World Bank Group: “Customer is King” – Toward More Effective Development?

Author: Jeff Thindwa

Author: Jeff Thindwa

“Customer is King” is an old business saying that accentuates the importance of customers in every business. The private sector generally knows that satisfied customers are cheaper to serve and easier to deal with while unhappy customers will result in reduced sales and profits. They know that success is based on understanding their customers’ needs, adapting to their feed-back and placing them at the heart of service design and delivery. This may seem like a pretty straight-forward market-based approach. However, for customers of public services the situation is often very different with communication largely flowing one-way.

Engaging customers of public services (citizens) to provide feedback on the quality of services is not a new concept in the development community, however, it is far from widespread. Every year enormous amounts of public funds are spent by governments and international organizations on public services in a wide range of sectors (e.g. water, health and education). But, due to weak performance incentives, misallocations, corruption and a lack of citizen pressure, services are often of low quality or fail to reach intended beneficiaries – especially the poor.

Improving Public Services Goes Beyond the Supply Side

Although there are no easy solutions when it comes to improving the service delivery chain, it is clear that efforts must go beyond conventional mechanisms of accountability. Political checks and balances, audit requirements, administrative rules, and the judicial system will only have limited success unless direct attention is also paid to the views and needs of the citizen beneficiaries.

“Experience has demonstrated that citizens can be empowered to hold governments, service providers and international organizations to account.”

Experience has demonstrated that citizens can be empowered to hold governments, service providers and international organizations to account. When citizens engage with public officials in an informed and skilful manner they can provide the demand-side pressure needed for responsive governance, efficient public spending and the stemming of corruption. This can in turn complement and reinforce the conventional mechanisms of accountability. It is therefore important that citizens are aware of their rights and responsibilities and how to exercise them.

Bridging the Accountability Gap

Through our social accountability work around the world we have learnt that it is possible to engage broader segments of civil society and strengthen their voice and capacity. Citizens can be empowered to directly influence policies, which is as important as building the capacity of governments to become more responsive and transparent. In fact, these two capacities reinforce each other and enhance development outcomes.

To help foster citizen-state collaboration and bridge the “accountability gap,” we have developed tools and mechanisms that allow for information exchange, negotiation and trust-building. For example, our Open Budgeting programme helps governments open up budget and expenditure data to users. Some countries have made admirable progress in participatory budgeting, proactively engaging citizens and stakeholders to influence budget priorities and allocations. Another work stream helps partner countries develop Access to Information legislation and train governments and citizens on how to use the information to strengthen public accountability. Our programmes and tools have been applied at local, regional and global levels – below are a few selected examples.

Arming Citizens with Facts through Media

Media can play a critical role when it comes to affecting development outcome (which was also one of the themes for this year’s World Press Freedom Day). Media can provide an accountability check on public spending, expose misdeeds and corruption and create a platform for public debate. In this regard, our Global Media Development programme trains media and civic leaders on how to access, interpret and “demystify” budget and public spending data.

A Kenyan journalist used budget data to link primary schools’ record low grades, high dropout rates (particularly among girls) and high levels of disease – to a lack of toilets – igniting a chain reaction which led to improved health and education outcomes. Photo: Arne Hoel/World Bank

A Kenyan journalist used budget data to link primary schools’ record low grades, high dropout rates (particularly among girls) and high levels of disease – to a lack of toilets – igniting a chain reaction which led to improved health and education outcomes.
Photo: Arne Hoel/World Bank

Kenya

In Kenya a journalist for NTV, Irene Choge, used budget data to link poor primary school performance to a lack of toilets – igniting a chain reaction which led to improved health and education outcomes. After participating in an Open Data Bootcamp, (a crash course in practical techniques to harness open data for storytelling) she used her newly acquired skills to investigate performance data for two primary schools.

She uncovered that the schools’ record low grades and high dropout rates (particularly among pubescent girls) as well as high levels of disease were linked to a lack of sanitation facilities.

In order to raise awareness, Ms. Choge produced several news stories which eventually led the government to act. Resources were re-allocated and an investigation was put in place to explain the budget misallocations.

Civil Society Participation in Budget Process

Our Public Participation in the Budget & Audit programme builds institutional capacity to help civil society organizations (CSOs) analyse budgets, track money flows and compare funds allocated to services delivered. Moreover, the programme is fostering a dynamic collaboration between audit institutions and CSOs aimed at strengthening the audit process and accountability of government.

Kushahawa, Nepal
Several CSOs in Nepal were trained on simplified expenditure tracking as well as budget literacy. As a result, one of the CSOs applied the newly acquired knowledge and tools toward monitoring of social security allowances and discovered that the women of the Kushahawa village were unaware of budget allocations intended for them. The CSO informed the women and helped them claim their entitlements. Moreover, mechanisms were put in place for continued future monitoring.

