Published online by Cambridge University Press: 06 August 2020
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.
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: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/N1JX6Y.