Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768ffcd9cc-6vg6l Total loading time: 0.589 Render date: 2022-12-03T14:01:08.601Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

The Political Economy of Bureaucratic Overload: Evidence from Rural Development Officials in India

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 August 2020

University of California, Merced, Merced
Johns Hopkins University
Aditya Dasgupta, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, Merced,
Devesh Kapur, Starr Foundation South Asia Studies Professor and Asia Programs Director, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University,


Government programs often fail on the ground because of poor implementation by local bureaucrats. Prominent explanations for poor implementation emphasize bureaucratic rent-seeking and capture. This article documents a different pathology that we term bureaucratic overload: local bureaucrats are often heavily under-resourced relative to their responsibilities. We advance a two-step theory explaining why bureaucratic overload is detrimental to implementation as well as why politicians under-invest in local bureaucracy, emphasizing a lack of electoral incentives. Drawing on a nationwide survey of local rural development officials across India, including time-usage diaries that measure their daily behavior, we provide quantitative evidence that (i) officials with fewer resources are worse at implementing rural development programs, plausibly because they are unable to allocate enough time to managerial tasks and (ii) fewer resources are provided in administrative units where political responsibility for implementation is less clear. The findings shed light on the political economy and bureaucratic behavior underpinning weak local state capacity.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


We thank seminar participants at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Centre for Policy Research, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Indian Statistical Institute-Delhi, Harvard Business School, and Yale University for valuable feedback.

Replication files are available at the American Political Science Review Dataverse:


