’s an area where we would like to see more research. But what you get to see is that in most of South Asia there is the FPTP system. The big question across the board is if you move to proportional representation, will you see better representation of marginalized groups? Unfortunately, most of the evidence we have on this is from rich western countries, not from South Asia. 

Callen: It also depends on what kind of system the political parties have to identify who is to be promoted in the party. One recent example is of the Swedish Social Democrats who essentially had a revolt on their hands, whereby women were going to leave the party and form their own women’s party. So the concession they made was that in the list of candidates for party primaries, the name of a male candidate running for office had to be followed by the name of a female candidate, all the way to the bottom of the list. This increased the female candidacy substantially. So there are lessons to be learnt from western countries. 

Pande: In most of South Asia there is not enough emphasis on how parties choose candidates. Parties have a lot of freedom and you don’t require primaries or transparency in the process of candidate selection. One thing we learned from Sweden is that even without changing the election process, if parties can be made more transparent about how they select candidates, it can make a difference. 

In Nepal one of the public policy goals is economic empowerment of the people at the grassroots. How can we use public policy to achieve this goal? 
Callen: One of the ways Nepal could benefit is through mobile money. The first country that adopted it on a large scale was Kenya. They adopted it in 2007 and there were some features of Kenya that made it more successful there. Just the option of having the electronic payment system created new business opportunities, particularly for women. It lifted something like 400,000 people there out of the poverty line. In a country like Nepal, the traditional brick-and-mortar banks are probably never going to be commercially viable. But having a system of agents who are sitting at their shops processing money transactions opens up a lot of space. This is something Nepal could try. 
Hasn’t the mobile money formula also been rather successful in India? 
Pande: What has been successful in India is digital finance. This idea of both branchless banking and using business correspondence and having money flow digitally, for government-to-people payments in particular, has been quite successful. The other lesson from India could be on what kind of digital ID system you should have. But technological adaptation also depends on the administrative structure you have. Technology by itself cannot identify who is really poor; you still need officials to do that. How to figure that is the art we need to see in governance. 

You two have also done a lot of research on how social bias affects policy-making. Can you tell about this a little? 
Pande: Our hope is that the more and more we show evidence, and the more rigorous we are, the harder it will be to sustain bias. 

Callen: One thing we try to do is understand the political groups under which evidence is mainstreamed into policy. What we are doing is taking the tools of economics and turning them on the processes that decide whether or not to integrate evidence in policy-making. Maybe there are constraints we have not identified. We are never going to know where evidence can improve policy-making without thinking about it in this very syncretic sort of way. But a lot of it is also context-specific. 

Pande: The world today is a much richer place than it was 30 years ago. The problem today concerns getting politics right and giving people the right information rather than putting together the resources per se. How do you set up political structures where incentives between citizens, bureaucrats, politicians are aligned and that there is enough information to make those vital decisions?  

How ready do you find Nepali bureaucrats for the kind of evidence-based policies you advocate?    
Callen: Sometimes some types of evidence and some type of policies make them better at their jobs, in ways that make it easier for them to get promoted or to achieve success. Thus we create a win-win. We say, “Look, this is something that does not require much of your effort but it will make you better at your job.” That makes them more receptive to our message. But it is also about creating a culture of evidence, which we already start to see happen in India, Pakistan and even Afghanistan. 

Do you have one public policy recommendation that could have the greatest impact on Nepal?  
Pande: We try not to be outsiders in this. We would rather love to hear from you and your bureaucrats about your public policy problems and to work together to identify the potential areas of cooperation. We try to embed in the government and work with them. We are currently trying to work out these common areas of interest but we are also trying to understand our role in it. One potential area of commonality could be how to design policies and programs that provide efficient and effective public service to the poor. 

We in Nepal don’t have specialized public policy institutions. Do you think we need such institutions? 
Pande: Even if you look at the rest of the world, you hardly see public policy courses at the undergraduate level. Even at the Masters level, the increase in public policy institutions is a recent phenomenon. My sense is that you want the material that is public policy to be taught and that is increasingly happening. So embedding public policy into political science or economics might be a better approach than creating new public policy institutions. For you also need to understand the job market. If you get a degree in public policy, will you find a job? 

In your view how important is it for the general people to know how public policies are framed?   
Pande: It is extremely important because one of the things it does is it changes your belief in the state. If you understand the difficulties the state is having in delivering, it makes you less cynical about the process. I think if citizens become cynical of the government, it is very dangerous. 

Callen: It is extremely important for common people to understand how the policies of their government are framed. The greater the transparency, the better the health of the democracy.  

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