Thursday, January 18, 2007

Should you penalise a messenger for bad news?

Public policy writing in India is too steeped in macroeconomics and plain vanilla political analyses. Pratap Bhanu Mehta's writing is a good exception like the article The truth is not in the facts.

What happens when you penalise the messenger for bad news? Think about it.

Here is an excerpt from the article to shed light on what I am talking about.
Just look at Uttar Pradesh’s crime data. During the last two years of his rule incidence of dacoity in UP has fallen by more than 70 per cent; incidence of kidnapping for ransom by more than 60 per cent. Most categories of violent crime are registering drops. According to data work done by the noted police scholar Arvind Verma of Indian University, UP’s crime rates now look closer to what they were like in 1953. In the United States, any politician would die to have such a record on crime control. What astonishing success! ... The unreliability of the UP crime data, alluded to above, tells a story of attempts to induce accountability gone horribly wrong. Even in normal circumstances, the police would rather not register FIRs. One of the perverse consequences of threatening police officers with punishment if crime increases is that the number of crimes registered decreases dramatically, as seems to have happened in UP. So the first issue in any debate on police reform has to be getting internal incentives within the police right, so that there are no internal disincentives to register FIRs. ...

With any branch of government, the central metaphor for accountability is not autonomy, but designing an appropriate system of checks and balances.
I largely regard that as true. If you cannot marketise a public good like police, then having incentives by itself will not make it work. You need to decentralise power, have transparency, critical checks and balances and yes, a good research wing to analyze the crimes.

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