Re-innovation in government: Competitive accountability

The demand for greater accountability of public systems is becoming more and more eloquent all over the country.  Strangely and may be not so strangely, in a state with a political instability, some of the most interesting reforms have taken place.  I am not suggesting that political stability reduces the incentives for bureaucracy to experiment and innovate.  But, in the event of secure constituency, the leaders may have less pressure to perform.  May be, a  little bit of instability is not bad.  Let me illustrate.
The Sakala scheme of public accountability in Karnataka seems to have created a new global benchmark in raising expectation of the people and then meeting them in almost 98 per cent of the cases.  More than 1.75 crore requests for different services were met within the time promised and with full satisfaction of the people.  There were hardly 500 complaints in an interface of this scale.  How did a state government do it?  And why wouldn’t people all over the country  expect similar efficiency in providing public services in a transparent and accountable manner?  Just about five officers achieved this breakthrough by applying IT tools and training the staff dealing with 256 services.  The staff union not only cooperated with the administration but in fact enthusiastically supported the scheme.  It was insisted that people while submitting a request for a service provide their mobile number.  Likewise, the mobile number of all the functionaries were also fed into the system.  If a particular certificate or copy of a property record was to be provided within seven days, then the concerned officer would receive a reminder in the morning about the pending cases.  And again would receive a message in the evening about the cases disposed and balance to be completed.  The people will get a message when their job was done.  One might suspect that other departments dealing with 1600 more services might like to avoid coming under pressure of such a high performance expectation.  But as the chief secretary, Mr. Ranganathan explained, several departments not covered so far were vying with each other to be included in this scheme.
Why were different departments competing with each other to become more and more accountable?  There was a small fine of `.20 to be deducted from the personal salary of the concerned staff who delayed a particular request by a day.  Issue was not just the amount but the stigma that it was perceived to attach.  As if results were not sufficient guarantee of performance,  IIM Bangalore was requested to evaluate the performance every month.  What would be the motivation for Shalini Goel, the secretary in charge of the Sakala scheme to constrain herself through such institutional arrangements of accountability?  Wouldn’t it be easy to have a compliant academic institution to give a good report rather than entrust one of the most reputed institution to do the performance audit concurrently?  A new idiom of accountability is emerging in the country.  Excellence, efficiency, empathy, and equity in provision of services makes the entire chain of administrators feel good about themselves.  Swantah Sukhay, for one’s own inner happiness seems to be the most sustainable intrinsic motivation for bringing about social or professional change.
The cabinet secretariat organized a meeting of more than 70 departments of Govt. of India to identify the framework conditions that will generate innovations in the government.  My submission at the meeting was that by all means, we should generate new innovations.  But, if we do not track the existing innovations,  wouldn’t a valuable opportunity have been lost?  How many people recall that each one of us had to stand in the queue to pay road tax of our vehicle every year?  And then one day a Transport Commissioner recognized that three fourth of the revenue came from one fourth of the people, whereas the queue is comprised the other three fourth of the people a well.  He started a scheme for payment of tax for three to five years at one go.  Today we pay, lifetime tax only once.  What a relief.  All because of one person sticking his neck out.  Similarly, auto emission checks, when introduced first time, were opposed by the automobile manufacturers.  Today, it is not only obligatory but it is also complied by most people.  There are a large number of experiments being done in the government by well-meaning officials who want to make a difference.  Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to track such innovations, replicate them by adapting the same to local conditions and improve the citizen satisfaction with the services of the state.  People of this country deserve the best.  And they are now realizing that it is they who are partly responsible for the continued apathy of the system by not desiring it and asserting their desire.  Accountability, accessibility and affordability are the three fulcra on which design of future delivery and demand systems would be balanced.  Hope that the inertia and resilience of the administrative system will give way to innovation and inclusion.

Anil K Gupta

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