Recently, I ran an experiment. I asked my team to file three complaints on the Prime Minister’s much talked-about Citizen’s Portal App. The idea was to assess the effectiveness of this unique citizen-government interface.
The complaints related to Lahore were selected because they pertained to actual issues that could be quickly resolved by administrative action. These related to huge dumps of garbage near a busy crossing with a request to clean the area and install a dumpster; a broken streetlight pole that had fallen on the ground risking the pedestrians; and a pothole on a major road causing traffic disruptions and minor accidents.
The complaints were filed on November 13 and took about eight to nine days to reach the responsible staff.
The first complaint was resolved on November 22. The relevant government department posted pictures of the squeaky-clean road with the garbage heaps removed. My team then verified that the road had in fact been cleaned. In the second case, the broken pole was removed on November 26.
But the third complaint was closed with the status of “partial relief granted”, without any action on ground. The following response was also received:
“Procurement of patch work material is under process by Metropolitan Corporation Lahore. As soon as material is received, your complaint will be resolved.”
I must confess that I never had a strong faith in such complaint redressal systems, let alone in a country where it’s difficult to move an inch without greasing palms. But my opinion changed, as I personally witnessed the results. Resolving two out of three complaints within two weeks, just through a smart phone app, seemed miraculous.
The experiment offered a number of useful insights. Firstly, these portals usually work fine in the first few weeks but then gradually lose steam. But in this case, even after a year, the system is still delivering, showing massive behind-the-scene efforts.
Secondly, no matter how efficient a system is, some officials would always try to game it. That’s perhaps what happened with the third complaint. It seems that the category of “partial relief granted” can be used to circumvent the scrutiny, without moving a finger. Reportedly, the Prime Minister has already directed the formation of departmental committees for performance evaluation of the app. These committees should especially look into such misclassified complaints. Moreover, the PM Office may also undertake third-party validation of complaint disposals on a sample of complaints.
Thirdly, most government organisations are resource-constrained and while they can take physical action, they may not have the resources to fully address the problems. In the first case for instance, no dumpster was ever installed and at the time of writing this article, the same spot was again witnessing heaps of garbage. Similarly, the broken pole was removed but not replaced. While such platforms can be highly effective in creating a responsive government, they need to be complemented through adequate resource availability.
Going forward, there are several ways in which the app can be further improved. For instance, the citizens should be able to give feedback on the final disposal of a complaint. This feedback when compared with disposals would provide a more accurate picture of how many complaints were satisfactorily addressed. Similarly, despite the overall decent score, there exists a number of reviews about the app, offering useful suggestions. These mostly pertain to technical glitches, slow processes, improvements in format, etc. There is a need to look into this feedback and further improve the portal.
Nevertheless, it was a pleasant experience to find out that the app that was declared as the second-best government mobile application in the world at the World Government Summit actually turned out to be that good.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 3rd, 2019.