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Big data to improve government service delivery; or just simple phone calls to do the same

This World Bank blog throws in the new, new thing “big data.” But really with little substance. Some unthinking hack.

Information technology can be a powerful tool to empower the citizen. In Pakistan, where mobile phone penetration is almost 70 percent, it is possible to reach even the poorest households. Not only can more individuals now hold their local officials to account, but more citizens have a direct say in the quality of government services – a key ingredient in poverty alleviation efforts.

“In addition to the obvious benefits to the citizen, there are large political dividends for the government as well,” noted Bhatti “Most Pakistanis are quite pleased to see the government reaching out and demonstrating concern for the common man.” In a country where 48 percent believe the government is captured by the elite, measures like the CFM can go a long way to rebuild trust. An accountable government is often perceived as more legitimate, and an efficient civil service is more likely to enjoy popular support.

While useful for exposing individual cases of corruption, the model can also be used to improve public accountability at the macro level. By collecting feedback in real time, “big-data” can be used to track patterns of poor service delivery – which can be used to draw geographic “heat maps” of bottlenecks in the system. This can be a powerful tool to disrupt patronage networks, which skew access to services based on political affiliation.

Even if one discounts the big data hype, there are valuable lessons in this story. It is useful to call back users of government services. The Sri Lanka Department of Immigration and Emigration asked for my phone number so they could send me an SMS when my passport was ready. Never used it. They should call me. I’ll give them an earful.

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