The Constitution of Bangladesh stipulates that a fundamental responsibility of the state is to provide basic necessities of life to citizens (Article 15). But the Fragile States Index 2016 depicts a dismal picture of public services in Bangladesh (Fund for Peace, 2016). The recent report of the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) titled 'Corruption in Service Sectors: National Household Survey 2015' highlights the perennial problem of corruption in the country's public sector.
This study attempts to explore the possibility of delivering corruption free public services to citizens using a social accountability tool (public hearing). The study is based on the corruption experiences of about 1000 people who participated in 32 public hearings conducted by the Anti-Corruption Commission in collaboration with the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), JICA and the World Bank. The public hearings were conducted in 28 upazilas of 27 districts and some offices in Dhaka, namely RAJUK, BRTA, Passport and Immigration, three AC (Land) and three Sub Registrar offices.
STATE OF CORRUPTION: From 2001 until 2005, Bangladesh was ranked as the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International, according to Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Although the situation improved after 2006, the country is still found at the bottom of the list. The ranking published in 2015 placed the country at 139th position among 168 countries in the world, with a CPI of 25 in 100. Three other indicators, the World Bank's Control of Corruption and the World Economic Forum's Assessment of Irregular Payments and Bribes and the Fund for Peace's Fragile States Index 2016 (State Legitimacy) paint a similar picture (Table 1).
THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK OF THE STUDY: Public hearings emanate from the principal agent theory. Corruption results from the opportunistic behaviour of public officials as citizens are either not empowered or face high transaction costs to hold public officials accountable for their corrupt acts. Successful implementation of the principal agent framework in the public sector calls for holding government officials (Agents) accountable to citizens (Principals). This framework makes the public officials accountable to citizens.
For operationalising the framework, the study has used a social accountability tool namely, public hearing, conducted in 32 offices of Bangladesh. Empirical evidence from different countries (India, Nepal, Mongolia) shows that public hearing has become an effective tool of providing corruption free public services to citizens. The objective of this social accountability framework is to make service providers accountable to citizens through citizen engagement.
PUBLIC HEARING AS A SOCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY TOOL: The Constitution of Bangladesh affirms that the state will create conditions in which individuals will not be able to enjoy unearned incomes (Article 20(2)). The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) stipulates the participation of society in decision making process (Article 13). The National Integrity Strategy (NIS) of the Government of Bangladesh underscores the need for preventing corruption and promoting integrity. As per Section 17(K) of the Anti Corruption Commission Act, 2004, the ACC has adopted public hearing as a strategy for inclusive governance to monitor corruption free public services to the citizens. The Cabinet Division issued a circular on June 05, 2014 authorising the Anti Corruption Commission to conduct public hearing for improving integrity and preventing corruption at the public office.
Public hearings are formal meetings at the community level where citizens express their grievances on matters of public interest to local officials providing public services and service providers try to address their grievances. The ACC conducts public hearing at the upazila level for ensuring the accountability of public officials and also transparency of their work. Public hearings can be thought of as a way of removing asymmetric information and thereby, empowering citizens with information, who can be expected to be in a better bargaining position than before. Second, anecdotal evidences do suggest that the presence of large number of citizens in the public hearing creates a collective pressure on the public officials, who respond to the complaints raised by the citizens, and try to address their grievances. Public hearing invites public officials of a few government agencies and the citizens of the same locality and allows the citizens to question the officials directly on issues of corruption, and other hassles they face in public service delivery. The ACC organises public hearings in collaboration with its Corruption Prevention Committees at the district and upazila levels, and TIB and development partners (JICA and the World Bank). The focus of public hearings is on land management, health and rural electrification as the citizens have a major stake in these sectors.
FINDINGS OF PUBLIC HEARINGS:
Corrupt service delivery
- Every public office is vulnerable to corruption
- System hardly works for public service delivery
- Systemic corruption prevails in public offices
- Public officials generally work for personal interest rather than public interest
- Service is a charity, not right
- Land management,, health, and rural electrification appear to be the most corrupt departments
- Gatekeepers at every turn
- Multiple visits to government offices
Reasons for corruption
- Service delivery system is highly centralised with no participation of citizens
- Lengthy and cumbersome process of public service delivery
- Too many intermediaries
- Controls in lieu of facilitation
- Heavy reliance on manual system
- Lack of incentives
- Too much discretionary authority
- Absence of exemplary punishment for corrupt persons leading to a culture of impunity
A CASE STUDY: Public hearings aim at (1) building effective public resistance against corruption and (2) making systemic improvement. The ACC has decided to take follow up action of public hearings already conducted and document the success stories. The ACC and TIB will jointly undertake a research work to assess the effectiveness of public hearings. The challenge is to institutionalise public hearings and other social accountability tools in the system of public service delivery.
Md Abdur Rashid Khan joined the erstwhile EPCS in 1970 and retired as an Additional Secretary to the government in 2004. He applied for a 4.95 decimal (3 Kathas) plot of the RAJUK at Uttara, Dhaka in 1996. He got the allotment letter from the RAJUK on 31 12 2003. He made full payment in 2004. But he didn't get possession of the allotted plot for 12 years. As a result of holding a public hearing by the ACC pertaining to the RAJUK in January, 2016, Mr. Khan was able to get possession of the allotted plot.
For the field offices:
- Establishing Help Desk/ Reception Desk in every office
- Organising Information Fairs to create mass awareness about the Right to Information Act, 2009 using video clips on the activities and publishing model booklets for citizens
- Holding public hearing every week as per the Cabinet Division's circular
- Collecting and analysing data for undertaking follow up of public hearings using citizen's charter as benchmark.
- Posting names, photos and mobile phone numbers of public officials of each office on board as well as in the website to free the office from intermediaries
- Piloting at least one office in a upazila as corruption free
- Using mobile apps
For the government and the ACC
- Undertaking business process reengineering for better service delivery
- Reducing discretionary authority of public officials
- Switching from manual to automated system
- Recognising the 'champions' of accountability in public service
- Strengthening NIS Focal Points for corruption prevention delineating their scope of work
- Developing effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels (Sustainable Development Goal 16).
- Bringing the corrupt officials to justice.
The author works for the Anti Corruption Commission Bangladesh, and BIGD, BRAC University.