Four principles for an effective state

By Paul Walker 05/01/2015

The following four principles come from the 2014 Nobel prize winner in economics Jean Tirole. The original column was posted at on 16 July 2007 (reposted 13 October 2014). Tirole argues that for the French state to meet the expectations of its citizens the state will have to become more effective. To do this requires, in Tirole’s view, a four-pronged approach: restructuring, competition, evaluation and accountability.

Many countries have undertaken fundamental governmental reforms based on a consensus between political parties and unions. In the 1990s, the Swedish Social Democrats government made large cuts in the civil service. Ministers, who formulate overall strategy and make decisions on resource allocation, have to rely on a small number of civil servants. Operational details must therefore be delegated to a large number of independent agencies, each of which can recruit and remunerate their employees as they choose. These independent agencies operate under strict budgetary limits that ensure the sustained delivery of public services.

Around the same time, Canada cut government expenditure by 18.9% without social turmoil – and without greatly reducing health, justice, or housing programmes. They did this while maintaining tax levies, so the result was a reduced public deficit and falling public debt. Spending that could not be clearly justified in terms of the resulting service to the public was pruned. Subsidies for entrepreneurial projects and privatisation facilitated the elimination of one in six positions in the civil service. Indeed the sort of government reorganisation undertaken in Canada could only be dreamed of in France with its often nightmarish collection of laws and fiscal regulations. The Canadians have a single service for the calculation and collection of taxes and a one-stop-shop for government-business relations.

Contrary to common beliefs in France, head-on competition can produce high quality public services. In telecommunications, most countries, including France, have put a universal service obligation fund in place, which is compatible with competition between providers. It protects the smallest firms while ensuring that services are available in all regions of the country or to poor consumers.

When it comes to education, several countries (Belgium, the UK, Sweden) have tried voucher systems that give everyone access to education but create competition among schools for students. Such a system must be accompanied by clear and openly available information on schools so parents can make informed choices and “insider-ism” can be avoided (something that arose from the competition among the tracks in the French education system).

Competition can also be created via standardisation. In the healthcare realm, using more systematic comparisons between hospitals, or between the private and public sectors could help control costs. Sometimes the cost of treatment for a given disease varies by a factor of 2.5 with the variation having nothing to do with patient selection.

Every action of the State must be subject to a double independent evaluation. The first should be before the action: Is public intervention necessary? What are the costs and benefits? The second is after. Did it work? Was it cost effective? On this point, it would be necessary to require that the audit recommendations (for example, those of the Audit Court) be either followed according to a strict schedule, or rejected with a convincing justification.

The 2001 Law (LOLF), adopted on the basis of a left-right consensus, is a small revolution in a country accustomed to the logic of budgetary processes. Embracing the logic of effectiveness, the law aims to transform public sector managers into true owners where their obligation to produce results goes hand in hand with the freedom to manage. Putting this principle into practice is certainly difficult. First of all, the objectives need to be clear and easily verifiable. Then, “accountability” must be introduced. For that, the objectives can’t be collective (as the failure of control of health expenses has shown), but must be the subject of rewards or sanctions. Lastly, one should be wary of the pernicious effects of “multi-tasking”. Incentives that are related to an easily measured objective (for example, the cost per student for a university, which can be easily reduced by teaching large numbers of students in large lecture halls) can cause one to ignore equally important objectives that one has neglected to measure (such as the quality of teaching or research). In other words, to construct good incentives, one has to evaluate actions comprehensively. That way, it’s clear that giving regulated enterprises more responsibility should go hand in hand with stricter safety and quality controls. The need for such controls is clear from the experience of British telecoms in 1984 and more recently, of British railways.

The French state does have something of a bad history when it comes to effectiveness. For example the French SOEs have not always been run well. In 1997, for example, the Economist magazine (`Banking’s Biggest Disaster’, vol. 344 issue 8024 July 5: 69-71) noted the near-bankruptcy of the then state-owned bank Credit Lyonnais. The magazine pointed out that the then French finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn had to admit that the bank had probably lost around Ffr100 billion (around US$17 billion). The bank had to be bailed out three times in the 1990s. The total cost to the French taxpayer of the whole debacle has been estimated at between US$20 and US$30 billion. Improving on such a record shouldn’t be too difficult.