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Public Services and People's Audit

People

Public Services and People’s Audit

Who Benefits from India’s Public Services? A People’s Audit of Five Basic Services

by Samuel Paul et al; Academic Foundation, New Delhi, 2006; pp 296, Rs 695.

ABDUL AZIZ

I
n the provisioning of public goods and services, the present-day state goes beyond the ‘lakshman rekha’ drawn up by Adam Smith back in 1776. Besides providing the Smithsonian public goods of defence and law and order, it is common knowledge that the state – both in the socialist economies and in the capitalist market economies – is engaged in providing “other” goods and services of a variety, which cannot be termed as public goods in the strict Samuelsonian sense. The justification for doing so is that the modern state is a welfare state and that, as such, it has the responsibility of doing all that it can to ensure the well-being of its citizens. It is in this spirit the Millennium Development Goals have been drawn by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2002, the achievement of which basically is meant to improve the quality of life of people. As a follow-up, the member nations have been urged to provide the related public services for their citizens to the accepted normative levels.

There had been a debate that the state would not be efficient in delivering goods/ services other than public goods as it had certain constraints. However, since it has been realised that market failure arising from its pure profit motive would not reach benefits to the poor and vulnerable sections, the state took upon itself the role of meeting the needs of such sections in the matter of goods and services which would improve their quality of life. It is in this spirit significant amounts of money is being allocated from the government budget for the provisioning of such services. In recent years, the government of India has been emphasising on human development in a big way in its development strategy. As such, an increasing budgetary allocation is noticeable for the provisioning of the basic public goods and services. There is a view that our performance in this area has not been satisfactory and more particularly, the benefits of programmes providing these services have not reached the poor at a satisfactory level.

Monitoring Exercise

It is in the above context the need for evaluating the programmes that provide the public services arises. Since the funds for these programmes come from the pool of resources mobilised by the state, and since the programme implementers are accountable for their actions, there is further need to monitor the delivery of services with a view to ascertaining the level of efficiency in resource use. At times, the state machinery itself undertakes monitoring exercise. But the drawback of such practice is, it stops at tracking the money spent and the outcome of spending in terms of physical achievements. The problem with the outcome measure of achievement is, it is long-term in nature and is subject to influence by a multiple of factors. Also, the results may come-up rather too late to help the government to take mid-course corrections in the implementation process. The authors of the book under review therefore appear to have felt that the more appropriate approach to the monitoring exercise is needed to ascertain from the beneficiaries themselves the nature of delivery, quality and responsiveness of the services. Hence, the study under reference.

The book under review authored by scholars from the Bangalore-based Public Affairs Centre (PAC), by addressing this issue, fills a major gap in the evaluation studies. The PAC, as the readers may recall, had the distinction of developing and using the Citizen Report Card (CRC) to evaluate the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of civic and public service delivery in Bangalore city with good effect. Using the same research tool, the PAC carried out a massive survey throughout the country to obtain a feedback from 36,542 households from rural and urban areas spread across 24 states of India, visiting 2,502 villages and 107 towns. The massive data collected from the length and breadth of the country which is appended to the book in a tabular form can be a basic source for interested researchers to carry out further analysis and to prepare papers of their interest.

The services covered by the study are drinking water, healthcare and childcare system, road transport, public distribution system and primary education. The authors do not indicate reasons for their choice of the services for study and they seem to have picked them at random. However, one can see that the services selected are the major ones that impact on the quality of life of people, especially the disadvantaged ones. That perhaps could be the rationale behind the choice of the services for study. This reviewer would have liked the authors to have covered electricity supply too which is an equally important service that causes the quality of life of people to improve.

The focus of the study being assessment of the effectiveness of the delivery system, it looks at effectiveness using four key criteria, namely: (i) Access or proximity of the users to the service; (ii) extent to which the service is used by the people;

(iii) extent of reliability of the service that is provided; and (iv) users’ assessment of the overall satisfaction with the service provided.

For measurement purpose, these criteria are further spelt out in qualitative and quantitative terms. For instance, “access” to drinking water is defined as the location of protected water source within 100 metres of the residence. Similarly, reliability of drinking water is seen in terms of frequency of breakdown of the system, or of public transport in terms of punctuality and so on.

