Public Service Doesn't Rule But Serves

May 26, 2011

Loup Brefort, Country Manager for Serbia, The World Bank

This article was published in NIN weekly magazine on May 26, 2011

A government employee found an old brass lamp in a filing cabinet. When he dusted it off, a genie appeared and granted him three wishes. “I’d love an ice-cold beer right now”, he told the genie. Poof! A beer appeared. Next the man said, “I wish to be on an island surrounded by beautiful women.” Poof! He was on an island with gorgeous women fawning all over him. Oh, this is the life, the chap thought. “I wish I never had to work again”. And poof! He was back at his desk in the government office!

This joke may not be fair since, undoubtedly, many members of the civil service are dedicated, conscientious and hard working individuals that try their best to provide good quality service to the public. Nevertheless, one hears enough “horror stories” to think that there is probably still a long way to go to make sure that every member of the public administration behaves in a way that makes them worthy of the name that they should all be proud of: “public servants”.  I recently heard that Ms. X.  couldn’t get a stamp on a properly obtained occupancy permit because a clerk who was in charge of the case was on a holiday and his colleague refused to stamp the piece of paper because he didn’t like his coworker. Not even the head of that department in one of Belgrade’s boroughs could or would dare to do something about it. Serbia now has a very good new law on social welfare to provide enhanced support to the most vulnerable of our co-citizens. However, studies also show that many find it extremely difficult to navigate all the barriers that some so-called public servants put in their path.

In market economies, poor quality service is generally punished easily as consumers can “vote with their feet” and bring their business to competitors. In the case of state services, it is not so easy since citizens often deal with a complete monopoly. However, the situation is not entirely hopeless and many countries around the world – from Britain to China – are embarking on making their public administration more efficient, better managed and responsive to clients needs. How do they do it?

One of the instruments at reformers’ disposal is to give more voice to the clients, i.e. the citizens in the belief that this can lead to more responsiveness and service-orientation on the part of the administration. Boxes of complaint are simple and easy way to do that, provided there is a willingness to act upon them. Then there are citizen report cards that solicit user feedback on the performance of public services. Citizen audits collect evidence from citizens which can, among other things, help in assembling evidence about the abuse of authority. Benchmarking through publication of the results of regular citizen satisfaction surveys tends to shame the poor performers into action and generally enhance the accountability of service providers. One can also introduce some forms of compensation linked to results or performance in the civil service, although these schemes are notoriously difficult to design and implement.

Another way of improving public services which is spreading around the world is the “exit” strategy whereby one breaks the monopoly power of the administration and lets citizens choose their provider of public service. In 1992 Sweden introduced school choice system based on a virtual “voucher” which is equivalent in value to the average cost of educating a child in the local state school. The idea is that funding follows the pupil and, in this way, the state supports the schools that are most popular with parents, presumably because they offer the best quality service. Interestingly, the Swedish Teachers Union supported the school choice policy. In China,   the Civil Affairs Bureau of the Municipality of Shenzhen is actually paying $57m to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to deliver social work, mainly to do with the elderly, on the administration’s behalf. The groups are evaluated by third parties and, based on good results achieved so far, the municipality intends to give NGOs more role in delivering welfare, health and education services in the city of Shenzhen. The City Commissioner responsible for this approach won China’s national award for government innovation last year.
But the basic rule to follow is to create a politically neutral civil service, with appointments made on merit. Government administration in Singapore is renowned for excellence of its meritocracy which reigns all the way down the system. Teachers, for instance, need to have finished in the top third of their class (as they do in Finland and South Korea, which also shine in the education rankings). Headmasters are often appointed in their 30s and rewarded with merit pay if they do well but moved on quickly if their schools underperform.

There are huge gains to be achieved merely by copying what others do well. Poof! A civil service where everyone strives to deliver best service to the citizens.