Public services

The provision of public services—such as health care, education, sanitation and criminal justice—is a key task for government. People care about public services and depend on them being delivered well. Public services provide the most common interface between people and the state, and their functioning  shapes people’s sense of trust in and expectations of government. At a national level, public services underpin human welfare and economic growth.

Public services need to be delivered with integrity, centred around citizens, and responsive to their needs, particularly the needs of the most vulnerable. Promoting greater transparency and enabling ordinary citizens to assess the quality, adequacy and effectiveness of basic services, to voice their needs and preferences and to become involved in innovation offers an opportunity to enable better use of public funds, and improve service delivery  (Ringold et al, 2013)

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Public services account for a large proportion of government budgets, but increased spending has often not been matched by improvements in outcomes. In the worst case, public services can be bedeviled by corruption which leads to money intended for books, teachers, dispensaries, medical supplies and infrastructure being syphoned off by officials or private contractors (World Bank, 2004). Around the world, children still leave school are unable to read and do basic arithmetic, and the quality of healthcare remains uneven. Data show that just increasing resources, equipment, financial, or personnel, does not guarantee that the quality of education or health care will improve. The quality of service delivery is critical.

Even where the integrity of public resource flows can be secured, approaches to public service delivery designed for a previous age struggle to respond to present day needs driven by complex challenges, such as those created by aging populations, chronic health conditions, mega cities and poverty and inequality.

Public services are traditionally organized in a way that puts the public in a passive role, as the recipient of a standardised service. This contrasts with innovations in other areas of life such as retail, travel and media where people are used to giving feedback on the goods and services they receive, and playing an active role in making choices. Citizens are connected like never before and have the skill sets and passion to solve problems. Local people often know what the solutions to problems in their area, but are rarely empowered by bureaucratic processes, instead facing public services which may be impersonal, irrelevant, and inefficient.

Governments are experimenting with redesigning parts of the system so that citizens can play a more active role as a user community for public services. This can mean participative processes and forums, community monitoring and citizens’ budgets, or new forms of commissioning.  Technology and open data enable a different kind of participation. Open government data APIs allow anyone to write a citizen-facing application using government data, creating new interfaces to government, and opening up new possibilities. (Lathrop et al, 2010)

However  translating information into action is a difficult challenge. The relationships between citizens, policy-makers, program managers, and service providers are complicated and are not easily altered through a single intervention, such as an information campaign or scorecard exercise. (Ringold et al, 2012)

Particular attention needs to be given to human motivation and incentives.Research by Twaweza in Uganda for example found that formal information sources were not seen as particularly influential and citizens are often either too afraid to act, do not consider it their responsibility or do not know what to do.(Twaweza, 2013)

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