Three must-haves to improve services for the bottom 40 percent

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Community at discussion of water supply and sanitation. Kaski, Nepal.
Photo: © Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

Improving services for the bottom 40 percent of the population requires more than policy reforms and capacity building. The Inclusive Growth conference suggested that Bank operations may need to further encourage transparency of state performance, help internalize citizen feedback in the public sector, and empower local leaders to experiment and inspire others.
What will it take to engage citizens as a force toward improving services for the bottom 40 percent?  

In the session, “How to Make Services Work for the Bottom 40 Percent ”, Robin Burgess, Stuti Khemani, Jakob Svensson, drawing on their recent research, showed that quality services and prosperity requires citizen action to incentivize politicians and public servants .

The session suggested that citizen voice and engagement are gaining momentum globally.  

  • First, there is a global shift towards institutions that provide space for greater engagement (as measured for example by Freedom House).
  • Second, greater engagement has been supported by greater transparency (for example, about the actions of those in power and about the performance of the state as well as local service providers), particularly as new media technologies have emerged to generate and communicate information about government performance at all levels.
  • Finally, local successes exist where communities and local leaders have worked to solve problems and improve local schools, health clinics, and utilities.
Bottom-up approaches and social accountability tools (such as public hearings, community scorecards, public opinion polls, and citizen oversight committees) improve services when integrated with top-down public sector reforms that encourage government responsiveness (such as audit and anti-corruption investigative bodies, information access reforms, ombudsman, access to courts, etc.).  

Efforts to promote citizen engagement need to be connected with those on public sector modernization so as to align the incentives of public servants with the needs of the poor and bottom 40 percent.
Experience suggests the following three “must-haves” for improving service delivery for the poor and bottom 40 percent of population:
  • Informing citizens on the performance of the state and its national and subnational/local leaders and service providers:  Information on the outcomes of policy actions and on service delivery performance can help feed constructive public debate and citizen action. 
The information collected needs to: a) include survey data on service delivery performance and on citizen experience with public institutions and services; and b) reach citizens in a form that is easy to understand and act upon.
Recent tools to generate relevant information, such as the Public Administration Performance Index implemented in Vietnam, and Local Governance Performance Index currently piloted in Tunisia to complement facilities data–such as Service Delivery Indicators, Quantitative Service Delivery Surveys and Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys–include a platform to reach citizens. Civil society organization and especially media can be effective in translating information into action. 
  • Internalizing citizen feedback: Citizens’ feedback and data on citizen experience with the state, local governance and services can benefit government monitoring and evaluation systems and accountability mechanisms.
Conversely, public sector reforms seeking to enhance policy implementation and state performance can better internalize: a) channels for citizen feedback, including systematic and proactive collection of data on citizen experience; and b) mechanisms for instigating and following on government action -- as part of policy evaluation and modification as well as policy implementation and performance management – in response to citizens’ voice.

Good examples include local successes such as I Change My City redress forum to solve problems in Bangalore, the Governor  Ask in Rio Grande and participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, and Punjab’s Proactive Smart Government. They also include some sector oriented solutions such as Maji Voice on water in Kenya and Check My School  in the Philippines as well as FixMyStreet in the United Kingdom.
Apart from their positive direct results, the state’s demand for and constructive response to citizen feedback play an important role in building citizens’ trust in public institutions, which in turn shapes the way citizens engage: shifting from survival mechanisms, such as reliance on bribes and connections, to seeking formal accountability.
  • Empowering local leaders to experiment and inspire others: National policies are implemented in different degrees and with diverse effects locally, often depending on local leadership and local formal and informal accountability relationships.
Local leaders and communities can find solutions to motivate service providers, overcome capacity problems, and reach to the subnational or national government to seek action. Moreover, local leaders who gained citizen trust by solving problems may rise to become trusted politicians in the future.
The message is clear. We need to step out of our comfort zones and better  understand what drives the relationship between the state and citizens, learn from local solutions how to build citizens’ trust in public institutions. We also need to facilitate citizens’ voice to hold the state accountable and motivate public servants and providers to serve the poor and non-privileged.

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Three must-haves to improve services for the bottom 40 percent. 

What will it take to engage citizens as a force toward improving services for the bottom 40 percent? 

Quality services and prosperity requires citizen action 2 incentivize politicians and public servants. 

​ Empowering local leaders to experiment and inspire others. 


Hana Brixi

Global Director, Gender

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