Improving municipal service delivery

Rohan Samarajiva

As a society develops we assign more value to time. Usually the rich value their time more than the poor. But the not-so-rich who are paid on a daily basis know the value of their time well, especially what it would cost them to skip work in order to obtain some government service (what economists call opportunity cost).

Sri Lanka is now a middle-income country. It’s high time we improve the delivery of government services. Its principal city, Colombo, is the ideal place for government to start showing respect for people’s time.

Almost everyone has experienced the frustration of going to the wrong office; of going to the right office but being told the right official is absent; of finding the right official and being told the documentation is not complete; of having the required documents but not having the payment in the right form, and so on.

For those whose language is not Sinhala, there is the added frustration of not being able to communicate, not being able to read the forms.

Almost everyone has a phone. And phone calls are cheap. The simplest remedy is a telephone-based municipal information service operating in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Ideally it will be available at times convenient to citizens, say from seven in the morning to 10 at night. It sounds simple, but is actually a little complicated. The best way to run a municipal information service is through the use of a specialized call center (could be part of the 1919 Government Information Centre). That means specialized equipment for handling multiple incoming calls, for tracking and evaluating the interactions and so on.

But most importantly, it means that the calls are responded to by operators trained to be polite and pleasant. They cannot have specialist knowledge about the subject matter of the calls. Their answers must be consistent. They must quickly retrieve the necessary information from databases while the call is in progress.

What that means is that accurate, up-to-date information on City services must be available in the data base. And that is not simple at all. The detailed information that is in the books and in the heads of the “subject clerks” has to be collected and stored in easily retrievable form, i.e., in computer systems. There must be a continuous effort to develop answers to the FAQs [Frequently Asked Questions] and to keep the information current.

Just talking to a call center outside office hours will not make citizens happy. They need to get the required information and it must be accurate. Of course, not all information can be provided instantaneously. In some cases, there will be a need to find the information and call back. In others, it will be necessary to connect the caller to the relevant official and get out of the way.

We can start with a simple information service: who is responsible for what? Where is the relevant official located? What are the office hours? What is the phone number from which more information can be obtained? But as quickly as possible, the more useful information must be collected and provided.

 In New York City, where such a service has been operational since 2003 (not so long ago!), and here is what a trainee reported: “Around lunchtime, a restaurateur calls, seeking the address of a health department building where his employee is set to take a food-handling test. I do not have the address, but I transfer him to the health department, which presumably does. I think the call goes well, but this turns out to be my lowest-scoring call (80 points out of 100). I apparently was supposed to point out that the food-handling course could also be taken online.”

Not just what the caller asked for, but more. Citizen-centric.

The City definitely gets more, because the call centre generates massive amounts of data that can be analyzed and used to improve services.

The service in New York City (population 8.2 million) employs 306 full-time operators (starting salary: LKR 2.5 lakhs/month). They take an average of 90 calls per shift, consulting a database of 3,600 pieces of information. From 2003 to 2010, the service handled 100 million calls.

The annual cost was over LKR 5 billion, a little more than the entire annual budget of the CMC. Of course, the Colombo service can be provided for much less, simply because the inputs are cheaper here and the City is much smaller (about one tenth of NYC). And we do not have to provide free phone calls, since calls are so cheap. People can make the choice of making a call or making the trip. Both cost money and time. The former costs much, much less.

It will take Colombo a little while to get to the optimum level. But in the first 100 days, the call centre can be set up, and the City can begin to show more respect for the time of its citizens.

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