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Making Bureaucracy Work: A Book Review

Edited By: Gokul S


Modern democratic states have a duty to fulfil human development standards like education for all citizens. In fact, numerous countries have mandated universal, freely accessible primary education (page 4). Consequently, schooling systems and primary school enrolment rates have expanded multifold in developing countries. This encouraging data, however, masks a bleak reality. Most schooling services provided are of abysmal quality, effectively denying access to the proper education promised (page 111). Wealthy households possess the agency to exit this system and find a better quality of education elsewhere. The “least advantaged”, however, lack this luxury (page 5). Given this, some states in India’s Hindi belt show immense educational progress, while others lag behind. This cannot be attributed to an uneven distribution of resources or to the lack of progressive policy – the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Right to Education Act are examples of some of the most progressive social legislation in developing countries (page 87). Akshay Mangla, in ‘Making Bureaucracy Work: Norms, Education and Public Service Delivery in Rural India’, seeks to explain the inadequacy in quality and subnational variation in the delivery of primary education in Northern India.

Mangla posits that connecting differences in bureaucratic norms can explain variations in the implementation of public services. He studies the process of implementation in rural North India, recognizing the meaningful variations and recent changes within this region. The states of Himachal Pradesh (HP), Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh (UP), and Bihar were selected for the study. Endemic poverty, social divisions, and political clientelism are critical features of the sociocultural setting of this region. The selected states exhibited key similarities and differences in demographic variables (page 25). The differences enable comparisons within these states, thus engaging with rival hypotheses. The similarities helped in qualitative research and established the validity of Mangla’s theory.

Research on the importance of state capacity and functioning society in aiding implementation, and on the economics of education is well acknowledged. However, this scholarship neither focuses on the subnational variations in the implementation of public services nor on the central institution of primary education. Mangla’s argument advances the study of these specific topics. His work contributes not only to the study of policy implementation and state capacity but of social welfare and the delivery of public services (page 37).

Mangla’s nuanced engagement with three major elements of pre-existing scholarship attempting to explain his chosen puzzle makes his book qualitatively strong on three counts. First, he deals with the idea of economic development leading to improved delivery of public services. Despite economic challenges, UP has made significant recent gains in enrolment and educational infrastructure while falling short on implementation. Moreover, the wealthier parts of the state of UP rank no better than the poor parts in service delivery. These indicate that income growth cannot account for public service delivery.

A second strand attributes variations to regional differences in geography and the natural environment. The quantitative analysis carried out in the book controls for terrain and population density. Mangla also goes ahead partially debunking this explanation – HP, despite difficult terrain, has remarkable educational indicators; Uttarakhand, with extremely similar geography, fares much worse.

Third is the theory based on institutions, particularly “colonial land institutions.” The book does not negate their roles but suggests that it is not the singular explanation. The empirical analysis controls for their effect by comparing districts of HP and Uttarakhand with similar colonial histories. Thus, Mangla concludes that these factors fail to explain the puzzle.

The impact of colonial institutional legacies, however, is complex and multi-layered. It is rather simplistic to consider the empirical strategy inclusive of it just based on the selection of two suitable regions. It is further reductive to generalize or contest a theory based on such a limited comparison, considering the extent of both India’s geography and colonial legacy. Mangla also empirically exploits Uttarakhand’s separation from UP in 2000. He compares norms and implementation in the two regions, inferring that legalistic bureaucracy, classic in UP, has persisted in the state of Uttarakhand too. This is seemingly contradictory to the assumption made in terms of removing the impact of colonial legacies and formal institutions. It is suggestive of the fact that these could both play a bigger role in the puzzle than considered.

Mangla’s theorization is based on bureaucratic norms. Norms provide officials with a common purpose and a grammar to abide by (page 48). Mangla puts forth two different types of bureaucracy as governed by various norms: deliberative and legalistic. Deliberative bureaucracy involves an expansive interpretation of policy and a dynamic of participation. Legalistic bureaucracy, on the other hand, entails deference to rules and boundaries, and a protective organizational dynamic (page 54). It is worthwhile to note that the book makes an unrealistic, black-and-white distinction between the two. States in the developing world might well classify as the intersection of deliberative and legalistic bureaucracies. This can be considered a weak link the book fails to account for.

Mangla’s extensive fieldwork, however, suggests that deliberative bureaucracy promotes problem-solving, flexible interpretation, and collective decision-making. Legalistic bureaucracy results in the uneven implementation of policy (page 97). It undermines monitoring and collective interaction – reinforcing inequalities. The empirical study on norms is effective – considering data consolidation occurred before the policy on education was pushed through, making it an exogenous factor.

Mangla argues that larger problems necessitate officials to cooperate in terms of both resources and authority. This coordination, he says, rises from deliberation. It also brings focus to mass welfare needs, which, in turn, requires the involvement of marginalized groups, which could be done through “street-level bureaucrats.” These officials would possess the discretion to interpret and deliberate. Mangla recognizes the shortcomings in the bureaucracy’s ability to promote such development – when they are snared in political clientelism. He posits thus that state action is a necessary but not sufficient condition for inclusive development. Therefore, bureaucracies characterized by different norms offer distinct channels for citizens, particularly the “least advantaged” to participate in the delivery of public services.

Mangla builds and tests his theory robustly, through a multilevel comparative research design. The evidence in the book is from qualitative field research, analysis of official documents, and archival sources. Mangla accounts for multiple factors and how they might impact his study. For instance, he compares the institutional reforms in Bihar after the political turnaround in the 2000s to the launch of the Mahila Samakhya program in UP in the 1990s. Within these, he evidences the difficulties of instituting reforms in legalistic bureaucracies (page 297). Secondly, he includes the perspectives of both bureaucrats and relevant citizens: presenting a realistic and balanced idea of the data (page 356).

The book’s emphasis on the applicability of the argument adds to the contribution it makes to existing literature. Mangla outlines institutional reforms that could stimulate deliberative tendencies in the bureaucracy (page 218). The strength of the book lies in its all-encompassing argument – accounting for external aspects and period changes. This is reiterated in the extension of the argument to Kerala and China. In Kerala, Mangla shows how social movements aided deliberative bureaucratic norms in producing impressive education outcomes. He uses the case of China to explore the possibility of deliberative bureaucracy working outside the confines of democracy, while producing impactful delivery.

The book’s overall contribution to the literature on development and policy is significant. Developing countries consistently vary in performance and implementation, supporting the applicability of Mangla's theory across policy functions (page 332).Nevertheless, the applicability across regions remains a subject of deliberation; even if Mangla's analysis controls for factors like geography, full accounting for them in all cases is challenging.

In conclusion, the book questions how well deliberative tendencies function within a framework and explores accountability mechanisms in systems with flexible norms as proposed.


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