Improving public services

With a bit of innovation and creativity, they can be made user-friendly

Diwakar Jhurani | December 19, 2018


#public service   #water   #electricity   #sanitation  


Sometimes it is challenging to be an average law-abiding citizen in India. The real pain lies especially in citizen-government interactions. From corruption to inefficiency, availing public services is not a cakewalk in the country. 
 
In terms of user experience, availing public services can be divided into two categories: (a) individual-centric services – those services that differ in quality from one individual to the other, and (b) common services – those services that are common for all. Examples of individual services include getting a driver’s licence, filing an FIR, and real-estate registration. Here experiences of users differ substantially based on their background. If you are an important person then filing an FIR is a child’s play; if you are rich enough to pay bribes then a driver’s licence can be delivered to your doorstep without any hassle. 
 
On the other hand, instances of common services include public transportation systems and maintaining decent air quality – where there is zero bias in terms of recipient experience. One key difference between individual-centric and common public services is that the users can bypass the latter through legally available alternatives. For instance, by using private transport and using air purifiers one can minimise their interface with the dismal quality of air. On the other hand, the way to bypass bad quality individual-centric services is generally through illegal means such as paying a bribe or using influence. 
 
With the problem well defined, the real quality improvement in public services thus lies in a strategy that (i) minimises the quality differential between individual services, and (ii) makes the common services more attractive than private alternatives. Here, minimising the quality differential doesn’t mean a race to the bottom, but an ascent towards the best user experience and elimination of illegal means. It is important to note that there are many commendable initiatives that the government has taken up to precisely do this – a technology-driven simple system to issue passports, running efficient metro systems, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and many more. 
 
Who to blame?
However, there’s another angle to public services, which is more on the demand side (i.e., the users of these services). While it’s easy to blame the supplier (the government in this case) for all the systemic vices, I would argue that a significant section of public services suffers because of the users. No bribe is taken until it is given. No government diktat forces individuals to jump queues while waiting for a bus/train or throw garbage in public places. In fact, the government has enacted laws and rules to minimise such behaviour. Obviously, these laws can be enforced better, but it seems unreasonable to blame just the government. So the larger question is that if we are comfortable in blaming the government alone for poor governance, are we conveniently assuming that Indian citizens are congenital violators of law? If we are, there’s a really serious problem and no government can address it. If not (as I also believe), are there any innovative solutions to address this? After all, the same set of people lives by the law when they land on foreign soil. I doubt if you can easily find Indians spitting in public in a foreign country. Many argue that the reason for such contrasting behaviour is the fear of the law. Because Indians are afraid of law in foreign lands, they tend to be more restrained. There’s also a possibility that they don’t want to be singled out, i.e., it’s much easier to break law when you see many others doing the same and vice versa. In both scenarios, I don’t think there’s a direct solution to fashion a fast-paced change. Neither can enforcement of law be improved overnight, nor can public behaviour be changed any time soon. 
 
Taking a step back from this solution finding exercise, here’s an interesting thing that China is doing. It has started a social credit rating system that rates citizens on four major criteria: honesty in government affairs, commercial integrity, societal integrity, and judicial credibility. The implications for a low social credit score involve missing on various important things such as travel suspension on particular means of transportation and exclusion from private schools. As reported in the media, “the exact methodology [of rating citizens] is a secret – but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online. The eventual system will punish bad passengers specifically. Potential misdeeds include trying to ride with no ticket, loitering in front of boarding gates, or smoking in no-smoking areas.” 
 
Now, one can argue that such a system is nothing short of a big daddy state where citizens are under constant surveillance and live with a sense of fear. But there is partial merit in the principle that entrusts the responsibility of creating a better society through an informed, active and ethical citizenry. 
 
Are citizens the answer?
India can have its own approach in creating such a society without violating the principles of freedom of choice and privacy. As management consultants would say, “A carrot and stick approach works best to create right incentives for people to act in the way we want them to.” This approach is nothing but a mix of incentivising good behaviour and penalising bad one. We already have a stick-based approach in the form of laws that penalise people for wrongful behaviour – penalties for breaking traffic rules, littering, and not travelling with a ticket. As a compliment, can India introduce a carrot-based approach as well? I am talking about real, tangible benefits to people for following and promoting good citizenship. What if there is a system that rewards people for correcting the flaws in public services that are induced by citizens themselves? Here’s an example – go to a typical bus station and you will find many individuals engaged in activities that certainly can’t be termed as good public behaviour. What if I as a citizen, take out time from my schedule and spend time monitoring and correcting such behaviour for an hour every week? Currently, one can’t do so because neither is there any defined authority to do so, nor any special incentive.
 
So here’s how such a ‘volunteer-incentive’ system would work. The government will identify areas where civil volunteers can contribute. These would be well-defined activities like finishing pending clerical work at police stations and monitoring order at public places. The principle would be to select those activities that don’t give too much discretion/authority in the hands of the volunteer but at the same time require a pair hands and a sensible mind. Initially, volunteers would be trained by officials and once they are approved by the host organisation, the need for training and monitoring them can be done away with. These inducted volunteers can then train new volunteers. A simple web portal that links prospective volunteers with activities that require citizen support in a neighbourhood can streamline the operational aspect of such a system.
 
Now comes the incentive part, it may be premature to link volunteer activities with cash rewards. In fact, these activities can well be considered as those directly associated with nation building and money may dilute the interest of passionate citizens towards the sanctity of the cause. However, some non-cash-based incentives that target an improvement in the social status of active citizens can have a positive effect. Acknowledgement from the government, VIP access at places where citizens have to really struggle (such as entry in famous temples, railway lounges, etc.), special invitations to government events such as Independence Day and Republic Day celebrations are just a few examples. There is a scope of creativity in deciding these. 
 
Delivery of public services in an efficient manner lies at the heart of ‘Ease of Living’ and there is a need for singular focus on user experience. Generally, the most responsible citizens complain about poor governance, and it is time to use their energies to improve the very system that bothers them the most. 
 
Jhurani is a young professional with the Economic Advisory Council to the PM. The views are personal.

(The article appears in December 31, 2018 edition)

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