Basic public services and programs often function inefficiently in India, especially in the poorer states and regions. One problem is the delivery of services to the people who are entitled to them, and the lack of accountability in making sure they are actually receiving the services. Traditionally, one of the main methods of tracking needs and problems is Jan Sunwai, a public hearing process that surveys citizens and gives them the opportunity to ask questions or register objections to a panel of elected representatives, NGO experts, government officials, etc… Panel topics are prepared based on issues gathered from door-to-door surveys, and citizens are invited to voice their grievances at the panel. In the best cases, these grievances are resolved.
This form of reporting can be intimidating for women and marginalized groups, which is where technology can provide a faceless-interface technology. “Samadhan – Citizen Action for governance” is one such initiative that is using ICT for more effective governance. In 2010, the joint initiative of UN Millenium Campaign, Collector Sehore and Samarthan, was launched in Sehore, in the Madhya Pradesh district of India.
Samarthan is a non-governmental organization that believes strongly in public participatory governance. They “promote and encourage involvement of local population in planning, execution and monitoring of development projects thereby challenging the mainstream “top-down” development model.” Through the Samadhan platform, citizens can register their complaints and get them resolved by holding the concerned officials accountable.
Samadhan is a web-based Open Source Software, with complaints tracked through online input, SMS, telephone and the more traditional Jan Sunwai. It’s primarily for citizens to directly demand and track their service entitlements provided by national and state government programs. The focus was to strengthen the government initiatives by getting feedback from the citizens on the delivery and quality of services from various departments.
Complaints can be made around a wide variety of issues, including education, food and civil supplies, rural employment, sanitation, public health, agriculture and family welfare. Registrants have the ability to track their complaints through the system and get feedback at closure of their grievances through SMS.
The initiative was developed with the collaboration of local civil society organizations (CSOs), which contributed greatly to its success by bridging the gaps between the government and the citizens. Youth volunteers in 200 Panchayats (local self-government institutions at the village or small town level) and the municipality of Sehore promoted the concept of the platform to provide formal feedback to the district administration. The feedback was then analyzed from the perspectives of the most poor and vulnerable sections of the society.
“The main challenge was to build technology for the poorest communities so that they can use it with ease to get access to their rights and entitlements,” notes Mr. Manohar Dubey, Additional Secretary, Public Service Management, GoMP. “The front end interacting with the citizens should use the simplest of all the technologies. The technology should be citizen-centric and not developer-centric.”
Over 5500 complaints were filed in Samadhan in the last one and a half years, and over 56 percent have been resolved. As more people bring voice to issues and problems, it ultimately puts pressure on the system to change and improve. Programs can be targeted more effectively and reach more areas of the country.
“Unlike other e-governance driven initiatives, this project was initiated and developed independently of any government interference and hence we [were] able to develop the system from both a citizen’s and activist’s point of view, rather than just an administrator’s point of view,” explains Mr. Pankaj Lal, Founder and CEO, Tangere Infotech.
There have been some challenges to the system. Some of the more rural districts cannot access the platform, so administrators have allowed the residents to register their complaints at the local level. But these complaints are registered manually, so are not monitored as closely, leading to delays in resolution. The shift of registering complaints from SMS to the Jan Sunwai system resulted in some sectors feeling shut out of the participatory process. (SMS provides a faceless interface, which was more encouraging for women and marginalized groups to access.)
As this was a pilot initiative, withdrawal of the UNMC and Samarthan was agreed upon and the platform was turned over to the Sehore administration to manage. Before the handover, they organized a Experience Sharing Workshop on ICT for Effective Governance. During the workshop, the organizers shared major learning from the pilot initiative with peer groups and concerned higher officials of Madhya Pradesh; discussed the up-scale of the initiative in all the districts in the state; and allowed for the sharing experiences of other CSOs in their ICT initiatives for social change in India.
ICT does not solely improve governance. True improvements need to happen within the system itself, but ICT can certainly influence accountability, transparency and better deliverance of good governance.