Acemoglu, Daron, Garcia-Jimeno, Camilo, and Robinson, James A.. 2015. “State Capacity and Economic Development: A Network Approach.” American Economic Review 105 (8): 23642409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Banerjee, Abhijit V., Duflo, Esther, and Glennerster, Rachel. 2008. “Putting a Band-Aid on a Corpse: Incentives for Nurses in the Indian Public Health Care System.” Journal of the European Economic Association 6 (2–3): 487500.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Besley, Timothy, and Persson, Torsten. 2014. “The Causes and Consequences of Development Clusters: State Capacity, Peace, and Income.” Annual Review of Economics 6 (1): 927–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brierley, Sarah. 2020. “Unprincipled Principals: Co-Opted Bureaucrats and Corruption in Local Governments in Ghana.” American Journal of Political Science 64: 209222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bueno, Natália S. 2018. “Bypassing the Enemy: Distributive Politics, Credit Claiming, and Nonstate Organizations in Brazil.” Comparative Political Studies 51 (3): 304–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bussell, Jennifer. 2019. Clients and Constituents: Political Responsiveness in Patronage Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Calonico, Sebastian, Cattaneo, Matias D., and Titiunik, Rocio. 2014. “Robust Nonparametric Confidence Intervals for Regression‐discontinuity Designs.” Econometrica 82 (6): 22952326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dewatripont, Mathias, Jewitt, Ian, and Tirole, Jean. 2000. “Multitask Agency Problems: Focus and Task Clustering.” European Economic Review 44 (4–6): 869–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Dutta, Puja, Murgai, Rinku, Ravallion, Martin, and Van de Walle, Dominique. 2012. Does India’s Employment Guarantee Scheme Guarantee Employment ? Washington, DC: The World Bank.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ertman, Thomas. 1997. Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Evans, Peter. 2012. Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Filmer, Deon, and Pritchett, Lant H.. 2001. “Estimating Wealth Effects without Expenditure Data—or Tears: An Application to Educational Enrollments in States of India.” Demography 38 (1): 115–32.Google Scholar
Garfias, Francisco. 2018. “Elite Competition and State Capacity Development: Theory and Evidence from Post-Revolutionary Mexico.” American Political Science Review 112 (2): 339–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Geddes, Barbara. 1994. Politician’s Dilemma: Building State Capacity in Latin America. Berkley: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gulzar, Saad, and Pasquale, Benjamin J.. 2017. “Politicians, Bureaucrats, and Development: Evidence from India.” American Political Science Review 111 (1): 162–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Harding, Robin, and Stasavage, David. 2013. “What Democracy Does (and Doesn’t Do) for Basic Services: School Fees, School Inputs, and African Elections.” The Journal of Politics 76 (1): 229–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hart, Oliver, and Moore, John. 2005. “On the Design of Hierarchies: Coordination versus Specialization.” Journal of Political Economy 113 (4): 675702.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Holmstrom, Bengt. 1982. “Moral Hazard in Teams.” The Bell Journal of Economics 13 (2): 324–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Imbens, Guido, and Kalyanaraman, Karthik. 2012. “Optimal Bandwidth Choice for the Regression Discontinuity Estimator.” The Review of Economic Studies 79 (3): 933–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kapur, Devesh. 2020. “Why Does the Indian State both Fail and Succeed?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 34 (1): 3154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kruks-Wisner, Gabrielle. 2018. Claiming the State: Active Citizenship and Social Welfare in Rural India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
León, Sandra. 2011. “Who Is Responsible for What? Clarity of Responsibilities in Multilevel States: The Case of Spain.” European Journal of Political Research 50 (1): 80109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lipsky, Michael. 1980. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
Mangla, Akshay. 2015. “Bureaucratic Norms and State Capacity in India: Implementing Primary Education in the Himalayan Region.” Asian Survey 55 (5): 882908.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mathur, Nayanika. 2016. Paper Tiger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Migdal, Joel S. 1988. Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Niskanen, William A. 1971. Bureaucracy and Representative Government. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
Pepinsky, Thomas B., Pierskalla, Jan H., and Sacks, Audrey. 2017. “Bureaucracy and Service Delivery.” Annual Review of Political Science 20: 249–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Powell, G. Bingham. 2000. Elections as Instruments of Democracy: Majoritarian and Proportional Visions. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Pressman, Jeffrey L., and Wildavsky, Aaron. 1984. Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington Are Dashed in Oakland. Berkley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
Pritchett, Lant. 2009. “Is India a Flailing State? Detours on the Four Lane Highway to Modernization.” Mimeo, Harvard University. Working Paper. Scholar
Raffler, Pia. 2018. “Does Political Oversight of the Bureaucracy Increase Accountability? Field Experimental Evidence from an Electoral Autocracy.” Mimeo, Harvard University. Working Paper. Scholar
Rasul, Imran, and Rogger, Daniel. 2017. “Management of Bureaucrats and Public Service Delivery: Evidence from the Nigerian Civil Service.” The Economic Journal 128 (608): 413–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ravallion, Martin. 2019. “Guaranteed Employment or Guaranteed Income?” World Development 115: 209–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rosen, Sherwin. 1983. “Specialization and Human Capital.” Journal of Labor Economics 1 (1): 4349.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Shleifer, Andrei, and Vishny, Robert W.. 1993. “Corruption.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 108 (3): 599617.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Smith, Adam. 1817. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell.Google Scholar
Tillin, Louise, and Pereira, Anthony W.. 2017. “Federalism, Multi-Level Elections and Social Policy in Brazil and India.” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 55 (3): 328–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tilly, Charles. 1985. “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime.” In Bringing the State Back In, eds. Evans, Peter, Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, and Skocpol, Theda, 169–191. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ting, Michael M. 2011. “Organizational Capacity.” The Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization 27 (2): 245–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wade, Robert. 1985. “The Market for Public Office: Why the Indian State Is Not Better at Development.” World Development 13 (4): 467–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williams, Martin J. 2017. “The Political Economy of Unfinished Development Projects: Corruption, Clientelism, or Collective Choice?” American Political Science Review 111 (4): 705–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williamson, Oliver E. 1973. “Markets and Hierarchies: Some Elementary Considerations.” American Economic Review 63 (2): 316–25.Google Scholar
Wilson, James. 1991. Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do And Why They Do It. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
Supplementary material: Link

Dasgupta and Kapur Dataset

Supplementary material: PDF

Dasgupta and Kapur supplementary material

Online Appendix

Download Dasgupta and Kapur supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 276 KB
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The Political Economy of Bureaucratic Overload: Evidence from Rural Development Officials in India
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

The Political Economy of Bureaucratic Overload: Evidence from Rural Development Officials in India
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

The Political Economy of Bureaucratic Overload: Evidence from Rural Development Officials in India
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *