When the emperor reaches out to the citizen, that’s new

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If you want a passport in Pakistan, you wait in line – possibly for hours. You might get to the passport office at the crack of dawn to avoid the queue. The process might be unclear, and there might be people – “agents” – waiting outside the office, offering to help: “For a few hundred rupees, I can fast-track your application.”
 
The government of Pakistan is trying to fix these problems, including the requests for bribes, rude treatment, and inefficient processing. Their approach is simple and creative and made possible because there are an estimated 123 million mobile phone users in the South Asian nation – about 64 percent of the population, according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.
 
Beginning this fall, staff at each of the passport office’s 95 locations began collecting the cell phone numbers of all passport applicants. Shortly after each visit, the central headquarters sends the applicant a text message: “Did you face any problem or did someone ask you for money?”

 
“What we try to do through this service is to reach out to the applicants and get feedback right from the source itself,” said Usman Bajwa, director general of Pakistan’s immigration and passports division. “To me, that is the most authentic feedback on the quality of service that’s provided.”
 
And the applicants are giving feedback in thousands of text messages – around 25,000 per month. Many of the responses are positive, but the office tracks most closely those that have to do with corruption or staff attitude: “I went after the office time and I was asked by agent to give 1000 rupees,” said one visitor to a Bahawalnager office.

“Nothing is organised in the passport office. Everyone is taking money to provide you services,” said an applicant who visited a Faisalabad office.

“I was the first person in the line before the passport office opened. But due to people bribing officials and security guards my token number was pushed back to 25,” said a third respondent in Lahore.
 
Cell technology has been used to successfully improve service delivery in Pakistan before. In Lahore in 2012, for example, municipal health workers used cell phones to track mosquito control efforts and cases of Dengue fever. Thanks to the data collected, the government was able to make health workers more accountable for their prevention efforts and better target insecticide spraying. Dengue-fever-related deaths went from 350 to zero.
 
In the Punjab province, one civil servant’s efforts to deter bribe-seeking has evolved into a service-monitoring program that sends 12,000 text messages daily to recipients of government services such as driver’s license issuance, land registration, and income assistance. More than nine million citizens have been contacted, and more than a million have responded.
 
That civil servant, Zubair Bhatti, first driven by a desire to protect citizens from bribe requests, is now a senior public sector specialist at the World Bank. He has been working with the Punjab government, the national passport office and others to increase government accountability and improve service delivery through the use of cell phone outreach. He believes this approach has promise because it shows that the government is trying to improve itself, rather than reacting to change pushed by civil society or individual citizens.
 
“This is not your usual helpline, hotline,” Bhatti said. “Because most countries already have it. People have been writing letters to emperors and kings for [hundreds of] years. There’s nothing new in that. But the emperor reaching out to the citizen. That’s new.”
 
Bhatti said the approach has value partly because it builds trust in a country that doesn’t see a lot of proactive engagement by the government. He said that many citizens are simply happy to be asked for their feedback. This has also been evident in Albania, where the World Bank is supporting a replication of the Pakistan citizen-feedback approach.
 
Bajwa, of the passport office program in Pakistan, said this is the first nation-wide initiative of this type. He said that when his division received individual complaints, responses would be slow, and often the complaints would get buried. Now, the network of 95 offices, which sees between 10,000 and 15,000 applicants daily, collects data that is analyzed in the central headquarters. Certain complaints, including allegations of corruption or rude behavior by staff, merit follow-up calls.
 
And a monthly report prompts action. After just two months of data monitoring, Bajwa has reassigned two heads of passport offices, and delivered warnings to 25 lower-level officers.
 
“The staff working in the passport offices is now more aware that any applicant who walks into that office will have an opportunity to respond to an SMS from the Director General itself and to give us feedback directly to the headquarters,” he said.
 
Read more about how digital technologies are affecting development in the 2016 World Development Report: Digital Dividends, which will be released January 13.

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Authors

Julia Oliver

Communications Officer

Join the Conversation

Hassan
January 15, 2016

Yeah so I just got my passport made from Lahore. Didnt get any such text message. Makes a good article to get published on a worldbank blog though. In short its easier said than done. Getting a passport made in lahore is just the worst experience ever. Im dreading ill have to revisit after 5 years when my passport expires again.

Julia Oliver
January 21, 2016

Dear Hassan,
 
Thanks for your comment. These programs are indeed easier described than executed! I do believe that you should have received an SMS asking about your experience. I have passed along your complaint to the passport division, and would be happy to give them your email address to follow up, if you would like.
 
Best,
Julia

Clare Cummings
January 12, 2016

What would be interesting to know is why senior government officials are motivated to address corruption in passport offices and impose sanctions/punishments on officals who are found to be performing badly. Is there political pressure pushing this, and if so why or are there other reasons for senior bureaucrats to risk tackling corrupt practices?

