On an accountability scoping trip to Pakistan recently, we were able to find out more about the excellent Punjab Program for Proactive Governance. This program, designed, funded and implemented by the Government of Punjab in 2010, proactively seeks feedback from citizens on their experiences using public services, through the use of SMS messages and a phone call-back system. Punjabis provide their cellphone numbers to local officials when they visit a government office for routine services, such as acquiring a driver’s license or registering property. Assigned staff then text or call citizens to inquire about the quality and level of service, including whether bribes were asked for or paid.
The key advantages of this system are threefold. Firstly, the program provides a tool through which the chances of corruption being detected is significantly increased; and is matched with a credible threat of punitive action for public officials who might be implicated in such behavior. This is important in terms of building systems of integrity within state institutions, supporting the effective use of government resources and ensuring more effective service delivery.
Secondly, the fact that the program is based around simple, cheap cellphone technology and requires limited funds to become operational ensures that it can roll-out quickly and cost-effectively. The Government of Punjab initially piloted the program in six districts, but it is now functioning in 15 districts across the state, with a view to state-wide roll-out in the near future. At the same time, the program is headquartered in the Chief Minister’s office, which is ensuring political support from the top down and sustainability over time.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the program proactively responds to citizens, rather than waiting for complaints or grievance procedures from the public. This consolidates feedback loops (too often information gathering processes are one-way), and builds trust in the state government among the populace. In this sense, the program represents an important paradigmatic shift from passive to responsive government accountability in a country that has seen far too little of this in recent times.
The program does have a number of issues as it scales-up and rolls-out further- as collaborative review recently noted. Are the right incentives in place for citizens to report corruption, for example? How can the phone numbers written down by officials be verified as correct to ensure that feedback is sought from the correct service-users? And how can the system guarantee that punitive action will be taken where appropriate? However, there have been a number of programs piloted elsewhere- including in South Asia- through which hotlines have been set up for citizens to call and complain about government inefficiency or corruption (with mostly poor results). Against these, the Punjab experiment stands out for its proactive-approach, cost-effectiveness and replicability. Longer-term results remain to be seen, but it’s an accountability innovation we love!
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