Building Active Citizenship and Accountability in Asia: case studies from Vietnam and India

October 2, 2012

     By Duncan Green     

Asia Development Dialogue’ organized by Oxfam, Chulalongkorn University and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

It brought together a diverse group of local mayors, human rights activists and academics, and discussed a series of case studies. Two in particular caught my eye.

In India, Samadhan, an internet-based platform for citizens to directly demand and track their service entitlements under national and state government schemes, is being piloted in two districts in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. The pilot is supported by the UN Millennium Campaign and implemented by the VSO India Trust. Here’s the blurb from the case study:

‘The way Samadhan works is simple. Citizens can file a complaint into the Samadhan system through phone calls, SMS, or the web about any delayed entitlements owed by the government. Once their complaints are filed, the computer registers it by location, time, date, type, and other classifications. A local administration official then reads the complaints and deems an appropriate course of action.

Citizens can then track these complaints through their registered number via website or SMS. Once it has been resolved, the citizen receives a message indicating that action has taken place. The key contribution of Samadhan is that it saves time and increases efficiency for both the citizens and the district administrations. Traditionally, the process of grievance redressing was a lengthy and tedious undertaking. Citizens were required to submit a written application in person at the district headquarters during weekly public hearings. The onerous cost of travel alone can be burdensome to citizens who often have limited resources and time. Now, through Samadhan, citizens can file a complaint with a click.’

It’s early days yet – the complaints are coming in, but the investigations are just getting going. The obvious question is ‘why should officials take more notice of an online complaint than they do of poor people turning up in person?’

There is a huge assumption inherent here that the state wants to hear and redress complaints. When asked about this, Praveen Kumar G, VSO’s India programme manager, said that the primary pressure is political – the fact that the complaints are in the public domain fosters scrutiny and pressure, because bureaucrats are pulled up by their elected bosses if they’re underperforming. But he conceded ‘If we have district leaders who want to do this, it’s easy. If they’re opposed, it’s very difficult.’ Quite. I also assume there is UN dosh funding the government staff required to read and respond to the online complaints, which raises issues of replicability.

The other project is the Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI), from Vietnam (why does everything interesting always seem to come from Vietnam?). This is a public index that ranks local government performance. It piloted in 3 provinces in 2009, but now covers the whole country. The methodology is rigorous (a lot of international experts are advising). Local researchers are recruited and trained to interview a carefully selected sample of 13,000 people all over Vietnam on their experience in dealing with local government in areas such as health and education, the level of petty corruption, and participation.

According to Giang Dang, of CECODES, one of the organizers: ‘The researchers arrive at the village and show a list of names to the village head and say ‘we want to talk to these people’ – they insist on those names, even when the leader says ‘he lives a long way from here, why don’t you talk to this guy who lives closer and is more knowledgeable’. ‘When Vietnam opened up, the two things that arrived first were beauty contests and Coca Cola. So we decided to organize beauty contests. Most opposition came from the contestants in the beauty contest – the public servants.’

Besides the rigour of the research methodology, the secret of PAPI’s success lies in the way it actively recruits champions inside the system. Its advisory board has representatives from the National Assembly, ministries, government inspectorates and academia. A key role is played by the Vietnam Fatherland Front (VFF), a mass organization of the Party which supports the project, and ‘opens doors – the VFF goes all the way down to commune level’.

The results are already impressive: ‘higher ranking provinces are keen to keep their position and feature their ranking in all their documents. Some of the lower ranking provinces are starting to set up task forces, and asking us for advice on how to improve performance.’ USAID in Thailand visited PAPI last month and are interested in replicating the project in Thailand (an interesting transfer from a less to a more open political system).

Dr Dang thinks another key to PAPI’s acceptance is that it is run by local researchers, and so is not subject either to the whims of the aid industry, or accusations of foreign meddling in Vietnam’s internal affairs (the project was initiated by UNDP, which is seen as fairly neutral). He thinks this kind of intra-Vietnam comparison between provinces exerts more traction than cross country comparisons, which can be dismissed on the grounds of Vietnam’s unique conditions. ‘There has been a positive response from the public, but we do get some hostile phone calls from officials – ‘who the hell are you to do this!’. At the end of the day, it’s about pressure, and the naming and shaming gets media and creates pressure. We have to make a wave big enough to move the province.’

The interesting question here is why hasn’t this model replicated more? According to Dr Dang, China has something similar, but run by the Party, and Mexico has a comparable project, but that’s about it. He says it took two years of piloting to get the methodology right, find out what way to ask the questions etc and that that approach would have to be repeated in any new country. Funding may be an issue – in this case it comes from the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which seems particularly good at these kinds of long term experiments.

Given the response from local government, I wonder if PAPI could become self financing, offering to help the laggards catch up in exchange for a consultancy fee? That raises issues of neutrality/money contaminating the research, but I imagine these could be resolved.