Focus on Delivery

Undoubtedly, these criteria capture the effectiveness of the delivery system from the beneficiary’s perspective. If the consumer were to be sovereign, as he should be, the focus of the system should undoubtedly be on how effectively the services should reach and reach him to the best of his satisfaction. But in the delivery system, there is one more consideration that a planner cannot overlook and that is sustainability of the services. The service to sustain itself should be paid for by the consumer – at least a part

Economic and Political Weekly February 24, 2007 of it as user charge, leaving the state to dole out a portion of the cost as subsidy. Apart from meeting a part of the cost of the service, the user charges have the advantage of creating a sense of ownership among the beneficiaries such that they take interest in planning and implementing programmes that provide such services. This dimension also has been looked into by the study in respect of drinking water. The beneficiaries were asked to indicate whether they were willing to pay for better supply of services in respect of drinking water. As many as 40 per cent of the respondents, – whose proportions, of course, vary significantly across states – are willing to pay for this service is a matter of some solace. But this result ought to be taken with a pinch of salt because for them better services means more water and long duration supply both of which are difficult to comply with under the present condition. It would have been of some interest had the study made similar inquiry with regard to other services – at least in respect of education, healthcare and childcare.

Notwithstanding the above comment, it should go to the credit of the authors that the project has been executed with utmost care and in a scientific manner giving due attention to the sampling procedure and to the analysis of data employing appropriate statistical techniques and estimation procedure – all of which give some credence to generalisation of the findings with a reasonable degree of confidence. The findings of the study are indeed useful and going to be an eye-opener to the policymaker, planner and implementer alike insofar as they get a public feedback on what hitherto had been overlooked in the state machinery – driven monitoring exercises. The feedback from the service users documented in this work, provides a base to the development administrators to reform the public delivery system and to reorient its mechanisms to target the services better to the people in general and the disadvantaged sections of the community in particular.

Findings

Let us look at the findings of the study in this perspective and see, what policy inputs emerge from them. The major point made by the authors is: the governments have done much to extend people’s access to these services and less to ensure quality, effectiveness and reliability. This, according to the authors, is due to the fact that politicians feel that ensuring access gets them more political mileage than ensuring quality and reliability which in any case are difficult for the beneficiaries to assess and notice at their level! Similarly, governments have been drumming up their concern for the poor and the weaker sections in reaching services to them. But the finding is that these sections in reality face problem of access not only because of their low purchasing power, but also because the services are located in remote areas and also because of the unhelpful behaviour of the service providing bureaucracy. The perception of the beneficiaries in small villages more or less points to the same constraints.

As for the specific services, drinking water does better compared to other services; but the problem is in terms of access. Drinking water and health services score better on reliability; but public distribution system (PDS), primary schools and road transport do not do so. When it comes to overall satisfaction, the scores are the lowest. And services which require a high level of human interaction produce lower levels of satisfaction from the beneficiaries. This is especially true of health services and PDS.

Regionwise profile of the delivery system suggests that Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Maharashtra get the top five ranks, the lower five ranks going to Nagaland, Bihar, Assam, Tripura and Sikkim. In regard to health services, Sikkim, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab and Tamil Nadu perform better. Poor performance is by Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka come on top in regard to bus transport, PDS and education, and Maharashtra in PDS and education. The differences largely appear to be due to differences in public administration across the states.

Recommendations

The policy recommendations suggest themselves from the findings listed. The governments are urged to pay attention to ensuring quality and reliability of services. One line of action suggested for this is exploring public-private partnership as also, wherever possible, as found in some states, private sector participation side by side with public sector in respect of select services. The rationale is that the pressure of competition will force public providers to improve their services. Second suggestion relates to properly targeting services to the poor. Selfselection process and social audit are the tried-out strategies. When even these have not produced results, we reach the dead end and do not know what else can be tried. Third, in services requiring human interaction the recommendation is the adoption of improved management systems. Finally, it is suggested that the government adopt and replicate the best practices of the better performing states in the low performing states.

This study, as rightly claimed by the authors, by providing field information on the extent, quality and reliability of public services, will motivate the governments to achieve better levels of performance. The variations in the access, quality, etc, of the services across states, notwithstanding the differences in resource availability, should help them to assess the gaps and to fill them to the extent possible by taking appropriate measures like proper planning and location of services, strengthening and capability-building among local institutions like panchayats, municipalities, user group associations, local administrators, political leaders, and by involving committed NGOs and social workers. Considering these merits of the work, in the opinion of this reviewer, the book under review is a must read for the policy-makers and the implementing authorities.

EPW

Email: abdul.aziz37@yahoo.com

Call for Papers

National Seminar on Rural Development, Poverty & Governance in India: A Post Reform Scenario

Social researchers from across social science disciplines of economics, political sciences etc. are invited to submit abstract of papers in 500 words within next four weeks. Costs for selected participants will be reimbursed, and final decision will be informed within next four weeks.

Address for Contact:

Prof. Sujata Bera Department of Economics Raja N.L. Khan Women’s College Midnapore-721102 E-mail: wecompu@sancharnet.in Mob: (0)9474598101 Dr.Buddhadeb Ghosh ISI, Calcutta Email: buddhadeb_ghosh@yahoo.com

Economic and Political Weekly February 24, 2007

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