Empowering Citizens Through A Legal Right To Public Grievance Redress
This innovation has won an award, as described in the case study text. Call for Innovations
This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)
For the first time in India, over 100 million citizens have been conferred a legal right to grievance redress. The Bihar Right to Public Grievance Redressal Act also provides a no-wrong door policy (every complaint compulsorily received in any centre in Bihar or digitally and acknowledged) and power parity between citizens and public authority (specially mandated independent, quasi-judicial officers provide a one-stop solution after weighing evidence from both sides).
Public service delivery was improved through Citizen's Charters or going in for Right to Public Services legislation. Nevertheless, implementation has been patchy and grievances remained unaddressed in any significant way. The tendency toward self-protection by institutions and absence of a legal right of citizens, render public grievance redress systems vulnerable to gaming. Additionally, in many cases the lack of a time limit for redress dissuades people from complaining in the first instance. Grievances are routinely handled by public authorities which, in the first place, gave rise to them. In most systems the institution against which one has a grievance is expected to accept a complaint as genuine and then find a way to resolve the problem. However, institutions have a vested interested in showing that their performance levels in service delivery are excellent. Not only does this lead to a potential moral hazard, but in reality is filled with examples of denials of the genuineness of grievances, to show both a better performance and a greater achievement in 'disposal' of complaints.
Prior innovations in resolving public grievances have resorted to public hearings, ombudsmen with limited remit, regulatory authorities for specific sectors (such as insurance, telecom, etc.) and extensive use of digital technologies. However, while solving many a problem, all these innovations have not struck at the root of dissatisfaction arising from the power asymmetry between the public authorities and the citizens, nor provided a single-stop solution combined with a no-wrong-door policy. Additionally, most systems are administratively ordained, not legally enshrined.
The Government of Bihar, after experimenting with the best-in-class practices including Public Hearings and an award winning ICT-backed system, decided to break away from the continuous improvement philosophy to a radically new one. The decision was both to provide a legal right to all 110 million citizens - without exception or pre-qualifications- for grievance redress, a process that would be a one-stop solution for the citizen, introduce an independent authority to judge a case based on evidence provided by both the public authorities and the complainants, and focus on actual redressal.
The Bihar Right to Public Grievance Redressal Act 2015 empowers citizens by giving them a legal right. It also introduced an independent class of Public Grievance Redressal Officers who were empowered with quasi-judicial powers including the powers of summon of witnesses and evidence. Ensconced within the law, rules and instructions are also key provisions which make it citizen-friendly. These are:
i) comprehensive geographic and sectoral coverage. The entire state of Bihar, all 44 Government Departments along with all their affiliated agencies, and 478 schemes, plans, and services are covered under the Act;
ii) multi-modal application features (paper-based at physical centres or through post; digital based through e-mail, an on-line portal and a mobile application); even where the complaint lodged does not belong to a specific centre, it is the job of Public Grievance Redressal Officers to transfer a case to the appropriate jurisdiction with intimation to the complainant;
iii) removal of discretion at the time of application - every application, without any pre-qualification, has to be accepted and acknowledged with a receipt containing a unique ID number;
iv) it is mandatory for the respective public authorities to be present in the hearings; for the complainant, it is optional;
v) every complaint has to be decided within 60 days; in case a complaint warrants a redress, the redress should be completed within 60 days, failing which the Public Grievance Redressal Officer has to pass an interim order stating reasons why the case had been extended;
vi) the entire process is ICT-backed to ensure monitoring at various levels (sub-district, district, division and state).
Every citizen of Bihar is beneficiary irrespective of gender, class, caste, religion, or region. Any one including a child is allowed to lodge a complaint.
The implementation was delayed by one year to ensure that the foundation - infrastructure, competent, skilled human resources, and fully tested information technology would be in place before citizens were offered the service. Offices were redesigned and renovated to facilitate receipt centres, staff selected and trained, and a new software and website created.
