Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shouldn't governments have service level obligations?

Governments, particularly in India, have an abysmal record of providing uniform high-quality services to citizens. At no place is this more apparent than in the capital Delhi, where in a drive of less than 15 minutes, from the beginning of the Grand Trunk Road to the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, one can see the entire range from stinking dirty garbage covered pot-holed roads with overflowing severs to sparkling-clean well-tarred multi-laned roads bordered with well-trimmed hedges and expansive manicured lawns.

In a democracy, the Government exists to 'serve' the people. Aside from its greater role as a policy maker, every government spends an inordinate amount of time and money providing services to citizens. It is therefore quite sad to observe that they do such an inconsistent and poor job of it.

In the private sector, mature service organizations are increasingly adopting formal service level obligations (that are clearly defined and measured). For example, airports such as Changi in Singapore, or recently those at Hyderabad/Bangalore, have formal service metrics that guarantee that an arriving passenger would receive his bags, finish check-out procedures and be on his way to the cab in so-and-so minutes; as another, most banks have well defined turn-around service timelines for check/statement processing. The formal definition and measurement helps align incentives across the organization for consistent service delivery.

To expect Governments today to adopt a similar professional service mindset is probably a tall order.

Yet changes may be in the offing - if one is to go by the recent US Court ruling on the Army Corps of Engineers, blaming them for "monumental negligence" for some of the flooding during Katrina: Katrina ruling could bring new deluge of lawsuits.

While this could still be called a one-off incident in the advanced democratic setup of the US, if a Government entity could be held responsible for failing on its service obligation, that's quite a harbinger of things to come. Imagine what would happen if some day, the citizens of North Delhi took our government to task for the neglect of their area!
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