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Opening Remarks at the Service Delivery Workshop at the Asian Development Bank: Open Government for Improving Public Services in Asia

Paul Maassen |

As citizens, we rely on public services being accessible and reliable – to give us an education, keep us healthy, make our communities safe places to be, and ensure our basic needs are met.

Public services are critical to an individual’s wellbeing and life chances, and to the strength and prosperity of societies. In Asia, quality and expansion of public services seriously lags behind the pace of economic growth the region has witnessed, making it an area that needs attention.

Open public service reforms are based on the simple idea that public services that are more responsive and accountable to people – and that benefit from their ideas, energy and scrutiny – will be services that work better for them. We’re beginning to see the evidence of this.

  • In the UK, publication of heart surgery success rates led to a 50% increase in positive outcomes. This benefited both patients and doctors, who used the data for comparison.
  • After randomized checks were introduced, the number of day care centers in Mexico that were in full compliance with safety regulations jumped from 41 percent to 67 percent. A fatal fire triggered government, civil society, and social services to join forces and now ten percent of all day care centers are checked monthly by randomly selected parents.
  • In Seoul, citizen trust in the public water supply and quality increased – and tap water consumption went up twenty percent – after the government began publishing accurate, up-to-date information about the quality of water being delivered to homes.

These 3 examples – with engaged citizens and responsive governments at their core – symbolize why the combination of public service delivery and open government is so powerful.

If I had to summarize the ambition of the Open Government Partnership in one sentence, it would be “ensuring that governments get better in serving their citizens, rather than serving the interests of the powerful elite.” To do so, you need governments that are more transparent, accountable, and responsive.

OGP brings together champions of reform in government and civil society who recognize that governments are much more likely to be effective and credible if they open their doors to public input and oversight.  In just 5 years, OGP has grown to a partnership of 75 countries, 15 subnational governments, and thousands of civil society organizations, who come together to address the most pressing governance challenges faced by these countries.

At the core of OGP is a domestic dialogue between government and civil society – and sometimes the private sector – co-creating a set of open government commitments that are formalized in 2-year action plans. This dialogue helps governments gain trust and buy-in for their reforms. High-level political backing gives the process momentum and helps unblock challenges. The progress of each country – both on the delivery of the commitments and on the quality and depth of the collaboration – is independently monitored.  By publicly sharing country progress and challenges, OGP provides credibility and visibility to the reforms – and the reformers – as well as opportunities for peer learning.

Dialogue, action, monitoring. It is a model that has proven to work at the national level. Where it comes to service delivery, perhaps it works even better at the subnational level, where government and citizens more naturally meet.

Examples from the OGP Experience

Close to 3,000 government reform commitments have been made through OGP. Too few of these address the day-to-day needs of citizens. This is not to say that good quality public service commitments do not already exist – just that they are too few and far between.

These are four stories of what open public service reform can look like – and all four have won Open Government Awards for their innovation and results.

  • In the Philippines, the government disclosed spending data on five major expenditure programs, including roads and schools. Citizens and civil society started to carry out participatory social audits to check whether the roads exist, whether teachers and textbooks are showing up in schools.  The Commission of Audit, the formal accountability institution of the Philippines saw that, liked it and then adopted these participatory social audits, which local governments then responded to.  Each ghost road is estimated to save $300,000.
  • In Indonesia, government and civil society have trained teams of health professionals under the Pencereh Nusantara program to conduct outreach at health centers in remote and underdeveloped areas, both providing more information about health services and soliciting citizen feedback to help improve the efficiency of public health programs.
  • Check My Services, in Mongolia, has received over 40,000 requests and evaluated 84 public services through a citizen scorecard program resulting in improvements in a range of public services from waste disposal to water supply.
  • Uruguay launched ATuServicio to help citizens take control of their healthcare. The portal gives citizens the ability to track healthcare – efficiency, safety, and cost. What is strong about this example is that the data the government published was turned into an interactive service by civil society. This paid off when government and health providers started using the feedback to improve the services.

Five key messages from these examples

That approach of core actors in society working together on transparency, combined with opportunities for feedback and action by citizens, as well as government responsiveness, is extremely strong. These examples give us these five key messages:

  • Make actionable information available: Accountability and citizen engagement are hard to achieve if basic information about public services is not made available for public scrutiny. Additionally, that information needs to be actionable.
  • Citizens bring scale: Citizens can bring an unprecedented scale of eyes, ears and voices that can help allocate budgets, witness procurement, or monitor safety regulations. These are citizens, not customers.
  • Real issues, real outcomes: There will be an appetite for active citizenship if citizens care about the issue. Furthermore, their participation needs to result in achieving, and be seen to achieve, concrete outcomes for participants. No tokenism.
  • Mutual benefits: The best reforms have clear incentives and mechanisms for citizens to mobilise and public officials to respond.
  • Give it time: Open public service reforms and initiatives are complex and challenging to implement. While the impacts of participatory budgeting in Brazil are widely known and celebrated, this has come about through a long process of trial and error and iteration and expansion over a long period of time, with sustained political and institutional support.

In OGP we always say four elements need to come together for reforms to work. You need opportunities for strategic and coordinated civic engagement, a committed and capable bureaucracy ready to act and respond, sustained political will, and an accountability mechanism to assess, learn and adapt.

The same goes for open public service reforms. This is hard work that needs strong forces and strong actors to come together.

I want to thank our co-organizers UNDP and ADB for their support to OGP in Asia and beyond. And above all I want to thank all the participants for being here. I am thrilled to meet so many exceptional practitioners. I hope that in the coming days you will share your stories and lessons and inspire each other. And when going home, I sincerely hope that you will continue to bring innovation and leadership to the region.  

I invite you to work with us to use the OGP platform to develop more ambitious public service commitments and help make open government real for citizens.