Fighting harassment corruption

How to address the problem of government officials demanding bribes from citizens for accessing public services. 

The anger and indignation that has aroused the civil society in India in recent months over corruption has been confined to a slew of high-profile cases of large-scale rent-seeking. While undoubtedly a matter of great concern, the more ubiquitous form of corruption, one that directly affects all but a handful of us, involves the harassment of citizens by government officials through demands for bribes to access public services.

The egregious and pervasive nature of such corruption makes it a national disgrace. Transparency International says that 54 percent of Indians reported to have paid a bribe to access one out of nine basic public services over the past year. At a time when popular resentment against governance failures have resulted in angry street revolts in many parts of the world and corruption is the major public issue in India, it is surprising that harassment corruption has not provoked similar action in India.

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The Lok Pal based approaches to addressing corruption revolve around fool-proof regulations, strict enforcement of severe punishment for violators, limiting discretion for officials, and enabling transparency and accountability. While important, they fail to appreciate the complex dynamics of the relationship between government and the civil society that drives harassment corruption.

The socio-economic and administrative environments in countries like India provide ample opportunities for corruption and pilferage—an entrenched culture of tolerance for such corrupt practices, people willing to pay much higher prices for accessing services, badly paralysed and ineffectual enforcement mechanisms, governments with monopoly of delivering public services and so on.

Unfortunately, there are no easy paths to combating such corruption. In fact, we may need to adopt a context-specific, multi-pronged approach. Simplifying processes is a good place to start. Consider this. Lakhs of people apply for income, residence or caste certificates each year to apply for government jobs. The harassment undergone by applicants and administrative energies that are expended to verify and issue these certificates are enormous. Only a small proportion of these people fulfill the (other) qualification requirements to become eligible for the job. A change in process that enables people to apply with a self-declaration and demand the certificates from only those who qualify is certain to be a major improvement.

It is commonly observed that people’s willingness to pay for specific services/goods are higher than the price formally charged. In view of the general perception of difficulties associated with accessing government services, people access the service by paying the differential (or a part) as rent directly to the official concerned or outsourcing to a broker for a price. These brokers in turn strike deals with the officials and a rent-seeking chain gets entrenched.

This rent-seeking can be curbed by capturing and institutionalising the willingness to pay through differential pricing. Those willing to pay a higher amount can access the service faster and at their door-step. They will not take things lying down in case of delays and harassment.

The rents are legally captured as premium service fee. The others will continue to get their service at the regular fee within the time indicated in the Citizen Charter. The tatkal service for railway tickets and priority banking services are examples of such service delivery.

Bribery takes place when citizens interface with government officials. Customer service centres, operated by third-party providers, eliminate the interface and limits bribery opportunities. This has to be complemented with service delivery standards, outlined in a citizen charter, and rigorously adhered to. These centres should serve as the single-point interface for citizens—collecting applications with all relevant documents, transmitting them to the respective offices for processing, and disbursing the certificate on the designated day.

This can be complemented with introduction of competition within government itself. This means that the same application should be accepted, processed, and if possible, even acted upon, through multiple functionaries at each level. By generating some level of internal competition among these multiple functionaries at each level, it has the likelihood of acting as a brake on rent-seeking.

All the three – differential pricing, customer care centers, and competition – have to complement each other and be underpinned by a robust work-flow automation of the entire service delivery process. The applicant can be informed about the stage of the process through SMS and website based application tracking systems.

There is nothing even remotely new about them. In fact, many government agencies today claim computerised delivery of services through outsourced single-window customer care centres. But they appear not to have had the expected dent on harassment corruption. This is not surprising since the overwhelming majority of them are cosmetic exercises, with limited attention to small details. Even when professionally implemented, they are quickly gamed by enterprising officials. An important lesson therefore is that all such initiatives should be dynamic, responding quickly to emergent scenarios with appropriate process changes, atleast for a few initial months of its implementation.

A more institutional approach to containing corruption in the delivery of welfare programs is to expedite the implementation of Aadhaar project. Instead of being bogged down in the politically controversial cash transfer debate, the Aadhaar project needs to be given a spin as a governance improvement initiative. The Aadhaar number can help reliably identify individuals, deliver benefits and services to them, and thereby avoid duplication and fraudulent claimants, besides lowering administrative transaction costs. When appropriately integrated into the various public service delivery channels, it can go a long way towards eliminating corruption in government programs.

We can also go beyond the traditional norms of transparency by rating various government agencies on their levels of corruption. Such ratings, to be done by an independent non-government agency, can use surveys to measure actual and perceptions of corruption. Grading can be done across departments and sections within the same department. These grades can then be publicised to create public stigma and instill a sense of shame among officials of the department. The same rating disclosure can be extended to cover officials in various departments.

A mix of all these, and more, are necessary to address a complex issue like harassment corruption.

Photo: Pushkar V