Electronic Citizen Report Cards in Sri Lanka: Rebuilding the Social Compact
April 1, 2015
For Rapiel Thevaskayampillai in Sri Lanka’s war-weary Northern Province, the challenge of rebuilding livelihoods and restoring faith in government starts with city services. Thevaskayampillai chairs the Urban Council in Chavakachcheri, 14 kilometers southeast of the provincial capital of Jaffna. Chavakachcheri was once a bleak monument to the fierce fratricidal war that ravaged Sri Lanka for three decades. Heavily shelled by both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam and government forces, this once-thriving urban center was in complete ruins when the guns fell silent in 2009, its defeated and embittered population deeply suspicious of the nationalist central government.
In Council elections in July 2011, Thevasakayampillai’s Tamil National Alliance party received an overwhelming 92 percent of the vote, raising citizens’ hopes for a greater say in matters affecting their lives and livelihoods. But as he set about the practical business of governing, Thevasakayampillai faced a fundamental question of government credibility: how effectively and equitably was the Council delivering key services? Though he often heard complaints, he had no reliable measure of the public’s satisfaction.
In 2014, Thevasakayampillai asked the Department of Local Government, Northern Province, to help administer an Electronic Citizen Report Card (eCRC) in Chavakachcheri. To date, The Asia Foundation has supported nine eCRCs in Sri Lanka, the first in early 2014 in the city of Batticaloa. Developed under the Foundation’s Local Economic Governance program, funded by DFAT Australia, the eCRC is a groundbreaking data tool for local councils to collect and analyze citizen feedback. The eCRC begins with a field survey of individuals with direct experience of specific agencies and services, conducted using an Android-based mobile application, then uses simple back-end solutions to generate real-time analysis of the information, eliminating the costly and time-consuming work of data entry, data analysis, and generating findings and reports. For cash-strapped local councils, the eCRC provides a quick, portable, convenient, and cost-effective way to find out whether urban services are reaching the public, including the poor and vulnerable. For citizens, it has proven to be highly effective in galvanizing political and administrative responses. And in areas prone to ethnic conflict, the eCRC is a valuable tool for identifying patterns of discrimination and exclusion.
The Northern Provincial Council’s Department of Local Government managed the eCRC in Chavakachcheri. Community development officers from a team specially trained by The Asia Foundation, equipped with the mobile application, conducted the survey in the field. Trained supervisors monitored survey quality through real-time location tracking using Google Maps, and placed follow-up calls to a randomly chosen 10 percent of respondents to validate results. Back-end software converted all approved data in real time, displaying key statistics in a visually compelling, dashboard-style panel. Thevasakayampillai and his team at the Council received complete results within 24 hours of the field survey.
The results showed that Thevasakayampillai and the Council have their work cut out for them. A substantial majority of the city’s residents reported non-availability of services related to storm water drainage, water supply, and parks, with just 13, 17, and 7 percent, respectively, reporting availability. Among services that were available, those related to streetlight maintenance, road maintenance, and trash clearance also received low satisfaction scores – just 24, 30, and 32 percent, respectively. Of particular concern to the Council were the low scores reported by economically disadvantaged households and those living on the city’s margins. Not all the news was bad – satisfaction rates were high for libraries (81%) and mother-and-child centers (71%) – but taking all services together, the citizens of Chavakachcheri gave their local council a combined satisfaction score of just 38 percent. The dismal eCRC scores prompted the council to revisit the annual budget: streetlight maintenance and road repairs have received additional funds for 2015.
Since last January’s presidential elections, a wider discourse on good governance in Sri Lanka has sparked new interest in tools like the eCRC. Beyond the rhetoric of electoral politics, there is a growing realization among political leaders that people need to be served effectively, services need to be equitable, and governments need to be accountable. And in a nation struggling to bridge hardened ethnic divisions, the eCRC gives political leaders a tool to map and identify patterns of exclusion. When a recent eCRC in the densely populated and ethnically divided city of Kalmunai, in the war-affected Eastern Province, revealed stark inequities in services along ethnic lines, Mayor Nizam Kariapper saw an opportunity for a civic dialogue about the underlying causes of these pockets of dissatisfaction. “Being inclusive is the true test of a democracy,” he observes. “As the leader of a democratically elected local government, I have to hear all voices, especially those of the minority.” The eCRC will hold a mirror to his words.
Dr. Gopakumar K. Thampi is director of economic governance programs at The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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