Public Services as a Universal Right

TEXT: Jesper Lauridsen, Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 31. March 2020

Since the publication of the World Development Report 2004 – Making Services Work for Poor People – a lot has happened in public service delivery. Around the world, governments are expected to deliver better, faster and more affordable public services. The improvements often happen by exploiting state-of-the-art tools and the advantages of e-Government. For example, one-stop shops, which offer all public services to citizens under one roof; or multi-channel delivery, which allows accessing the services via both traditional and electronic means such as the Internet or a mobile phone.

However, the agenda for improved public services hasn’t correspondingly taken up the equity of public services. What is still at stake is whether improved public services in different countries are equally beneficial for the disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of society. For example, while online public service provision can save a lot of people from traveling a long distance, it might not benefit disadvantaged groups of the society – such as the elderly and low socio-economic status groups – who don’t have the means or skills to access the Internet.   

We argue that adequate and relevant information about and access to public services are part of universal rights of citizens – be it in water, education or health. The world needs to go beyond introducing the state-of-the-art technology and foster a culture where the social contracts between governments and communities are strengthened so that consultation processes are transparent, and actions are accountable.

Co-creating public services

No single model of public service provision offers a magic bullet solution for deep-seated problems. Effective and accessible public services call for coordinating, mediating or directly providing services to citizens. In a way, this also means that public service provision is a ‘multi-stakeholder initiative’ among the public sector, private enterprises and the civil society.

Recent evidence from 35 programs in low‐ and middle‐income countries has shown that citizen engagement effectively improves service provision. On the flip side, failures to engage local communities lead to the exclusion of large portions of society from public services and to waste, fraud and corruption.

Therefore, it is crucial to empower local communities and community-based organizations to be aware of their rights. If legislative frameworks don’t allow for local communities to participate, this is where we work to make the process accessible by improving the enabling environment.

A good example from Bolivia: in a project of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Helvetas supports water and waste management services to be budgeted and spent on actions that promote social and gender equity and capitalize on the knowledge and demands of the citizens. In Albania, we work with female council members on a budgeting process that allows them to defend their interests.

At a more advanced level, countries like Singapore, Switzerland, Norway and Canada are moving towards ‘co-creation’ of public services by governments, citizens and other stakeholders. Put simply, this is about ‘collective governance’ that seeks to find solutions to pressing problems of public services. It works by bringing together, in constructive and inexpensive ways, diverse stakeholders or key governance actors to work in partnership.

Why political context can mess things up, and how to avoid it

Supporting democratic governance is not easy because many local governments are not keen on sharing information, like budgetary processes, as these are areas where typical cases of mismanagement of resources are found.

A good example is the allocation of scarce resources of local governments. Although there are participatory processes where communities are involved and consulted, these processes are somewhat undermined by decision-making that is done not based on public consultation meetings but behind closed doors.

Sometimes, the quality of public services is not on top of the political agenda of the candidates. This is what happened in Kosovo: some good performing municipalities have not had their leadership re-elected, while others were re-elected despite their poor results.

In cases where public services are provided based on market principles, the process sometimes suffers from the self-interest of foreign direct investments and multinational corporations that put a lot of pressure on national governments to follow their priorities.

Public service provision remains embedded in local patterns of political behavior. Political economy and power analysis is therefore a powerful tool to understand what shapes the level and quality of public service provision. It is important to consider linkages among politics (formal and informal political arrangements and power structures), policies (objectives and goals) and administrative capabilities (the public bureaucracy). With a closer look, it is also possible to understand how ethnolinguistic considerations, clientelist relationships or political partisan lines shape decisions to vote. Only after identifying these factors is it possible to transform the incentives and capacities of various stakeholders of public service provision to make the services more citizen-centric and responsive.

How tools are not an end but a means to change the social contract

Treating public services as citizen’s rights involves not just making the process transparent, but also ensuring that decisions (e.g. budgets) are executed properly. This is where accountability comes in.

Citizen-centric public services need tools that facilitate the monitoring and improvement of services through better accountability of service providers. For many years, a number of powerful tools have been used: participatory budgeting, public expenditure tracking, citizen report cards, social audits, citizen charters, right to information acts, and community scorecards. The tools complement conventional supply-side mechanisms of accountability (e.g. administrative rules, legal procedures) and serve to improve service delivery and governance by generating feedback from citizens.

Yet, these tools tend to be resource-intensive, becoming one of the reasons why their use is often driven by civil society/non-governmental organizations and funded by donors. This suggests that we need to go beyond tools and look at broader issues of how they can serve as an initial entry point to holding local governments to account for the provision of public services in a more systematic way. In other words, the tools are not an end but a means to change the social contract, the trust relationship between citizens and local government, and at the end of the day, to also change the civic culture of both the duty bearers and rights holders.

Here are two examples from Ethiopia and Nepal. In both countries, we implemented infrastructure projects (trail bridges) that transformed not only landscapes but also attitudes and relationships. Different tools like public hearings, reviews and audits used in Ethiopia involved the local communities in planning and executing the construction of the bridges, and even more importantly, in ensuring that they are maintained afterwards. The public hearings are in the past, but the people have retained the feeling of ownership for the new infrastructure, and responsibility for keeping it safe and in good condition.  

Likewise, the establishment of two-way communication with communities in Nepal through Public Audit Practice during the planning and execution of a similar infrastructure project created an environment of trust and confidence, thereby enhancing the local ownership.

In both cases, local governments and communities became more used to entering a dialogue about public service provision – in other words, a dialogue between the rights holders and duty bearers.

On the path towards inclusive public services

The lofty agenda of ‘leaving no one behind’ as formulated and agreed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), directly or indirectly, needs effective public services for successful implementation.

To ensure that improvements to public services are sustainable (continuing beyond our projects) and inclusive (benefitting disadvantaged groups), we need to not simply introduce new tools offered by modern technology but use them to kick off a bigger process: to create an environment of trust and confidence. Only then can services become truly citizen-centric and leave no one behind.

This article appeared in the March 2020 issue of Helvetas Mosaic.

Jesper Elias Lauridsen leads Governance and Peace working area at Helvetas. 

Zenebe B. Uraguchi works as Programme Coordinator for East and Southeast Europe and Senior Advisor for Sustainable and Inclusive Economies at Helvetas.

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