Set standards and reform to deliver urban public services

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: Jun 27 2012, 07:33am hrs
This column typically highlights the best and the brightest practices in the cities and towns of India. The examples relate to the delivery of basic public services such as drinking water, solid waste management, traffic safety, public transport, waste water treatment, drainage through storm water drains, etc. They show how, in the midst of urban chaos and the abysmal state of public service delivery, there are some truly inspiring stories of service turnaround. In quite a few cases, e-governance, together with business process re-engineering in government, has played an important role in bringing about this transformation.

The general lack of concern with the state of public service delivery in urban India until recently can perhaps be explained by everyones preoccupation with fending for himself/herself in an economy dominated by controls and regulations. The rich and the powerful were content to find private or special solutions to the general failure of public service delivery in urban India, and the poor simply learnt to cope. With rising incomes, a younger population, rising aspirations, greater expectations and more demand for accountability, the sorry state of public service delivery is simply not acceptable. It is also visibly coming in the way of growth and development.

Individual examples of excellence as reported in this column can only go that far. A related question is how we provide incentives for urban local governments to improve their performance with respect to service delivery. First, there is the issue of determining the norms for service delivery. For example, is 247 water supply the norm Is coverage for water connections for all households, including slums, the norm Is recovering O&M costs for sustainability the norm Second, there is the need to measure service delivery. Once targets are laid down and physical performance is measurable, it is possible to compare performance across Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and provide incentives for better performance.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, launched in 2005 and now extended till 2014, focused the nations attention on urban development. But it was largely directed at bridging the infrastructure-investment deficit rather than improving service delivery, and its reform orientation in any case became weaker with time. It is hoped that the new Mission currently under preparation will switch focus to service delivery improvement, and provide incentives for better performance.

Karnataka has led the way in measuring and monitoring urban service delivery in India. Municipal reforms were launched in Karnataka in 2004 through a Municipal Reforms Cell (MRC) in the Directorate of Municipal Administration under the Urban Development Department. It was the first serious attempt by a state government to develop service level benchmarks and monitor performance of ULBs in the state. A very important aspect of its work was to combine the use of IT for monitoring and governance with fundamental administrative reforms at the local government level. An equally important initiative was to track financial performance indicators as well, and take an integrated view of financial resilience and service delivery outcomes.

Creation of a centralised system, which was common in terms of a process and data model across the state, was a key factor. Parallel with the IT preparation for data collection and data monitoring was a major campaign to modernise the cadre and recruitment rules for local government officials. For example, octroi had been abolished in 1979 but the Mustaddis (the octroi cadre) were still around in 2002, though redeployed. Cadres which had become redundant (numbering 57) were abolished and a large number of professional cadres were created in 2004-06. Cadre rules had to be changed to ensure that people with accounting skills could be placed as accounts officers to work with accrual-based accounting, and environmental engineers could work on solid waste management. District Urban Development Cells were created to act as catalysts for change, empowered with IT professionals and state government officers.

The programme was first taken up for 49 ULBs with assistance from the Asian Development Bank. It was subsequently extended to cover all 213 ULBs with assistance provided by the World Bank. At the initial stage, software support was provided by the e-Governments Foundation in Bangalore but with the passage of time, capacity has been developed in-house, with outsourcing as and when needed. Other partners in the project are KUIDFC, STPI and Survey of India.

Currently, data at MRC is collected online not only for services such as birth and death registration/certification, and grievances and redressal, but also on a double-entry accrual accounting system and a GIS-based property tax information system. There is online registration of births/deaths in all the ULBs. The backlog of records is also available on the database going back to 1990. Grievances can be registered through phone, online and by writing. Tracking of complaints as well as online monitoring is built into the system. Service centres are managed by NGOs and there is auto-escalation of a complaint to higher levels if it is not attended in the prescribed time. All ULBs have active websites with user-friendly information for their stakeholders.

On tracking financial accounts, progress has been slow but substantial. The audited financial statements are available for 45 ULBs for 2009-10, and for 44 ULBs for 2008-09. On GIS property taxation, there are 37 ULBs that have come online. Other areas where data gathering and analysis has begun are water supply and project/ward works.

After collecting the information on a prescribed template from the ULB in an online application called Tulana, the data is cross-validated by the District Urban Development Cell and the Directorate of Municipal Administration. It is then used by the online application in a given formula to derive the value of the performance indicator, which is shared through the web with all. For example, a water performance indicator would effectively highlight the relative share of revenue water vis--vis non-revenue water. The comparative picture provides the basis for performance orientation at the local government level.

There is clearly a need for improving the quality of data by conducting appropriate surveys and other reforms, and there is also a need for refining the methodology for developing the performance indicators. But the groundwork has been done at the MRC. Once the comparative framework is firmly in place, this is expected to become the basis for fund allocation across the ULBs.

It is not surprising that the MRC bagged the ICT Excellence 2010 award for excellence in application of IT in state administration. I visited the MRC Data Centre which has a modern, state-of-the-art office with a section set aside for online training, another where young professionals were engaged in developing software packages for application, and yet another which hosted the centralised database architecture. It is managed by professionals who are explicitly hired for the development and implementation of e-Governance tools, and for operations and maintenance of the database. I saw some officials of ULBs training for online operations.

As the World Bank support for the project is phasing out, the Karnataka Municipal Data Society has been set up with a self-sustaining revenue generation mechanism, with contributions from individual ULBs. It will not only accommodate training and support queries from the municipal bodies but will also act as a forum for knowledge-sharing, which helps in adapting to change.

In 2008, the Ministry of Urban Development in the Government of India prepared standards of public service delivery or Service Level Benchmarks. The Thirteenth Finance Commission advanced the cause of service delivery by providing incentive grants for state governments if they put in place standards for service delivery. The Karnataka model of Municipal Reform shows the way forward if we are to aspire for service delivery to prescribed norms.

Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia is Chairperson, ICRIER and also former Chairperson of the High Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure Services, which submitted its report to MoUD in March 2011