A Nepalese community-based organization discovered (through expenditure tracking) that village women were unaware of their social security entitlements. The CSO informed the women and helped them claim the funds. Photo: World Bank.

A Nepalese community-based organization discovered (through expenditure tracking) that village women were unaware of their social security entitlements. The CSO informed the women and helped them claim the funds. Photo: World Bank.

Parliaments Safeguarding Citizens’ Interests

Ideally, parliaments provide the main forum for articulating public concern, influencing policy and overseeing governance processes, such as the formulation and oversight of the national budget. An effective parliament is vital in ensuring that resource allocations are in the citizens’ best interest, and that services are effectively delivered. The Parliamentary Strengthening Programme seeks to enhance the capacity of parliaments to effectively perform their functions by strengthening different institutions and stakeholders within parliament, such as budget/oversight committees, secretariats and budget offices through support to regional and global learning networks.

In Tanzania participation in regional parliamentary learning networks contributed to a closer collaboration between the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office; particularly pertaining to information sharing on the misuse of public funds. These exchanges led members of the Committee to take action and present corruption allegations in the National Assembly – which in turn resulted in the President dismissing the ministers of Finance, Energy, Tourism, Trade, Transport, and Health.

A Platform Linking Governments & Citizens

In order to help governments become more transparent by publicly sharing budget data and facilitating citizen access, the BOOST initiative provides user-friendly platforms in forty countries where budget and expenditure data can be easily accessed and monitored. In addition, 12 governments and two states have posted their data on an Open Budgets Portal, which is a one-stop shop for global budget data.

Moldova published its entire expenditure dataset in one public Excel file. This contributed to ministerial analytical work and investigations on linkages between expenditure and performance – which ultimately contributed to the Ministry of Education’s decision to launch a comprehensive school reform programme.

Digital Engagement: Facilitating Citizen Participation & Feedback

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) are penetrating even the most remote villages across the globe, offering huge potential for changing the dynamics of how citizens engage with governments and service providers. Hand-held devices can empower citizens to make their voices heard and allow governments to create opportunities for participatory decision making, and to solicit, or respond to, citizen feedback.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, citizens used mobile phones to influence budget priorities. Even though many are unable to access even basic public services in the DRC, close to half the population has access to mobile phones. The ICT4Gov programme used this opportunity to engage citizens in voting on community priorities (for which the local government devotes a percentage of its budget). For the first time, communities such as Ibanda have gone from having no investment budget at all to having 40 percent of their budget devoted to community investments. Similarly, 120,000 citizens used ICTs to vote on health priorities in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul – which led to new and improved services.

In an effort to improve education services in 125 schools across Malawi, parents and students will soon be able to use mobile phones to report teacher absenteeism. An education sector accountability programme is developing the feedback tools that will be used to monitor and report absenteeism. This will help the government better understand and find solutions to the challenge.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, citizens used mobile phones to influence budget priorities. Photo: World Bank.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, citizens used mobile phones to influence budget priorities. Photo: World Bank.

Delivering on the Customer Promise

More effective and sustainable development outcomes require good governance and this is rarely achieved without meaningful citizen engagement.

Our experiences with social accountability and citizen engagement from around the world have highlighted the need to fundamentally redesign governance models in ways that place citizens at the heart of the service delivery chain – as in the private sector. This means that also in public sector service delivery the customer has to be king.

Citizens need to be able to demand improvements in public services and receive a satisfying response. The private sectors’ customer feedback systems and customer responsive processes are already helping to shape development practice, however, we still have a long way to go to mainstream these principles in the public sectors and “deliver on the customer promise.”

To ensure that governments, public service providers and international organizations do more than pay lip service in their commitments, citizens must be empowered to actively hold them to account. Our experiences on the ground are a testament to the fact that this can be achieved.

As Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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About the Author

Jeff Thindwa, a Malawi national, will be transitioning into the World Bank’s Governance Global Practice being created from July 1st, as part of a comprehensive World Bank reform. He is currently Manager of the World Bank Institute’s Social Accountability Practice.

Mr. Thindwa joined the World Bank in 2000 and has served the bank in a range of capacities in the social development sectors, including as Sr. Social Development Specialist and Team Leader of the Participation & Civic Engagement Cluster and Team Leader of the Global Civil Society Team. Prior to joining the bank, he worked in international development for 17 years, with Civil Society Organizations, and prior to that as a Legal Aid lawyer for the Government of Malawi, and in the private sector. Mr. Thindwa went to Law School at the University of Malawi and University of London King’s College.


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