Julia Oliver
January 19, 2016

Dear Clare,
Thank you for your comment. Below is a response from Zubair Bhatti, who has worked on a number of these initiatives in Pakistan.
Best,
Julia
In the Punjab province, the text message is sent on behalf of the chief minister. It is also preceded by an automated call recorded in the chief minister’s voice informing the citizen that an sms will follow and that he or she must reply. This direct communication with the citizen aims to provide political incentives to the chief executive to pursue the reforms. The federal passport office builds on the Punjab ideas but the Prime Minister office, is as yet, not directly involved. The initiative for reform is, as is often the case, led by one champion, the director general. He aims to make the feedback a part of the office KPIs to ensure that the innovation is not lost after he leaves.
 

Chikosi Tawanda
January 15, 2016

Very interesting read and thank you for profiling this. What is amazing is that it explains exactly how it was a few years ago here in Zimbabwe, Southern Africa when acquring a passport! The striking similarity is amazing!
Being an active citizen and a multi award winning technology entrpreneur I would be more than happy to introduce the same system here in the country as an act of national service for my fellow citizens. Please refer me to the people that I can have this kind of conversation with.

veerta
January 15, 2016

I applied for a passport renewal a month ago. ...... Still in process. The whole experience was an exercise in disillusionment. The corruption starts outside the gates of the passport office and continues all the way inside. No SMS regarding corruption was sent to me. I would like to state unequivocally that the passport office in Lahore bark at market is completely given over to corruption. If anyone can address the situation it would be nice.

Julia Oliver
January 21, 2016

Dear Veerta,
 
Thank you for writing. It sounds like you had just the difficult type of experience that this program is trying to address. I have passed along your complaint to the passport division, and would be happy to give them your email address to follow up, if you would like.
 
Best,
Julia

Dr.Babu Ram
January 20, 2016

Dear Julia:
I would like to bring to your attention of a column, published by Ms, Rafia Zakaria, in the Pakistani Daily Dawn, commenting on your blog. The link is given below:
http://www.dawn.com/news/1234100/passport-complaints
Hope this is helpful. Best wishes

Julia Oliver
January 20, 2016

Dear Dr. Ram,
Thank you for passing that along. Interesting read, and it helps draw out some of the complexities of the issue that have been raised recently in the local press.
Best,
Julia

Zubair K. Bhatti
January 25, 2016

The Passport Directorate has introduce several improvements over the past few years - no document other than the national ID card needed, reduction in turn-around time, introduction of courier service, etc. Yet, the service continues to face many problems requiring even more creativity, commitment and resources. The customer feedback intervention is one such effort in this ongoing journey of progress.
More specifically, one predictable reaction of the local offices where customer feedback system is implemented is that some try to under-report or falsify cell numbers. This is why the DG office is also now monitoring the percentage of cell numbers reported in each office. The minimum required even in remote districts is 75%. It will be increased gradually, because the probability is quite high that 90% or even 100% more of the applicants have a cell number.
Unlike the standard complaint receiving systems, and the distinction is crucial, the core purpose of this exercise – government proactively collecting feedback on service delivery quality from identified beneficiaries- aims to gather customer feedback on large scale, every day, across the country, to identify performance patterns. For example, of the 1000-plus citizens from among the 10,000-plus citizens who are contacted every day, who respond every day to the sms of the DG office, around 85% report satisfaction or no complaints.
The remaining 15% reports of negative experiences are categorized and the data used to form the basis of performance reviews that the DG conducts every month. The premise here is that the time and energy of the senior management, always an extremely scarce commodity, will be better spent if it monitors performance patterns – such as the percentage of correct cell numbers REPORTED BY EACH OFFICE – to benefit everyone, including those who may not complain and who are likely to receive the service in the future. Investigation of EVERY individual complaint, a very costly and time-intensive transaction, however desirable, may not be the best use of the marginal time available to senior managers. (The legacy systems to address individual complaints are STILL in place and may be resorted to by any citizen).
In addition to performance management, an important purpose of the exercise is to look at systems issues and respond. The recent addition of bank branches where passport fees can be deposited, for example, resulted in 50% decline in negative feedback, according to the passport office, related to fee deposits. The office further plans to minimize contact and will introduce online submission of applications for renewal. A general public administration challenge in developing countries is that it’s very difficult to fairly hold people accountable (and ward off the inevitable pressures of patrons when disciplinary action does take place) without evidence. This “permanent customer survey” method is potentially the best way to gather evidence of quality of service with low cost, high periodicity and lowest possible granularity.
The important question to ask is why do not more citizens report more negative feedback when they get the DG’s sms? The 10-12% response rate in this particular case is quite high but surely it can be a lot better. Citizens may not be aware of this exercise, they may not notice the sms, they may not be able to read the text message, they may forget reporting back, they may think it is spam. And most importantly, they may not want to engage with the state because of low trust: “Why bother? Nothing happens”. It’s an unfortunate catch-22 situation: Citizen trust won’t improve without improving the quality of service delivery; and citizens won’t engage with the state because of lack of trust. What does a serious manager do? Doing nothing is of course not an option. Talking to the customer is the best way to measure service delivery performance. It can also help break the vicious cycle of low trust, low engagement and poor service – and hopefully more response rate, more corrective actions and more satisfied customers.

Fasieh Mehta
July 20, 2016

A great article. Very informative and insightful, esp. the detailed comment made by Mr. Bhatti on roles that service delivery managers have to play.