Brokering India’s public service delivery by Sushant Anand

Informal mediation peopled by brokers, touts, middlemen has over the years embedded itself within public service delivery. Even as they are not within the government system, brokers have come to play an important role, and have reshaped it. The Municipality of Delhi is no exception. Through this article I discuss as to who are these people, and how do broker practices impact governance?

I met Pankaj Sharma, 36, while researching a paper on informal institutions. For the past 15 years, he has been assisting people to complete their documentation for any work they may have at the zonal office of New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) in Karol Bagh, a popular locality in the national capital of India. He is not employed by the government, and carries out his business sitting on a boulder or under a tree. He likes to be known as a consultant, but came into this line of work by accident as a result of unemployment.

Driven mainly by patronage networks, brokers, fixers or touts behave as ‘gatekeepers’ may block or expedite access to public services based on the payment of a fee based on his/her special position as an access provider (Kumar & Landy, 2012: 130-131). Brokers and other such informal networks effect a new understanding amongst citizens seeking to make use of public services – services that are out of reach for citizens if not for them.

With respect to the citizen’s services at the South and North Municipalities of Delhi, service seekers had trouble finding their way in the maze of departments at the institutional premises, and thus preferred approaching the broker at a nominal fee. The officers within the institutions viewed these brokers as a complementary part of the service delivery owing to the fact that these are legal consulting type entities. The brokers themselves, however, felt that they should be institutionalised as service partners due to the high volume of services seekers, usual technical glitches, steep learning curve for officials to keep up with systemic interventions, and the general acceptability of the public.

The Helmke & Levitsky (table below) framework of 2004 offers an understanding of the linkage between the existence of informal institutions and formal government systems.


The typology provided by Helmke and Levitsky (2004: 728) is based on the outcomes of informal rules and effectiveness of the formal rules in a given context. The outcome variables dictate whether the result of these rules are in line or against what one may expect from strict adherence of formal rules. The effectiveness variable on the other hand is the extent to which the formal rules are realised in practice. It is understood that where the rules and procedures are ineffective, the probability of enforcement will be low (Helmke and Levitsky, 2004: 728).

The study findings based upon service-seeker surveys & interviews confirmed a direct dependence on these brokers outside any and every municipal office in New Delhi. A sample of 30 service seekers across two municipal zone offices conveyed that 80% of them usually approached brokers to speed up the process of their work at a minimal fee irrespective of their economic status. While the less educated clients seemed more vulnerable to exploitation, the educated, upper class clients too waited for their turns for calculation of property tax, if not for arrangement of paperwork to obtain birth/death certificate. There seemed to be a process oriented equilibrium where an imperfect system seemed to be working well, both at supply and demand side.

The modus operandi of broker-led governance was further mapped against the recent doorstep delivery of public services policy initiated by the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) to understand the inherent complexities in the system of delivery of public services. The doorstep delivery of public services was a set-up where mediation was institutionalised as part of the system to prevent exploitation of service seekers by the brokers who established ‘temporary power centres’ that could exacerbate access problems (Media reports in 2017-18). The public institution arrangement had been plagued with weeding brokers and touts, especially to ease the citizens off the red tape myriad, information asymmetries and bureaucratic violence (Gupta, 2012) especially in matters related to water, electricity and transport authorities.

Mediated governance has no accountability to its users but brokers are usually risk averse and efficient in delivering services to ensure the leverage of positive marketing and, maintaining their space in the ‘mediation market’. In other words, the system is far from being transparent as nobody knows the legitimacy of the means used by fixers. The mediation of public services may well be offering services to citizens at a price in the short-term, but it is a larger reflection of the lack of capacity, complacency and poor design of service delivery systems in the long-run.

This is a shortened version of an article published here by the Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research.

Gisselquist, R.M. (2012) Good Governance as a Concept, and Why this Matters for Development Policy. WIDER Working Paper
Gupta, A., 2012. Red tape: Bureaucracy, structural violence, and poverty in India. Duke University Press.
Helmke, G. and S. Levitsky (2004) ‘Informal Institutions and Comparative Poli-tics: A Research Agenda’, Perspectives on politics 2(4): 725-740
Kumar, G. and F. Landy (2012) ‘Vertical Governance: Brokerage, Patronage and Corruption in Indian Metropolises’, ‘Vertical Governance: Brokerage, Patronage and Corrup-tion in Indian Metropolises’, Governing India’s Metropolises, pp. 127-154. Routledge India


sushant.pngAbout the author:

Sushant Anand is a senior officer at the Accountability Initiative. He has a vast spectrum of experience to work in areas including health, education, WASH, resource management and climate change in organisations like FICCI, IPE Global, Ipsos and TERI.
Sushant is a public policy professional by training and completed his MA in Development Studies from the ISS. 








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