In India, Engaging With Citizens to Improve Water and Sanitation

Engaging with citizens results in service improvements, enhanced efficiency and greater public goodwill, a number of forward-looking Indian public service providers are discovering.

A new publication, Engaging with Citizens to Improve Services, examines 10 initiatives designed to improve service, extend coverage and make public service providers more accountable to the public.

Grading Service Providers

During the 1980s Bangalore’s population grew rapidly, from 2.9 million in 1981 to 4.1 million in 1993. The city’s emergence as a global software hub created a sudden expansion in the demand for municipal services, such as water and sanitation. As a result, there was a considerable lag between the demand and supply for services in Bangalore.

Concerned by the deteriorating situation, a group of residents formed the Public Affairs Centre, to create a citizen monitoring program -- Citizen Report Cards (CRC). The report cards survey citizens about the state of public services and developmental programs.

In the first survey, respondents were asked to assess eight of the city’s key public agencies on a scale of 1 to 7. They were also asked what direct and indirect costs they bore as a result of poor service, how courteous the agency had been and whether it had been necessary to make illegal payments. Less than 25 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction with any of these agencies.

While CRCs do not trigger service improvements by themselves, they are a tool to gauge public feeling and convert it into intervention. The impact of the reports vary across situations, depending on the willingness of key government agencies to act on the findings.

However, a number of common gains and outcomes can be seen from the CRC experience. For example, in Bangalore the report card was used to pressure improvements from local service agencies by mobilizing a coalition of civil society organizations to demand better service.

The Public Affairs Centre calls the reports a move from ‘shouting to counting’ and from ‘protest to proposal’.

The Case of the Online Complaint Monitoring System

In Mumbai, India’s largest city, which is predicted to grow to the world’s most populated city by 2015 with 28.5 million people, half of the population consists of the urban poor. Mumbai’s island geography, its limited public railway system and its rapid population growth have resulted in a severe shortage of urban public services, housing and infrastructure.

In Mumbai, PRAJA, a civil society organization, helped the Mumbai Municipal Corporation set up an Online Complaint Monitoring System. This not only enables Mumbai citizens to register service-related complaints via telephone, personal visits, letter/fax and the Internet, but also to access online information regarding redressal status – without having to call or visit a corporation office.

The strong public demand for better governance in Mumbai has resulted in the emergence of over 2,000 active civil society groups demanding improved public services and quality of life.

Conclusion

All of the case studies underline the importance of effective consumer education in enabling users to hold their providers accountable. The process also triggers a gradual shift toward service outcomes that reflect customer satisfaction, rather than expenditure and construction targets as is currently the norm.

The case studies make it clear that significant service and accountability gains from formally engaging citizens at all points of the service delivery chain. Better services and delivery mechanisms, which are more efficient, affordable and reach more of the population, result when policy makers understand provider performance and citizens’ needs.

While the above examples show what can be achieved for efficient, effective service provision through citizen engagement, a comprehensive application of mechanisms of citizen participation are yet to be seen in any single case.