In the past two decades, international organizations have promoted information technology as a tool to improve growth, reduce poverty, and foster greater government efficiency and transparency. As a result, many technology-based development interventions have been dedicated to digitizing the delivery of public services through one-stop public service centers, which can provide computer-based monitoring and queuing systems, automated document transfer, and databases of citizen information from multiple government departments. Proponents argue that by removing service delivery from bureaucrats and systematizing the disbursement of benefits, one-stop computer centers can limit corruption in public office. These claims have been widely accepted in the developing world, yet the causal link between reforms and quality of public services has not yet been identified.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Indian government sought to increase transparency and responsiveness to citizens. These efforts included state government implementation of one-stop computerized service centers. In India, states are responsible for the provision of public services and by the end of this period, a majority of states each state had established the service centers, but with varying degrees of success. This study examined the impact of one-stop service centers on the quality of service delivery and prevalence of corruption in Karnataka. Karnataka’s Nemmadi center initiative established approximately 800 centers in rural villages. Each sub-district government office computerized their services and contracted with a private company to connect their systems and databases to a Nemmadi center.
Researchers took advantage of the Nemmadi centers’ staggered rollout to conduct a two-stage evaluation across 18 sub-district public service centers in Karnataka. First, researchers randomly surveyed individuals as they left one of the following centers: (1) non-computerized, government offices, (2) privately run Nemmadi centers, and (3) government run, computerized offices. Data was collected on the use of the service center, extent of bribes, and perceptions about government efficiency. Then, in order to identify a possible causal relationship between the reform and levels of corruption, researchers randomly assigned 25 people to either a Nemmadi center (treatment) or a computerized government, sub-district office (comparison) and tasked them with applying for income certificate, a caste certificate, and a birth certificate. Data was collected on the same outcomes listed above. It is important to note the experiment only compares experiences between private and government-run computerized centers.
Results and Policy Implications
In the observational study, respondents who attended Nemmadi centers made 3.4 fewer visits, spent 58 fewer minutes at the office, paid 55 rupees (Rs) less in terms of total cost, and received their service 23 days faster on average than those citizens who went to a non-computerized office. Nemmadi patrons met with 85 percent fewer officials on average and were 50 percent less likely to be asked to pay a bribe than citizens at non-computerized offices. If citizens were asked to pay a bribe, it was Rs. 103 less on average. Despite these results, respondents at non-computerized offices reported higher satisfaction levels on average, which suggests that observed improvements in service quality may not translate to perceived improvements. This finding may also be a result of selection bias in which dissatisfied citizens are more willing to try the Nemmadi centers in the first place.
The results of the field experiment generally support the observational findings. In terms of service quality, the difference in the number of visits and total time spent at each office is not statistically significant. Nemmadi center visitors met with less officials and reported higher levels of overall satisfaction. Interviews with respondents reveal that speediness of service delivery and corruption as the most important factors driving satisfaction. Of note, Nemmadi patrons reported higher dissatisfaction due to corruption despite experiencing less; this suggests that expectations of citizens visiting a government center regarding delivery time and corruption may be different from citizens patronizing Nemmadi centers.
Overall, results indicate that one-stop computerized service centers can facilitate the delivery of public services and, moreover, curb corruption and rent seeking in local government. However, the disjunction between improved service and satisfaction levels suggests that other characteristics affect satisfaction, which were unaddressed by this study.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Bussell, A Nemmadi center in Karnataka, 2009.