The innovation is not only fully scaled up, but is also fully institutionalised through a formal structure of independent quasi-judicial officers selected and appointed by the government. The government proposes to further scale up by notifying more schemes, plans and services under the law. Improved quality of quasi-judicial orders, understanding and eliminating root causes of the top five grievances, and better awareness creation amongst citizens are top priorities of the government.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
This innovation is a fundamental rethinking of public grievance redress in India, of not the world, by providing a legal right implemented by an independent quasi-judicial authority. It is not a silo-based, but a whole-of-government approach, with a radical redesign in that there is a single-window system for receipt and processing of application and a one-stop solution for any kind of legitimate grievance.
It has produced dramatic improvements by guaranteeing redress within 60 days, a system of appeals and reasons in writing, through a formal quasi-judicial order where the system is unable to deliver on time or deny the genuineness of the grievance. It is process-focussed: the quasi-judicial process with elements of natural justice built in and powers of the Public Grievance Redressal Officers to summon both the presence of the public authority and evidence, have ensured power parity between the complainant and the public authority.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The Act has been under implementation since 05 June 2016 for a period of about 27 months. As of 13 September 2018, 390,662 grievances had been received and 343,087 disposed. 190,200 grievances had been redressed timely, about 99,000 had been provided Alternate Remedy (grievances which are to be addressed through laws like the Right to Information, Right to Public Services, and Civil Courts) and 55,009 had been rejected with reasons.
A few hundred thousands of citizens have benefitted, including women from the lowest socio-economic strata, in the areas of land, subsidised food and fuel, housing loans, scholarships and pensions for weaker sections, overdue payment from government to private parties, excess billing for energy use, law and order, etc.
The processes have undergone independent early assessments by a Technical Assistance from UK Aid. A Third Party Evaluation is underway by the Administrative Staff College of India.
Collaborations & Partnerships
It was citizens' feedback to the Chief Minister (cases 'disposed' in the files of departments did not mean redress) triggered the out-of-the box thinking. He and the bureaucracy were important because they designed the innovation, and planned the implementation process.They laid the legal foundation and formed the independent authority. A private sector partner is responsible for creation, maintenance and improvements of the end-to-end software. A UK Aid team helps in process/results analysis.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Long-pending (sometimes for years) grievances have been redressed. 80 percent of complainants have registered their satisfaction. Public Grievance Redressal Officers are highly motivated as they are solving people's problems within 60 days. The government is happy as it is a pioneer in completing the citizen empowerment circle with legal rights to information, services and grievance redress. The private sector partner has found a new niche in software. The UK Aid is happy that the government values its Technical Assistance.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
80 percent of complainants at the final hearing have registered their satisfaction with redress. The government has further streamlined the processes; a mobile app is also available for registering complainants. Attendance of public authorities in hearings has substantially increased to over 90 percent. The no-wrong-door and one-stop solution policies have ensured that citizens do not have to run around many offices any more. Best performing officers have been rewarded and 250 worst ones penalised.
The lives of hundreds of thousand families have improved as a result of actual redress.
Based on independent evaluations, the government received the Kalam Innovation in Governance Award and Skoch 52nd Summit Awards for go, and is a finalist for the International Innovation Award of CAPAM for citizen-focused innovation (results expected in 10/2018). We expect the innovation to have a diffusion effect in the country and other states would adopt the new policy for public grievance redress.
Challenges and Failures
Challenges occurred in the initial stages of implementation. Public Grievance Redressal Officers, fearing action against them for exceeding the time limit were 'advising and ordering' public authorities to redress the grievances, rather than ensuring actual redress. The Bihar Prashasanik Sudhar Mission Society monitoring team noticed these, and issued fresh instructions to ensure that only those orders that documented actual redress would be deemed final.
Second, some Public Grievance Redressal Officers issued orders without reasoning. Fresh instructions were issued that orders should be reasoned.
