M-government? – Innovations from Punjab

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ImageTwo recent blogs (Mobile Apps for Health, Jobs and Poverty Data  and Transformational Use of ICTs in Africa) talked about how mobile applications facilitate access to services in the financial, trade, agriculture, and social sectors.
Despite proliferation in business applications, most government applications only provide information about public services and agencies. The potential is huge and now there is a level playing field for developed and developing countries.  Take the USA where government applications are still quite limited in scope and quantity (see the 10 best).  Aware of their unleashed potential, President Obama issued a directive on May, 23rd 2012 to every federal agency “to make two government services the American people depend on, available on mobile phones.”  Yes, May 2012.

Do mobiles have the potential to transform the delivery of public services in developing countries?   An article in The Economist points to this direction, highlighting the clever use of mobile phones in Punjab.  Below are some ground-breaking innovations of mobile applications that the government of Punjab is rolling out with World Bank support.

The Citizens Feedback Model  is changing the way the provincial government relates to citizens.  Rather than waiting for citizens to approach it with grievances, it actively seeks feedback from citizens through calls and text messages.  More than 2 million users of public services – health, revenue, police, etc. –received automated calls with the chief minister’s voice followed by a short messaging service (SMS) enquiring about the quality of service received.  More than 0.3 million citizens replied and 8,000 reported corruption of some kind. The provincial government made it a regular part of its monitoring; several officials have been punished, and district officers are being asked to explain patterns of corruption of bad service.
Almost everyone has a cellphone in Pakistan. This model relies on existing cellphones in every household to collect feedback. The Punjab government is beginning to actively use inexpensive smartphones for its daily monitoring of field-level service providers.  Able to capture and transmit spatial, photo and video information from the field with minimal running, maintenance and training cost, smartphones dramatically expand the boundaries of what is observable. The potential of these applications for improving management of public agencies is vast.
ImageThe Dengue Monitoring System, built by the Punjab Information and Technology Board, captures real time and geo-mapped information about dengue outbreaks and the different efforts to combat the epidemic.  Through government supplied smartphones, 1500 city workers were asked to take photos before and after their anti-dengue tasks and upload them, tagged by location. Reports from hospitals were uploaded and geo-tagged to predict dengue outbreaks and search for mosquito-larvae reservoirs. The system allowed the government to focus better the anti-dengue interventions and provide a quicker response.  Compared to 16,000 infected and 352 deaths in 2011, there were no deaths and only 234 confirmed Dengue cases in 2012.
ImageThe Monitoring the Monitors Program was an earlier pilot of the Dengue Monitoring System.  Funded by a World Bank Innovation Fund grant and run by the Punjab Health Sector Reform Program, it is the first large-scale mobile application for day-to-day management of a public agency.  It was rolled out to address two weaknesses of the traditional monitoring system:  inspections often do not take place and reports, if any, are not collected and analyzed.  Health inspectors are asked to enter the results of the visit to the health facility, including a self-photo to prove that they were present at the time of the inspection. The information is automatically uploaded and validated into a database.  A data dashboard generates real time reports with user-friendly charts and maps.  This is particularly relevant since poor performance and absenteeism are critical challenges for developing countries. In Pakistan, absenteeism in of teachers and doctors is a serious problem.  
A randomized control trial at the district level (Callen, et. al.) found that less than half of the doctors (42.3 percent) were present in the 850 health facilities visited.  In this challenging context,  the results of the Monitoring the Monitors Program are quite promising;  inspection rates almost doubled and led to a 30 percent increase in health worker attendance -- but only in competitive electoral districts. This technology had no effect in non-competitive constituencies where apparent patronage systems rule and politically connected inspectors and doctors were less sensitive to monitoring. This is not really surprising, and it serves as a good reminder that without political commitment and a good change management strategy, no technology can completely overcome the resistance of vested interests. 
Still, the mobile revolution is here and getting smarter.  New low-end android phones now include functionalities that until recently could only be performed by computers.  Mobile penetration in developing countries is high and connectivity has stopped being a binding constraint in most countries. Therefore, the potential for leap-frogging in government data collection and information management systems is huge.  Collection of cell numbers of beneficiaries, enable the proactive collection of feedback and provision of targeted extension and preventive services.  Better, timely, and granular data enable better targeting of incentives. Forging public private partnerships in service delivery, as in preventive health care or agriculture extension will also become easier. Whether that translates into substantial performance management and service delivery improvements  is still to be seen and will depend largely on context, political will, the nature of the service being monitored and whether mobile applications can address information asymmetries along the service delivery chain, and alter the incentive structure politicians, managers and public officials.     
The new PforR operation “Punjab Public Management Reform Program,“ currently under preparation, aims at supporting the government of Punjab to scale up these innovations and take it one step further - by institutionalizing  user feedback into smart monitoring systems,  expanding them to several other service delivery areas, and making service delivery information available to field managers, senior civil servants, and politicians.
Will the new generation of mobile applications be able to transform how public services are delivered in Punjab and set an example for other countries?  Stay tuned!

1 Callen, M. et al.; Clientelism and Health Worker Absence: Evidence from a Field Experiment in Pakistan, First Version January 2013
2 The task team leaders of the Punjab Public Management Reform Program are Ana Bellver and Zubair K. Bhatti.

NOTE:  The Randomised Control Trial was funded by the International Growth Centre.


Ana Bellver Vazquez-Dodero

Sr. Public Sector Management Specialist

Zubair Bhatti

Sr. Public Sector Management Specialist

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