Want better public services in Asia? Improve governance

Published on Friday, 05 June 2015

Published by Shikha Jha on Friday, 05 June 2015

Education is one of several sectors where public service delivery could be significantly improved with better governance. A teacher with her students in a public school in Indonesia.
Education is one of several sectors where public service delivery could be significantly improved with better governance. A teacher with her students in a public school in Indonesia.

Co-written by Anil B. Deolalikar and Pile F. Quising

While developing Asia has made great strides toward raising prosperity and reducing poverty during the last three decades, it has not done as well on good governance, which affects public service delivery in areas such as health, education, electricity, and water supply. Public service delivery is the face of governance in developing countries, because public services are the main—sometimes the only—point of contact that citizens in a poor country have with their governments. Thus, in the public’s perception, poor service delivery is synonymous with poor governance, which manifests itself in the form of corruption. The impacts of corrupt practices are often hardest on the poor, who struggle to pay bribes or simply lose out on services. This is ironic, since publicly provided services are particularly important for the poor, as they cannot afford the alternatives provided by the private sector. So what can be done to improve public service delivery—and more generally, governance—in developing Asia? While there is no “magic bullet,” ADB research compiled in the book Governance in Developing Asia: Public Service Delivery and Empowerment launched today has shown that empowering citizens and communities can be a good start. On the face of it, citizen empowerment sounds like a panacea; it enables communities and individuals to hold the state accountable for the delivery of basic services. Client-citizens can also influence the quality of services by directly exercising client power on the provider – the state. Empowerment can be achieved through different mechanisms like rights-based entitlements, participatory performance monitoring, and community participation and community-driven development, where groups of users of services or entire communities participate in the delivery process, thereby directly controlling the quantity and quality of services provided.

India has enacted legislation to protect the right to information, and guarantee rural employment and the right to food, but health still lags behind. A crowded public hospital in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

Many countries in developing Asia have made use of these mechanisms. For instance, when it comes to putting the rights-based approach into practice, India has probably gone farther than most countries in the region by enacting legislation to protect the right to information and guarantee rural employment and the right to food. Participatory performance tools such as citizen report cards, community scorecards and social audits have also been used by several Asian countries to monitor the performance of public service providers and put pressure on them to improve service quality – often to good effect.

However, all these empowerment interventions do not appear to have made much of a dent in the service delivery problem in the region. Why is this the case? First of all, although empowerment sometimes comes from below (citizens and communities seize power themselves), it mostly flows top-down, with governments granting citizens the entitlement to specific essential services, and encouraging participatory monitoring and audits of public service providers. When there isn’t a strong political will for change, such entitlements are rarely backed up with the funds and resources needed to provide better services. Additionally, for empowerment to actually result in improved service delivery outcomes, it must be backed by a strong civil society who can mobilize marginalized citizens and communities to hold local public service providers accountable. The success of empowerment initiatives also depends on significant technical and financial capacity among both governments and communities. In many countries, these pre-conditions may be missing.

Poor governance, coupled with lack of resources, results in chronic power shortages across many countries in developing Asia. A hydro plant in Tajikistan.

The lesson from developing Asia is that even in the best of circumstances, citizen empowerment is necessary, but not sufficient to improve public service delivery. Yes, empowered citizens can pressure governments and service providers, but unless this is accompanied by serious administrative reforms, a radical transformation of the governance structures in a country may be wishful thinking. For instance, extensive participatory monitoring and community involvement in local schools has often not resulted in improving student learning outcomes, because governments are not willing to penalize derelict teachers and principals.

To avoid these pitfalls, reforms needs to include disconnecting the bureaucracy from political patronage, changing the incentives that managers face at the local level, developing career paths for service providers (such as teachers), building capacity to collect and store data, and reforming records management systems to enable government departments to disclose information more efficiently. Citizen and community empowerment is but one way to address the problem of poor governance in developing Asia. Other tools—such as decentralization, public-private partnerships, and greater use of ICTs by governments—can also play important roles. It is unlikely that any one of these interventions will work by themselves in improving governance and service delivery, but together they can make a difference in the quality of life of millions living in the region.

Anil B. Deolalikar is Founding Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. He is also Professor of Economics and Director of the UC Global Health Institute’s One Health Center. Prior to joining UC Riverside in 2003, he taught at the University of Washington in Seattle, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University. Mr. Deolalikar is co- editor of the Journal of Asian and African Studies and Journal of Developing Societies. In 2007, he was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Pile F. Quising is Senior Economics Officer in ADB’s Economic Research and Regional Cooperation Department. Before joining ADB in 2000, she was consultant in an ADB cross-country poverty study and a research associate at various institutions, working on projects on public health policy, local government decentralization and international trade.

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