2 Stars for that for that pothole!

Do you even remember how many times you have seethed in rage over a huge portion of your street being ripped open for laying some wire or pipes only to be never closed again? Or when the public works lays a new road on top of the existing one repeatedly such that your front gate is now below the road level? Or when the storm water drains fail miserably during heavy rain? Or how about going to government office to get any work done?  Getting your pension or birth or community certificates, almost any government service under the sun has always been irritating in our country, irrespective of the party in power. You have to admit that even when your favorite political party is in power, these blood boiling irritations remain.

Now as a Product Manager, I have to think a lot about user experience, i.e such as ease of use, how quickly and efficiently the user’s objectives are accomplished. So we’ll have Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and objective metrics to track how good the user experience on the app is.  Then a thought struck me. Would it be so crazy to define a ‘citizen experience’, i.e the ease and quality of life of citizens, improving efficiency in delivery of government services all managed as though it were an app or a packaged service?  That didn’t seem crazy to me and on careful thought something similar should already be there, it’s probably just not called something fancy like ‘citizen experience’. Of course there are ways in which government services are audited for how effective they were in delivery of such services, but then why is everything so pathetic?

Of course as always, it’s all about incentives. I wish it were possible to run any system that depends entirely on honorable people, but such a system even if possible is unsustainable, because all it takes is a few dishonorable people to ruin such a system. People, who are delivering a service, be it a municipality staff or district collector should believe that they have some stake in too. Why do Corporations care so much about customer experience? Of course, better customer experience means more users and therefore more money. On the other hand, why would a government employee with a safe job, who is probably not even interested in the job care about your citizen experience? This question was the genesis of an idea.  (Agreed there may be people who are passionate about public service and are self-motivated to give their best, but if everyone were like that, we wouldn’t be talking about this.)

What I am about to discuss ahead is a fluid idea that is more in the domain of a thought experiment than concrete public policy, but nevertheless could actually be way more practical that it seems. So just like we rate apps on the app-store, rate Uber drivers after a ride, how about an instant feedback mechanism whereby citizens can instantly rate each government service on an objective scale? Took too long to get birth certificate for your child, how about you can give 1 star for that? On the other hand, you had smooth experience getting your passport, give 5 stars for that!

pothole

The Public works department messed up the roads? All registered voters in that locality can now immediately rate the Public Works department 1 star out and this should seriously affect the salaries and bonuses for the employees/ head of that department.  When the aggregate rating for that department drops below a threshold, people may lose their jobs and the complaint will be automatically be escalated to next level of authority such as the PWD Ministry. If the PW department continues to lose ratings points even after such escalation, the Ministry will start losing rating points. These systems of course should be calibrated for each department and permeate to every layer of government right up to top where there will be an overall rating for the entire administration.  The government has hundreds of public facing offices and departments and several of them start getting negative feedback from citizens, the government of the day can quickly lose credibility. Instant feedback from the citizens ensures, very specific feedback unadulterated by other considerations and also tighter feedback loop that has great chances of making the government services work as they are supposed to.

If your first reaction to this idea is that it sounds like a plot of a Shankar or A.R Murugadoss movie, I wouldn’t blame you. I’ll be the first to admit that this does sound like a crackpot idea that’s easier said than done. Admittedly, it’s not going to be easy to implement this easily, but with some thought this may actually not be as fantastical or crackpot idea as it may seem at first and the benefits of implementing such a system may actually far outweigh its costs.

The Major Benefits

Before, I attempt to preemptively answer criticisms or skepticism about that idea, let me try to illustrate couple of benefits of such instant micro-feedback system from the public and why it can work.

  • People responsible for delivering public services will work just as enthusiastically as an Uber driver or a Swiggy delivery guy trying to get 5 stars. They may or may not give a damn about the public, but now it is in their self-interest to do the best they can.  More importantly it is the citizens who are direct stakeholders who decide the fate of a public servant rather than the bosses in their own departments. If we defined measurable KPIs for each and every department, my hypothesis is that we will very quickly see tangible improvements in delivery of services.

 

  • Citizens are less likely to screw up. One of the biggest problems with democracy is how often citizens tend to vote against their own interest. People only vote once in 5 years and in those 5 years politicians have plenty of tools in their kitty to distract the public, such as caste, religion, race, language, terrorism, war and so on. Amazingly, we humans are dumber in groups that we are as individuals and there is only so much that citizens can process in their heads in those 5 years before they vote again.

On the other hand, if person is asked to rate a specific experience, my hypothesis is that, they are far more likely to give an objective and accurate view of their experience. (i.e an AIADMK or a Republican fan is unlikely to give positive ratings to a government service that they found to be pathetic, even if AIADMK or Republicans were in power at that time and vice versa would be true too). Instant feedback makes citizen’s voices more rational than when they want to part of an ‘overarching narrative’ during election campaigns.

 

The challenges

Of course, there are many challenges in implementing such a system. How do we decide who is eligible to give feedback in a particular scenario? For example if the Electricity Board dug out a huge chunk of the road to lay some cables and left it open, sure only people in that neighborhood should be able to provide ratings on that.  How do we ensure that? How will people give their feedback, through a website or mobile app or through physical forms? How do we validate the authenticity of such ratings? How different services carry different weights, how do we calibrate the rating system such that it is fair to everyone? If a department gets very poor ratings, who should be held accountable? Would it affect honest hardworking people in the department, just because of a few morons? How do we avoid rating spam from opposition parties or inflation from ruling parties? Or worse, what if politicians one up the system and start distributing cash for ratings?  And how much would this all cost?

All of these are very valid questions and I am not going to pretend that I have an answer to all of these questions. As I had previously stated, this idea is still in the realm of a thought experiment, which with wider discussions, I hope can materialize into a concrete idea (or get killed if it’s too stupid).  That’s how any idea develops. Think about it, how we instituted this democracy and build its institutions and imagine how impossible it may have sounded when such institutions did not exist.  And these institutions were built up for what purpose if not for human well-being in our society.  If the same society can be better served by creating new set of institutions that give more power (literally) to the citizens then it might be worth it.

We may already have many elements required to create such a system. We have an exhaustive voter database and authentication mechanisms like Aadhar that are universal within the country. Citizens nowadays have near universal access to mobile phones.  Furthermore, several companies like Amazon, Google, Yelp have developed rating systems (for different purposes) that have very good algorithms to validate genuine reviews and identify and fake reviews, so this definitely not unachievable for government services, if we can learn from these companies.

We may need to develop an elaborate IT infrastructure to integrate these elements. We will also need a new independent body, like the election commission or Lokpal/Lokayuktha type that will manage and regulate these ratings and protect the process and infrastructure.  There may be cases where citizens’ ratings must be kept anonymous from powerful people, and a strong independent institution to manage citizen feedback is a must to protect the integrity of ratings that citizens have provided. An institution with a mandate to do that can be the answer to avoiding rating spam, cash for ratings etc. ( again I am not saying this is going to be easy)

Of course, a lot of questions are still unanswered and I decided to write about every idea that I had brainstormed about to answer these questions, since those answers are not very well fleshed out in my own head. But I am completely convinced that such a system could change face of a democratic society where the administrators are truly subservient to the citizens. I am also convinced that such a system is practically possible and can work as intended with some effort.  But as in any experiment, these are all just my own hypothesis and I may be completely wrong about this. But testing the idea can happen only with wider discussions and definitely requires more than one brain working in isolation.

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