Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Standardizing "citizen feedback services"

Another example of "crossing the river by feeling the stones" comes from China's experiment with collecting citizen feedback on public services delivered by local governments. Since the early eighties, Beijing has allowed local governments to experiment with feedback systems. This had resulted in the proliferation of large numbers of such systems, with most local government departments having their own dedicated feedback channels. 

The Economist has a nice article on the feedback systems,
There are mayor’s mailboxes on the websites of every municipal government, usually indicated by a button next to a biography of the official with an exhortation to “write me a letter” (or, in practice, send an e-mail). The hotlines allow people to be put through to a local bureaucrat. The first one was set up in 1983. Since then they have proliferated, creating an unco-ordinated tangle. But the past few years have seen rounds of consolidation. Shanghai announced a single hotline in 2013. Guangzhou, in the south, did so in 2015. The unified ones all use the same number, 12345... A survey last year by Dataway Horizon, a consultancy in Beijing, found wide variations in the quality of service. In Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, which are among the richest cities, all hotline calls were put through right away. In Yunnan, Tibet, Shaanxi and Qinghai—less-developed provinces in the west—only a fifth of calls were even answered on the first attempt.
Once these "million flowers" bloomed, positive deviances emerged and Beijing then stepped in to facilitate more orderly development, 
In recent months state media have been promoting what they call a model example—the 12345 hotline in Jinan, capital of the coastal province of Shandong. It was launched in 2008, has about 60 operators on duty and gets nearly 5,000 calls a day, rising to 20,000 on busy ones... Before it was set up, the city had 38 hotline numbers for contacting different departments. That was “chaos”, the administration said... In an attempt to improve widely varying levels of service, the central government recently laid down rules for running 12345 hotlines. Starting in July, calls must be answered within 15 seconds, at least one person on duty should be able to speak a language other than Mandarin and the line should be open 24 hours a day.
The contrast with India is stark. Such feedback or "grievance redressal" systems have been functioning in districts and cities for decades. There is very little standardisation of process protocols, service levels, and reporting formats among the tens of hundreds of software applications, online and offline, that are used across the country. 

The vast majority of these software are leaky and inefficient variants, developed on shoe-string budgets by the local officials of the National Informatics Centre. Further, most often, incoming officials tinker ad nauseam whimsically with these systems, preventing the institutionalisation of any one software. To the best of my knowledge, even today, no state government has a unified "grievance redressal" mechanism that covers all its agencies. 

A simple but robust web-enabled application that collects grievances from multiple sources, networks officials from different agencies, consolidates action taken, and analyses and renders appropriate reports to officials at different levels can be a very strong systemic effort to improve state capacity. A few state governments could initiate efforts to develop and stabilize such an application over a 2-3 year period.

In a separate context, such feedback systems are a very useful entry point to being the inculcation of accountability in countries with very weak state capacity.

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