Third, monitoring of public authorities' attendance in hearings and follow-up ensured that it went up from about 10 percent initially to over 90 as of date.
Fourth, to avoid inconvenience to complainants Public Grievance Redressal Officers were instructed to reduce the number of hearings to the optimum required. Finally, based on analytics, and with an aim at reducing grievances at source, the government is planning to do root cause analyses of the top five grievances.
Conditions for Success
The key change was in policy and rules: legal empowerment and independent judgement mandated by the Bihar Right to Public Grievance Redressal Act of 2015. The second reason was a committed organisation - the Bihar Prashasanik Sudhar Mission Society - to plan and implement the law keeping in mind the objective of redress. The third important condition was the creation of a dedicated infrastructure - receipt-cum-facilitation centres -, staff - the Public Grievance Redressal Officers and their capability building -, and IT-based architecture (software and a website).
More importantly, monitoring went beyond a routine tracking of numbers to analysing the content and categorisation of Public Grievance Redressal Officers' orders. This resulted in identifying key issues related to redress. hence learning from analytics and course-correction thereof is a key component for success. The Chief Minister's keen interest and regular monitoring for results, his rewarding best performers and encouraging the team has helped keep motivation levels high.
The Bihar Right to Public Grievance Redressal Act has not yet been replicated.
To replicate this innovation the following factors are essential:
-Law empowering citizens with a right to grievance redress
-Will to break silos, and adopt a whole-of-government approach
-Independent class of officers with quasi-judicial powers to weigh evidence and pass orders
-Good physical infrastructure combined with comprehensive ICT-based backbone to ensure 24/7 receipt-cum-acknowldegement process
-Dedicated mission for Monitoring and Evaluation, and continuous improvements
As a whole-of-government policy, the preliminary lessons learnt are:
1. Do not treat important reforms as projects. If one wants deeply entrenched reforms that could be continuously improved, a change in mindset is required on many fronts.
2. Reforms should focus on the needs of citizens in tandem with government processes. A citizen empowerment policy has to necessarily look at business process re-engineering that is revolutionary, founded on radical re-design, has dramatic effects/results, and targets process improvements.
3. It is not enough to legislate and hope that implementation would follow because of legal considerations. Preparations before implementation are the key to success. The Bihar Prashasanik Sudhar Mission Society laid the foundation - infrastructure, capable human resources and ICT - over a period of one year. Initial success stories help entrench reforms.
4. Monitoring using metrics alone is not sufficient in complicated issues like public grievances. Quality control parameters should include qualitative issues. In our case these included the quality of orders and an ability to discern from categorisation if grievances were actually redressed or only disposed.
5. Top level commitment and attention to results are crucial. The Chief Minister himself, along with his Cabinet, continually evaluate the results and make their own suggestions for improvements based on direct feedback they receive from the citizens.
6. Self-driven reforms by governments have great buy-in. The Bihar Right to Public Grievance Redressal Act - while learning from earlier Right to information and Right to Public Services Acts - was essentially a self-initiated reform by the Government of Bihar and hence is seen as having top priority of the ruling parties by the political executives and bureaucracy.
7. External Technical Assistance is useful in analytical work and bringing a broader perspective based on international experience and expertise.
This innovation is important in the citizen empowerment and good governance context. Assuming that a legal right to information and public services would resolve all problems for citizens is shortsighted and misplaced. Public grievances arise due to a number of reasons and many of them do not fit any specific criteria laid down for information or services; many services, especially aimed at the weaker sections, demand that a set of criteria be fulfilled even to satisfy preliminary eligibility conditions. While mechanisms for appeal may exist within these legislations, they are mostly looked at by 'insiders' (those within the institution against whom the grievances arise). A legal right for grievance redress, as practiced for the last 27 months by the Government of Bihar, eliminates these bottlenecks and provides unfettered access to citizens to interact with government and solve their problems.