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Are Citizen Service Centers Viable?

Sabina Panth's picture

In my earlier blog post, I had conceived the idea of 'fee-based service centers' that can be run through public-private partnership with the goal of improving citizens’ access to, and delivery of, government services.  The concept was considered in the context of sustainability of demand for good governance practices in relation to the aid dependency culture of civil society organizations.   Recently, I became aware that such ‘fee-based service centers’ do prevail and, in fact, have caught the attention of policymakers and development experts.

At a recent Brown-Bag Luncheon (BBL) held at the World Bank, I learned about Citizen Service Centers that range from privately-owned facilities to government-owned ones or a combination of both.   These centers can be a one-stop window that provides different but correlated services of a single agency, or a single entity that provides the services of multiple agencies.   The idea is that such services would eliminate the paper-chase that citizens must undertake through different ministerial departments and the wrangling and bribery that is all too often required in obtaining services.  These one-stop window services are expected to not only save time and unnecessary hassle for ordinary citizens but also allow for better monitoring of corruption or quality of public service delivery.  

In a technologically-savvy environment, the one-stop window style services are made available through online portals, kiosk services or call centers/mobile-phone services.  But there can be stationary centers with a physical presence for end-to-end services or, mobile service centers that are more practical in rural settings.  These citizens’ centers can provide a wealth of resources and services, from registration of births and marriages, to the issuance of permits and certificates.  Some centers can process payments for municipal dues (such as electricity, water, and gas bills), and even function as vehicles for registering complaints and redressing grievances.

Some examples and experiments of such service centers that were shared at the BBL were the recently enacted Cambodia DFGG model, which provides a one window shop service for seven different line ministries.  The CSC program is said to have delivered 44,000 services in 2009 alone.  In India, various goverment departments and ministries have forged partnerships with private firms to administer public services and grievance redress through IT-enabled rural CSCs.  Through an oversight of a government agency, these CSCs are expected to operate on a for-profit basis by NGOs and private sectors.  Project E-Rwanda uses ICT mobile buses to train and offer services to youth in accessing essential public information through online services in rural areas.  In Brazil, the Poupatempo citizen service centers (which literally meaning "timesaver”) provide 400 different kinds of services by 68 agencies (State, Municipal and Federal).  These giant citizen service centers have free Internet access terminals, post offices (Correios), passport photo and photocopy services, restaurants, and even washroom facilities helpful to citizens with limited mobility.  In average, the centers provide 75,000 services a day.

The pros and cons of such citizen services are being debated.   Issues such as administration, finance and management of such services have been raised; also whether such services are cost-effective and, if so, do they  come at the cost of citizens paying extra for services that in essence are supposed to be free of cost, or low cost?  Whether involving private agencies as middle-men or contractors in managing public service centers interferes with or isolates essential bureaucratic procedures required for government functionality is also at issue, as are questions of shifting responsibility of public service provision over to a third or a private party.  There is also the issue of coordination among different ministries and the value addition of such services in relation to the broader goal of public sector reform.  

Perhaps the way  to test the viability of citizen service centers would be to evaluate the cost and benefits of the existing facilities in relation to governance reform outcomes.   Additionally, a “need assessment survey” can be conducted to weigh the value addition of citizen service centers in a specified ministry, department, sector or a project.  I can see such services working in a decentralized setting, where the local branches of different government line agencies can reside under one umbrella structure of a local government body.  This can ease not only the administration and financial cost for the central government, but also strengthen devolution and local governance administration.  In terms of sector or project specific needs, I see the service centers aiding resettlement projects, where citizens are required to obtain proof of land title or ownership, or require citizenship or identification certification to obtain entitlement for compensations for lost or damaged properties.  Here, one stop window citizen service centers can provide the required services for the project-affected persons, while registering and addressing complaints and grievances to ensure fair compensation practices.

As explained in my previous blog  post, the long term sustainability of citizen service-centers will depend on the quality of their performance.   Citizens will pay for the services as long as they are receiving help that is to their satisfaction.   Ultimately, it is the quality of services and customer satisfaction that measure the effectiveness (and generate demand) for such service centers.  At the same time, government buy-in and coordination are important ingredients.  

Photo Credit: [email protected] Lens (Flickr User)

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