The government is meant to be elected by the people, and to serve them in return. Every government would claim adherence to this notion but when you talk to the common people, the picture you get is exactly the opposite. Most people don’t think that governments listen to, or care about, them or that the government will solve their problems. They feel that they are to fend for themselves. Barring a few things, people can’t meet all their needs on their own; for instance, they cannot fetch water, they cannot produce electricity, they cannot secure themselves against every odd, and so on. So, they need a government to provide these amenities and services. And, this is where the factor of accountability comes into play.
The people of a state can influence government policies by electing the right leaders with the power of their vote. The rulers, in return, are to provide the citizens of the state with facilities and services that help them in managing their everyday affairs. A common person usually has to interact with the government-designated service-providers; police, doctors, and teachers. So, how can citizens easily engage with these people? How can they have their voice heard and concerns heeded to? In this regard, there are two key preconditions: information and feedback.
So, let’s start with the information people need to have, e.g. what’s going on? How can citizens engage with a health centre, police officials and local community centres? Who can they call, or go to, if they are in a problem?
In Pakistan, it is very hard to get information from public officials as most of the time they operate in a culture that is closed and secretive and where information is not meant to be shared. So, what happens, then, is that both the service-providers and the citizens do not have a sense of ownership of what’s going on around them.
But, it is quite encouraging that this old culture is changing, albeit gradually and with many hiccups, but change is visible. Governments are beginning to increasingly realize that it helps them to be open because this engenders trust and helps get good ideas from the people. It adds to their credibility and helps them in solving the problems citizens face. Since the process is going through evolution, we’ve learned some lessons as well. Along the line, a lot of information has been divulged that hasn’t been that useful. In order for information to be useful for the citizens, there are, at least, five things that are important:
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1. Information must be relevant and important for the people; it needs to be on something they care about.
2. Most people want to know what is going on in their community, in their school, and in their law-enforcement institutions. The information provided at district, provincial or national level may not be helpful. So, it needs to be provided at the lowest possible level.
3. It should be in a language that ordinary people understand.
4. The information must be reliable and accurate. Governments usually, out of political compulsions, disseminate information that’s not true and that nobody believes in.
5. A real problem we have is that the information once made public is not updated for years.
The second element is the feedback. The policymakers and service-providers need to ask for feedback from citizens and respond them positively. When you ask questions like: ‘What is your experience?’ ‘How it can be improved?’ ‘Do you have ideas for a change something that we haven’t thought about?’ you get two benefits: the first is, you identify problems so as to work on them at the earliest possible time. The other great thing is that you can identify the goods and ills in the concerned issue. You can figure out who are the heroes with dedicated and creative skills.
What’s really important is that the public feedback should be taken seriously. And, people should be made aware on the actions taken on the basis of this feedback.