Making citizen's charter effective | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 13, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 13, 2012

Making citizen's charter effective

Photo: Iqbal Ahmed/ Drik News

As a tool of the new public management, Citizen's Charter (CC) has become popular around the world as a means of improving public service delivery. According to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, the idea behind the introduction of CC, conceived in 1990s, aims at improving the quality of administrative performance, particularly at the point of contact where the public administration and the public meet.
Though CC was first introduced in the United Kingdom in 1991, its origin can be traced back to the Magna Carta 1215, a document that King John of England was forced to sign, and the People's Charter of 1838, a petition to the English Parliament asserting the rights of ordinary people. The progress of CC in UK set a milestone, and it was followed by a number of European as well as Southeast Asian countries.
In Bangladesh, the suggestion of introducing CC in public offices was first made by the Public Administration Reform Commission in 2000. It was also discussed in the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP). Subsequently, on May 8, 2007 the CC initiative was adopted by the then Caretaker Government (CG). It was declared by the CG that every ministry, division, wing and attached department would formulate and publish CC in their office premises and websites with the stated goal of providing the citizens with high quality service, and ensuring the ambit of transparency, responsiveness and accountability.
According to a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) report, approximately 80% of public offices in Bangladesh display the charters. While this is a big step forward as far as the citizen-friendly public services are concerned, it is also imperative to look at whether the introduction of CC has actually improved the state of service delivery.
There are several studies that focused on the impact of CC. A study on Upazila Land Office, conducted in 2010, showed that even after two years of its existence, CC has not made any substantial dent on the old bureaucratic service delivery mechanism. After reviewing some relevant literature and reports my own field study focusing on the Department of Immigration and Passports (DIP) reveals similar findings.
The key question asked during the study was whether the introduction of CC in the DIP had made much difference in terms of service delivery. Among the factors that have been identified in the study is the lack of adequate human resources and local organisational culture, which hinders the delivery of quality services to DIP's clients.
CC can do little to improve the service quality if the concerned organisations suffer from a dearth of human resources. However, the other factor -- organisational culture -- has a powerful message for the advocates of CC. A coercive or even a voluntary policy transfer may not always be compatible with the country's social and political culture, where the civil servants adhere to traditional and process-oriented administrative systems, leading to poor service delivery. Under such circumstances, CC can play very little role in ensuring better service to citizens.
This problem is faced not only by Upazila Land Office or DIP. The service quality might not have improved markedly following the introduction of CC in some other public offices also. Politics aside, the recent division of Dhaka City Corporation, for instance, on the ground of its inability to provide better services to its citizens is yet another example of poor public service delivery in the cities. Nevertheless, there are always some exceptions.
As a matter of fact, the experience in some Indian states concerning the implementation of CC is no different than that of Bangladesh. A comprehensive study on CC programme in India, that assessed 760 charters from across the country, showed that even after 14 years of its implementation, the CC programme has not lived up to its promise yet. Amongst many factors, the study highlighted the major drawback -- the practice of promoting CC that demands significant changes in the behaviour and attitude of the agency and its staff towards citizens is lacking -- which hampers the progress of CC programme in India.
Since 1980s, as a "whim of fashion," the ideas of new public management have attracted governments throughout the world. Many countries, especially the developing ones, in order to accelerate their reform initiatives, have started borrowing or transferring new techniques of administrative reform from developed countries on the assumption that "one size fits all."
However, in the policy transfer arena, it is argued that various forces could expedite or impede the "success" or "failure" of such policy transfer or reform initiative. Therefore, the question that arises at this stage is, how useful is it to mimic the recipe, like CC, which has been copied from the developed countries by a developing country like Bangladesh without analysing factors that could impede the utility of such initiative?
In this backdrop, it may be argued that while the concept of citizen's charter has been flaunted at random, very little has been done to realise the aspirations contained in the declaration. And that is so because in most instances the service seekers as well as service providers are hardly aware of the values and principles of CC programme in Bangladesh. As a consequence, despite the CC displayed at their office premises or uploaded on their websites, the customers, particularly the socially and economically marginalised ones, are not getting the services within stipulated time from public offices as promised.
Maybe, as recommended in the case of India, the CC programme in Bangladesh too perhaps needs more time for internal restructuring of the service delivery chain. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the concerned to explore the issue further, particularly focusing on a number of factors: benchmarking the end-user feedback, holding the top level officials accountable and including the civil society in the process, inter alia. It is also imperative to enhance awareness amongst people who receive the services from public organisations regarding their right to get the advantage of citizen charter.

The writer is a Research Associate at the Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University.

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