It is well known that public policies in our country have ensured a persistence of outrageous injustices, unequal access to opportunities for a large majority of citizens, and poor delivery of services. Effectiveness, even for honest and responsible leaders and officials of local governments, is an unlikely outcome when the national and regional governments quarrel over and mis-spend precious resources, and remain ever wary of effective decentralization and reallocation of taxpayer resources. Little surprise then that when citizens discuss public-interest issues, conversations usually end in laying the blame at the governments' door. Nearly everyone agrees that effective governance is most notable by its absence in our path to swaraj.
This failure of governance over five decades has also allowed - or required, possibly - the development of an entire range of interventionist forces hoping to jolt citizens and shape the nation. Every second day there is a rally taken out to press governments on some cause, or to check some effect. And there are all kinds of rallies - the ones that are staged by trade unions and political parties and the ones that make a genuine point in public. Policy failures have also ensured that there is plenty of well-meant advocacy targeted at "the government". This comes from journalists, experts, NGOs, and politicians themselves. "The government should do this..." and "The government should do that..".
But there is one form of citizen engagement of the public-interest that has seen far less organized activism than it deserves. And this is what separates responsible activism in India from its counterparts in countries where a reasonably good quality of local governance already prevails. Look around carefully at our plethora of civil society initiatives. The noticeable pattern is of empowered citizens working through NGOs, movements and other associations in legitimate programs for social and policy change. On the other hand, far fewer groups are focussed directly with making government work, as opposed to making government change.
That's the central point. Municipal governments today are composed of archaic, needlessly disorganized, people-heavy and pen&paper departments that pressure their responsible staff severely. Even the most elementary of tasks - for e.g. making public information quickly accessible - isn't made easy. If you are a health NGO executive new to your area, and want to quickly locate a public health centre, good luck! If you've come to know that your city pays for diplomas in computer operations for low income citizens, try locating these facilities so that you can pass on the information to some worthy acquaintances. Try finding the voter registration office nearest to you.
Unless you are die-hard enthusiast, you're not going to get any of these easily. Finding out which forms to file, when and where, without running to three different places all with incomplete information about each other, is rare.
These are basics. Local governments in developed nations get these right. Why don't we? With a few exceptions, addressable problems exist in the very processes by which our governments record information. "Process is king", a famous Bangalorean once said to me. For effectiveness in our governments everyday, reengineering workflow and assigning a clear path of ownership for problem solving is critical. Without this, grievance redressal programs for the myriad functions and sub-functions of our local governments are pointless.
And yet when groups of better-off citizens work with their local governments to improve their internal systems, some social activists are wary. Their grieve that the intent of government staff is to maladminister, drain resources, indulge in brigandage and 'rule' the people, particularly the poor. They are concerned that taxpayer activism will push local governments to further run away to serve the better-off in more ways, leaving the millions of others in the lurch. Many of these otherwise public-interest minded skeptics spout venom at government in much the same way as some of their cynical uptown counterparts do, though usually for different reasons.
On the other hand, the mindset of those who prefer to work directly with government tends to be less judgemental. These citizens would like to first have their own roads fixed and their ever-clogged drains desilted for the taxes they already pay. They are happy that some of their tax rupees are going to welfare, but would like to be informed about real outcomes of these schemes. They remain aloof from joining activist-led struggles for the rights of communities they do not understand and perhaps are even prejudiced against, when in their own lives they have not seen good governance. There is an undeniable tension between these two equally public-interest minded quarters of our society.
Some of the concerns of our social activists are well-placed, and what's more, there is evidence to bear them out. For example, property in our country is usually owned only by the better-off. The revenue departments of some of our municipal governments are already beginning to streamline property tax assessment and registration procedures and set deadlines for transactions. This is welcome and marks a new beginning. But the social welfare departments of the same municipalities will often function with far fewer smart staff, outreach and systems support. Thus, even as governance for the higher income classes is improved, other services intended for poorer citizens fall by the wayside. It is a miracle that any welfare schemes operate at all!
In fact, the evidence from both citizens campaigns and public-private partnerships in major cities in India is already bearing this out. Step-by-step approaches that reach for low-hanging fruit first, and learn and build from experience are having their pay-offs, despite the unknowns about scaling-up and sustaining. Governments better equipped with information about themselves and their citizens only make it easier for transparency initiatives to produce results.
The tension between citizens who work within different spaces of the public interest spectrum is therefore needless. As objectives, reforms within the state's institutions and reforming civil society itself are quite different. The state's primary responsibility is to provide good governance to its citizens. It is the agent charged with enabling a democratic civil society to chart its own course. Social reform movements, environmental campaigns, welfare programs are only strengthened when our governments can work better, than otherwise. To make democracy work, we need to make governance work. To make governance work in nations such as ours, we need to work with our governments, create spaces for effective participation, and retain our role as vigilant citizens.