As paying customers, what do people do when dissatisfied with a service? They register a complaint with the company, and then perhaps try another service. This is the essence of a competitive market. Quality of service is forced to remain high when clients have this power. Is it possible to generate this power when the customer is dependent on public service? In other words, how can development and public projects be made more accountable and transparent with better service provided?
Greater vigilance by government authorities, higher monetary incentives to employees and increased funding for diverse projects can go toward improving service provisions. However, client power can be crucial in making strides toward this goal as well.
When consumers have a strong voice, more can be achieved. A 2004 World Bank development report describes the example of Kerala, an Indian state, where significant success has been achieved in major social sectors like literacy and health care. A part of this success is attributed to informed citizen action and political activism.
Community advocacy groups are indispensable in providing a voice for the poor. In 1994, a civil society organization, or CSO, in Bangalore, India introduced the idea of report cards for public services. Results of these reports revealed corruption, lack of access and other flaws that were actively publicized by the press. These results led managers of public agencies to take measures to improve their services, leading other cities and countries to adopt similar approaches.
In Uganda, CSOs trained community monitors to check the quality of service delivery in order to reduce corruption. In Mexico, groups found ways to access and understand information on public program budgets so as to enable lobbying for budget policy changes. These contributions to public health programs and health equity have been valuable in several places across the globe.
It is remarkable how purchasing power can affect a consumer’s ability to demand better service. The ability to choose and purchase one’s own welfare instills a new level of accountability in the provider.
When Zambian truck drivers contributed to a road fund, they took turns to ensure that no overloaded trucks passed the road and that their contributions maintained this road. In Andhra Pradesh, an Indian state, farmers who paid for their water supply felt that they could hold the irrigation department more accountable.
One way to increase this purchasing power is to provide government subsidies with cash transfers, which goes directly to the families as vouchers. Allowing subsidies or vouchers in public and private arenas will increase competition, thereby creating a natural pressure to provide better quality service. In addition, it gives people the right to choose what is best for them, which can be invaluable in increasing self-confidence. For example, Qatar charities provided families in war-torn Gaza with shopping vouchers, which they could use on food items. This measure preserved the dignity of the beneficiary.
Measures like these could return the power to the consumer, demanding accountability for public service. In the future, it will play a valuable part in implementing pro-poor policies.
– Mithila Rajagopal