Key message 2 – Reducing the cost of acquiring information increases access and use of data

Recent technological developments and falling ICT costs have greatly increased the information available for bureaucrats, with reduced information acquisition costs contributing to higher uptake. If the costs of acquisition are lower, the constraints created by the public sector’s monopolies, free-riding, and cultural norms are weakened.

The public sector’s experimentation with ICT has been most prominent in the areas of public financial management, with budgets and procurement systems increasingly electronic in the last two decades, improving fiscal efficiency (World Bank 2016). The use of technology has consequently expanded across public administration, demonstrating how information in the public service has fiscal implications.

An IGC pilot study by Callen et al. (2019) in Afghanistan trialled the use of mobile money salary payments and found that this has significant potential to reduce leakages by identifying ghost workers – those who receive a salary but do not work. As compared to cash-based payments, government saw improved transparency, accountability, efficiency, and improved employees’ savings rates with mobile payments. The production of accurate employee information through the programme implied a reduction of the payroll of roughly 7%.

Public officials have also steadily been granted access to ‘information dashboards’ that provide a substantial volume of information at lower costs. In Punjab, Pakistan, an IGC study (Callen et al. 2017) demonstrated how the rapid collection and centralisation of facility-level data, and the communication of that data to relevant government managers, can improve information flows in public bureaucracies. Underperforming health facilities were flagged to senior health officials in real time through an online dashboard. This nearly doubled health facility inspection rates and reduced doctor absences by 20%.

At the same time, many research institutions (including the IGC) have tried to provide public officials with lower cost access to frontier research information in the form of different types of research briefs. Such briefs, similar to policy dashboards, aggregate policy-relevant information and make it salient to officials at low cost. Recent research by Hjort et al. (2019) indicates that this strategy can be effective at overcoming information asymmetries. The researchers investigated whether research findings changed the beliefs of political leaders in Brazilian municipalities. The study found that mayors alter their beliefs as a result of evidence briefings and are more likely to introduce related policies in their constituencies over the next 15-24 months.

Given the public sector often deals with tasks that are context-specific and can’t be fully measured, the tacit knowledge of public officials will always play a substantive role in a nation’s governance. Box 2 provides evidence that innovation can effectively combine ICT and the tacit knowledge of bureaucrats.

Box 2: ICT interventions to improve service delivery

An IGC study in Paraguay highlights the potential power of combining ICT with the tacit knowledge of public officials. Dal Bo et al. (2018) randomised the distribution of cell phones to agricultural extension workers in Paraguay, allowing for regular updates on location, movement, and digitised reporting of activities to be sent to their managers. The ICT intervention improved service delivery. Farmers working with extension workers assigned with phones were 6% more likely to have received a visit. However, part of the experimental design was the use of supervisors’ knowledge of extension agents to determine which agents should get mobile phones. This allowed the researchers to measure the value of supervisors’ pre-existing information. It turns out that this information is valuable, and so interacts with the impact of the ICT intervention. Supervisors selected extension agents who were more likely to be more responsive to the monitoring technology, which had substantive impacts on the effects of the intervention when compared to randomly allocating the mobile phones.