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Good Governance Delivers Pro-Poor Public Services

Article | 5 June 2015

New ADB research sheds light on the links between governance, public service delivery, and citizens' empowerment, providing a way forward for pro-poor services in Asia and the Pacific. ADB’s Shikha Jha and Pilipinas Quising explain why accountability in public service and governance go together.

The book Governance in Developing Asia focuses on the link between governance and public services. Why does this link matter?
Shikha Jha: For the average person, the concept of governance is just that, an intangible concept. It would help to think of public services as the way citizens actually experience governance. Do you have good roads to drive on? Quality hospitals and clinics where you can get treated? If not, that is often a proxy for poor governance, whether it is the result of corruption or lack of accountability. And of course, we know that the lack of investments in public services has important impacts on the wider economy: reduced trade, lower human capital creation, and reduced investment.

“One of the major challenges for policymakers today is to improve both the quantity and quality of government services, and to extend these services to poor households and small businesses.”

Shikha Jha, principal economist at ADB

This matters because despite enormous economic gains across Asia and the Pacific, poverty remains widespread and inequality has been rising. One of the major challenges for policymakers today is to improve both the quantity and quality of government services, and to extend these services to poor households and small businesses.

Previous studies have focused on accountability of public service delivery. What was their approach?
Shikha Jha: Many studies on public service delivery use the framework from the World Bank's 2004 World Development Report, which is based on an understanding of the routes to public sector accountability. According to the framework, citizens choose the public services they want, the state consolidates those preferences and then contracts private entities to provide the services.

However, the framework may not work due to frictions in these routes. One reason is because citizens do not speak with a single voice. The poor may lack voice as they cannot get organized together whereas the rich will generally be organized and represent powerful lobbies to demand their preferred services. The framework may also not work because the accountability route is “jammed” by self-interested providers such as absentee teachers, health workers who steal medical supplies, bribe-seeking government clerks and corrupt policemen - to the detriment of service quality.

Much of Governance in Asia is about citizens’ empowerment. But why is it that, at times, you seem critical of some of the tools used to give citizens voice?
Pilipinas Quising: First of all, let me just say that tools such as citizen scorecards and community report cards have been immensely important to our understanding of service delivery because they allow us to generate feedback from a larger number of beneficiaries - much more than other instruments. However, such tools cannot replace individual grievance mechanisms, which remain a fundamental protection of citizens against misconduct or mistreatment by the state. Likewise, they tend to be resource intensive, which is why more often than not these tools are sustained through civil society organizations and donor agencies rather than institutionalized in service delivery systems.

“This book emphasizes the need for empowering people to monitor and participate in the process of selecting and delivering quality public services to hold providers accountable.”

Pilipinas Quising, senior economics officer at ADB

The other issue is that these tools, at times, have suffered from a breakdown in the accountability loop. What we have found is that despite these tools, governments may still be unwilling to act on the feedback they receive. So we have to ask ourselves, what is lacking? What we have found is that these tools need to be accompanied by a transformation of the state and its institutions. This book emphasizes the need for empowering people to monitor and participate in the process of selecting and delivering quality public services to hold providers accountable. Empowerment enables deprived people to be effective agents of their own development.

How will public service delivery evolve in the future?
Pilipinas Quising: One of the biggest challenges for governments in the region is deciding which services they should provide and which services might be better provided by non-government and private sector actors. There is, and will continue to be, a strong case for governments to take responsibility for many essential services. However, this must be balanced against the very large public demand for services and the fiscal resources on hand.

Public-private partnerships offer the opportunity for governments to increase budgetary flexibility. Many governments throughout the region have deserving and competing calls on resources, and transferring the funding burden to investors is an increasingly attractive proposition.

Partnerships with the private sector would also allow governments to tap not only the private sector’s financial resources but also their organizational, managerial and technical resources. In certain cases, non-government providers have a lower cost of service delivery than government providers, thus permitting provision of more services within a given service delivery budget.

These partnerships would also play a role in reaching marginalized sectors and communities. NGOs usually have a wider reach than government providers and often cater to marginalized communities in difficult-to-reach regions. Engaging them to supply social services on behalf of the government may result in greater population access.