Emergent narratives in the domain of public accountability increasingly point to the role of user feedback in demanding and catalyzing responsiveness and accountability from providers of public utilities. Faced with very few exit options, users of public utilities are finding creative use of voice mechanisms to effectively highlight critical issues and bring in reforms. One such tool is the Citizen Report Card pioneered by Public Affairs Centre – an independent not for profit institution in Bangalore India. Anchoring around the twin concepts of measurement and comparison, Citizen Report Cards provides citizens and agencies with qualitative and quantitative information about gaps in service delivery.
This paper discusses how Citizen Report Cards triggered reforms in public utilities in the city of Bangalore, especially in enhancing accountability and responsiveness. In Bangalore, three report cards were prepared through a civil society initiative in 1994, 1999 and 2003. The first report card gave very low ratings to all the major service providers of the city, creating a sense of shame in the process. But it did not make an immediate impact as only a few of the providers acknowledged their problems and took corrective action. The second report card showed that partial improvement had occurred in some services, probably due to the actions taken by their providers and the pressure from civil society.
The third report card that followed after four years revealed substantial improvement in almost all the service providers. There was not only a significant increase in citizen satisfaction with the services, but also a visible decline in corruption. The big question is: what caused this surprising turnaround?
The drivers of change were several. Some worked on the demand side of services. Others influenced the service providers from the supply side. In terms of sequence, the trigger for public action seems to have been the report cards and the public glare and media publicity they created. This led to important interventions from the supply side. A strategic decision came from the state government that set up a new public-private partnership forum to catalyze and assist the service providers to upgrade their services and responsiveness. The political support and commitment of the Chief Minister of the state of Karnataka (a province in Southern India, with Bangalore as the Capital) the innovative practices brought in by the partnership forum, the proactive role of external catalysts such as civil society groups and donors, and the learning that came from the experiments initiated by the different players all jointly contributed to the better performance of the city’s service providers.
There are many lessons to be learned from this experience. Improved performance does take time. It took several years for a turnaround to occur in Bangalore’s services. But it does highlight the continuing pressure that community-initiated voice mechanisms like citizen report cards can exert on service delivery agencies. It is clear that a relatively open and democratic society is a pre-requisite for the use of this monitoring and accountability tool. Advocacy and public glare through civil society and media pressure can stimulate positive responses from the government. Above all, the political commitment and support that eventually emerged in Bangalore is an essential enabling factor to promote and sustain reform.