The rapid changes in India’s socio-economic situation pose immense challenges to public authorities and their traditional service delivery models. Similar issues have been faced by governments across the world over recent decades and India is well placed to learn the lessons from other countries. The speed of change in India and the level of investment from both the public and private sectors are quite remarkable. This is most visibly demonstrated in the programmes which are revolutionising both public and private transport through the building of metro lines and national highways. But we are already starting to see the perils of creating infrastructure and assets without taking into consideration the long-term ongoing services that they should be delivering. The advantages of building a new highway can quickly be lost if it is not well maintained or if traffic is routinely delayed by queues at toll plazas or by accidents.
At the outset of any new initiative aimed at improving public services, it is essential to consider what outcomes are wanted and to draw up a corresponding list of critical success factors. From this, it is possible to specify a list of services which must be provided and consider how these services will be measured in order to ensure that they deliver the outcomes that were envisaged.
Most importantly at this stage, the definition of services should not be restricted by specifying technical or procedural details except where there is a need to take over the existing infrastructure or to comply with the legislation and accepted standards.
So, for example, the building of a new highway should consider outcomes such as reduced journey times and smoother journeys. But it also needs to consider other important factors such as road safety, cost to the motorist and environmental impact. These factors may conflict with each other. For example, a fast road may be more dangerous and accidents can quickly lead to long delays.
The decision on ways to achieve the best balance between these outcomes is best left to those responsible for operating the highway – in India this is typically the concessionaire. He should be given strong incentives to deliver the outcomes expected by the public, and also as much freedom as possible in the designing of the operational services and the associated technology to deliver them.
In order to ensure consistency to the motorist, some restrictions like interoperable tolling tags or standardised road signs have to exist. There are advantages in encouraging open architectures and standards, both in opening up competition between suppliers and in avoiding being locked in with specific suppliers for future expansion and long-term maintenance.
It is also equally important to encourage concessionaires to take on a wider responsibility than just building a road and collecting tolls. This is where payment against performance indicators can yield the greatest benefits. But if the concession agreement includes the right level of incentive against each of the desired outcomes (and that is not as easy as it sounds), the concessionaires can be left to design their own services and solutions with flexibility to innovate, learn and adapt throughout the lifetime of the concession. This can also protect the public bodies from being held responsible for providing the wrong solution.
Too often, technical consultants are employed to specify products and systems down to the minutest technical detail without any consideration on how the use of such technology would benefit the operational services or the travelling public. This frequently results in significant amount of wasted money and effort on components and functions which deliver no operational benefit — the system operators then battle with technical compliance rather than ways of carrying out their work.
Service providers need to be left to design, implement and operate the solutions and technology which are best able to achieve the outcomes that they are contracted to deliver. This is not always a high-tech solution – in many cases the best services can be delivered using relatively low-tech but cost-effective solutions. Technology can be treated as just part of the toolbox at the service providers’ disposal. They can decide the best trade-off between quality and cost for the initial solution and the ongoing support.
In this model, the service providers learn more about ways of delivering the best service – they are free to change their internal practices and technical solutions without making any contractual changes. They are not constrained by other providers’ technology nor are they forced to perform tasks which serve no practical purpose. But they are penalised for failing to deliver the service levels required.
The model means that the service providers also accept the risk for any shortcomings in their solution rather than blaming the system provider. The system provider, on the other hand, blames the technical specification and the government picks up the bill.