People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXV

No. 36

September 04, 2011

 

Rights Based Approach to Citizenís Charters

Archana Prasad

 

PUBLIC debate on the Lokpal Bill has resulted in the focus on the need to redress grievances of the common people. One of the three assurances given by the parliament to anti-corruption activists has been that the government will consider it mandatory for all departments to have public service and citizenís charters. Since the post 1990s such charters are seen as an important mechanism of a larger public grievance redressal system. In India 47 central organisations and departments follow the practice of having citizen charters. Some states like Madhya Pradesh and Bihar also have Right to Public Services Act that make the citizenís charter mandatory in order to ensure efficient public service delivery systems. But the timing of the popularisation of the concept of citizenís charter needs to be questioned. In many countries their introduction was linked with attempts to privatise basic services and also argue for less government in welfare and basic amenities. Therefore it is important to understand the character and context of the introduction of citizenís charters and explore the ways in which democratic forces can use them to fight for the rights of common people.

 

ORIGINS OF

CITIZEN CHARTER

Margaret Thatcherís government in Britain made one of the earliest attempts at setting up a grievance redress system. The effort was focused on assessing the quality of public services and carrying out basic reforms in the governance. It is well known that the Thatcher government was an ardent advocate of Ďless governmentí and the reforms were meant to make the government smaller and more efficient. But it was not till the time of conservative government of John Major that the first citizenís charters were first introduced in 1991. The main aim of these charters was to measure the performance of agencies providing basic services and make basic changes in the delivery system in order to make them more client oriented. Within this perspective, basic services were not to be considered a matter of right but a part of a patron-client relationship that the State was to set up with its citizenís. It is important to note that such a change was a result of the policies which were attempting to introduce user fees and privatise health and water services. In line with this the citizenís charter tried to ensure a change in the attitude of the service provider and instil a competitive spirit that would help to ensure efficiency and quality. A system of Charter Marks was introduced in 1992 in order to achieve this objective. A number of marks and certification was provided to service providers who achieved a degree of excellence. The choice and quality of services, user satisfaction, the behaviour of the service delivery officials etc were some of the important elements to judge performance and give grades. It was noted that service providers were entering into high competition with each other in order to get marks so that they could market their services better. Thus the markers themselves became an important part of a market oriented social marketing strategy. In subsequent years these charter marks were incorporated into the ďservice firstĒ and ďmodernising governmentĒ programmes of the Tony Blair government. They have also become the basis for the Indian governmentís ĎSevottamí guidelines for evaluating the performance of departments.

 

Experiences of other European countries differed from the ones in Britain in later years. In an alternative framework for improving public services, citizenís charters began to concentrate more on Ďobligations, accountability and responsibiliesí in Scandanavian and eastern European nations.  This was the case of the charters introduced in the Czech Republic in 2006 whose focus was on the improvements within the welfare systems. In the case of Denmark, Finland and other countries with strong public systems of welfare, redressal mechanisms are decentralised and authority is delegated to the level of the local self government. These charters also emphasise the moral and ethical responsibilities of the public service delivery systems. Such systems increase the accountability of State structures and help in the democratisation of governance. Therefore their experiences can provide some lessons for the Indian law makers who seem to be using the market-oriented model as the only benchmark for developing new guidelines.

 

INDIAN

EXPERIENCE

Seen in this context, the Indian experience with citizenís charters has been a disappointing one as shown by a study of citizenís charters in 47 central departments and organisations by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA). The study suggested that even though many of these charters specified their vision and types of services provided, they were not performing an effective role in linking common people with the government. As required by the charter, most of them did specify the contact persons and officers to which complaints may be made. However 41 per cent of them did not specify the timeframe within which these complaints were to be redressed. About 60 per cent of the charters did not indicate any system or time frame for acknowledging the complaints. Only 2.7 per cent of the charters were committed to conveying the outcome of the complaint to the complainant. Only one third of the charters invited suggestions from users for the improvement in services where as none of the citizenís charters made any commitment towards reviewing their performance on the basis of these suggestions. Because of these difficulties the charters were merely fulfilling the formal requirement of spreading awareness about their services and registering grievances of the users. Further they were not backed up by any infrastructural or support mechanisms to follow up complaints and find rapid solutions. Some of these issues have not even been addressed by Right to Public Service Acts of some of the state governments in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh.

 

Access of common people to grievance redressal mechanisms is another issue which has been analysed by another IIPA survey covering grievance redressal mechanisms. The analysis shows that the current system of grievance redressal is highly centralised in character. In most ministries director and joint secretary level officials are  the grievance redressal officers and handle this portfolio with several other responsibilities. Further the citizenís charters and jurisdiction of the officers extends largely to their own ministries and bureaucratic structures. It leaves out many agencies which have been sub-contracted to provide these services at the local level. This factor is especially important in the light of the neo-liberal policy of privatising basic services like power, water, health and education. Experiences with private agencies in the power sector have shown that the functioning of these agencies is very non-transparent and their public accountability limited. A similar experience is also seen in the case of the privatisation of service delivery mechanisms under the mission convergence programme of the Delhi government. Hence it needs to be explored whether the Citizenís Charters can provide a window of opportunity to increase the social control and accountability of such agencies.

 

ALTERNATIVE

PERSPECTIVE

The discussion above highlights some of the issues that an alternative approach to the grievance redressal and Citizenís Charter should address. A Charter will have to reflect the rights of citizens and the systemic accountability and obligations of different levels of the State. It will only be meaningful if access to basic services is ensured through the recognition of rights in relevant legislation. For example the citizenís charters in education and employment sectors needs to reflect the obligations and accountability that are imposed on different state structures by the legislations such as NREGS and Right to Education. Similarly citizenís charters in the food, health and urban services sectors will only be meaningful once these rights are recognised by law. Only then can such charters and redressal systems be agents of democratic decentralisation and social control.

 

In the light of this an alternative legislation needs to be sector specific laying down common rights, obligations, norms and standards of all services provided in that sector. Every public or private service delivery agency should have common citizenís charters reflecting basic sectoral social responsibilities and obligations. In line with this perspective the institutional mechanism to be setup must ensure obligations and accountability of all levels of government on the one hand and the protection of the rights of government employees on the other hand. This will also orient the system towards institutional corrections, rather than the harassment of employees who may themselves be victims of systemic failures. The fixing of such responsibilities and obligations from the lowest level of service delivery would also facilitate decentralisation of decision making. In order to make this practicable, each local self government and agency should have not only a citizenís charter but also budgetary and infrastructural support that can deal with grievances on a day to day basis within a fixed time frame. In this framework an effectively decentralised grievance redressal mechanism would not only deal with Ďcomplaintsí of individual users, but also with violation of norms and the obligations reflected in the citizenís charters. Penalties should be imposed on delays in meeting obligations and redressal of complaints. Finally, a democratic system of grievance redressal should make public consultations and social audits mandatory at all levels. Grievance redressal mechanisms should be socially representative and equipped to deal with people in local languages, thus ensuring transparency and local participation. Thus the current challenge before all democratic forces is to build up public pressure to ensure that any proposed legislation for right to public services focuses on these principles that make the State and other agencies engaged in service delivery more accountable and transparent. In this situation the citizenís charter has the potential of becoming a vehicle for public mobilisation against a neo-liberal State.