Giving people the tools to demand better public services

Giving people the tools to demand better public services

By Bart Édes

Poor people rely more on the state for essential services and assistance than those in the middle and upper classes, who have more options available to them. 

Written by Bart Edes, Director, Poverty Reduction, Gender and Social Development

Poor people rely more on the state for essential services and assistance than those in the middle and upper classes, who have more options available to them.  Yet the efficiency and reliability of public sector delivery of education, electricity, health, social welfare benefits, water, etc. varies dramatically from country to country, and within countries.

The just-published report, Empowerment and Public Service Delivery in Developing Asia and the Pacific, emphasizes that citizen and community empowerment mechanisms increase government accountability to provide essential services to the population.

As the report explains, empowerment can be encouraged through different means. For example, rights-based entitlements offer citizens the right to information, as well as the right to specific social services and basic necessities, like education, food, health, and jobs. Rights-based entitlements are enforceable rights enshrined in law, and often include specific roles and responsibilities for implementing authorities, as well as criteria for beneficiary eligibility and procedures for identification.

The global freedom of information movement has pushed civil servants and public administrations everywhere to be more responsive to citizens. In 2005, India’s Parliament passed the landmark Right to Information Act, one of several such transparency measures adopted by Asian countries over the past decade. Informed citizens are better equipped to take advantage of opportunities, access public services, exercise their rights, and press the bureaucracy and its representatives to fulfill their obligations.

Another tool that has been used to good effect is participatory performance monitoring, through which communities and civil society organizations monitor and evaluate the implementation and performance of public services. Those employing this tool often select the indicators themselves and then measure performance of service providers against the indicators.  The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Public Affairs Centre, a Bangalore-based nongovernment organization, have created a learning toolkit to help people develop and use citizen score cards, a type of performance monitoring tool.

Community-driven development (CDD) is another approach to empowering people at the grassroots level. CDD gives communities control over planning decisions and investment resources for local development projects. It offers benefits such as lower cost of infrastructure projects with equal or better quality than those implemented by government, lower incidence of corruption, high participation of women and the poor, and job generation. Introduced in the mid-1990s, CDD projects have been implemented in more than 100 countries. Indonesia and the Philippines are among the developing Asian countries with the most experience with CDD, and the latter is in the process of scaling up a national program with support from ADB and other development agencies.

It should be emphasized that community empowerment cannot gain significant ground without a government commitment to become more open and accountable. The political process, judiciary, and frontline service providers strongly influence the extent to which people are able to influence decisions on resource allocation and public policy that affect their lives. If state institutions resist societal demands to change the way that they conduct business, then change will be slow in coming. In so many ways, this matters much more for poor people than others.

Follow Bart Edes on Twitter: