HOW DO YOU MAKE PUBLIC SERVICES AND EDUCATION SYSTEMS MORE ACCOUNTABLE TO THE USER?
The Long route and the Short Route
One of the main arguments against giving schools autonomy from local authority or municipal control is that you then remove direct democratic accountability. The local authority is elected by the people (often a minority of the people) and so gives a voice to them, and offers accountability for public funds.
But Public Services often fail those they are supposed to serve, either in terms of access, quantity or quality. If the elected authority doesn’t deliver, then it can be removed at the next election, so there is a possible sanction attached. This type of accountability was referred to in a World Development Report in 2004, which was discussing how to make public services more accountable and responsive to the needs of the poorest in the developing world, as the “long route” to accountability. In short, citizens provide mandates to policy-makers to design services to respond to citizens’ needs. If these needs are not met, this could result in electoral or other forms of political backlash, including demonstrations and legal proceedings. The theory is straightforward, the practice rather more problematic. For example, a consumer who is dissatisfied with the public service they are being offered has to await the next election to express dissatisfaction, which could be several years away. And, what if an elected authority provides generally good services but an inadequate service in one particular area, for example, in education? We know in the UK that some local authorities have kept badly underperforming schools open for many years without sanction. The reality too is that you may remove elected politicians but the officials, who may have been responsible for poor service delivery, remain in place, regardless of the election results. As the World Development Report pointed out ‘public services often become the currency of political patronage and clientelism’.
So, using ones ‘vote’ to ensure services are accountable is at best a very blunt instrument .Indeed and more often than not it doesn’t leave the citizen with any sense of real empowerment.
It is generally agreed that there needs to be accountability in three key relationships in the service delivery chain: between the consumer and providers, between the consumer and policymakers, and between policymakers and providers.
Given the weaknesses in what has been termed the “long route of accountability”, service outcomes can be improved by strengthening “the short route”. The short route is all about increasing the client’s meaningful power and influence over the providers of the service. In practice, this could mean, for example, a provider, whether a for profit or not for profit enterprise, having a contract to deliver certain agreed outputs over a set time frame. Failure to deliver the agreed outputs, to the satisfaction of the consumer, could result in financial penalties or the ultimate sanction, the loss of the contract. Vouchers systems in which parents exert choice might also be described as providing short route accountability. One factor that ensures better accountability is access to sound information. So citizens are aware of the money allocated to their services, the actual conditions of services, and the behaviour of policymakers and providers and the WDR says this can be a powerful force in overcoming clientelist politics. And separating the policy maker and the commissioner from the provider of the service is crucial too. (this often doesn’t happen in our own system at the local level).
The World Development report argued (remember it was focused on the poor but has a much wider utility) that there is no silver bullet and ‘varied experience with traditional and innovative modes of service delivery clearly shows that no single solution ﬁts all services in all countries.’ The framework of accountability relationships explains why. In different sectors and countries, different relationships need strengthening. In education the biggest payoff may come from strengthening the client-provider link, as with vouchers in Colombia or scholarships for girls in’ Bangladesh.’
In conclusion, it is clear that accountability means different things to different people. It is also clear there are different forms of direct and indirect accountability, operating at different levels. But to ensure that our public services respond to the demands of the consumers of those services we cannot rely solely on one model ‘democratic accountability’- or what is termed the long route. We also need the short route which allows for a more direct accountability relationship between the consumer and the provider of the public service.