Digital technologies and the use of data to inform decision making offer tremendous potential to leapfrog to a higher, 21st-century standard of service delivery. But local government units (LGUs) in the Philippines face multiple constraints in utilizing digital technologies to deliver responsive and inclusive services in support of the sustainable development goals.
Decentralized administrative structures, with substantial fiscal variation, geographic remoteness, vulnerability to disasters, and internal conflicts all make it very challenging to design support programs that are sufficiently flexible and scalable.
With such enormous variation, a deeper understanding of local nuances is necessary to inform the design of interventions and the type of digital tools relevant to improve public service delivery.
So we brought together a diverse team to carry out a two-week mission drawn from the UNDP country office in the Philippines, the Bangkok regional hub, colleagues from the Access to Information program in Bangladesh, and human-centered design specialist.
Drawing on recent experience that has to applied “design thinking” approaches in government, we set out to test the hypothesis that it is possible to create a user-centered model for service delivery by turning our typical approach upside-down: co-designing prototypes for service delivery improvements that begin at the local level; testing and improving the prototypes through an iterative process; scaling rapidly through adaptive replication; and promoting cross-agency collaboration at the national level.
Our first step was to gain a better understanding of local contexts through ethnographic research: during the mission, we shadowed and interviewed tens of local public servants, service users, and other stakeholders, followed by validation meetings. Major themes emerged revolving around local leadership, transparency in service delivery processes, information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and capacity, use of data, and inclusion. Here are key takeaways from our research.
1. Inventiveness in overcoming path dependency
One thing we learnt early on is that our initial typology of LGUs—highly urbanized, disaster-prone, and post-conflict—wasn’t as relevant as we thought it would be. It turns out that local leadership practice and resource endowments were more significant factors to consider in determining the local context for service delivery.
Leadership is key in defining an LGU’s openness to innovation. We encountered many examples of how LGUs adopt inventive approaches to challenge path dependency. In one town, a mayor set up a tax lottery to overcome limited fiscal revenues. One LGU established a community e-learning center by lobbying to get an additional mobile cellular tower installed. In another town, the one and only IT officer designed six software solutions by himself for different departments from business registration to asset assessment.
2. Not so transparent citizen charter?
The Anti-Red Tape Act of 2007 mandates all government agencies, including LGUs, to formulate and make accessible citizen charters to serve as a tool to provide transparent information to the public about frontline services and make governance easier for both client and service provider. Charters contain information and instructions on how to access different services, names of officials and employees to approach, fees, and redress mechanism for public grievance and feedback.
Citizen charters are meant to encourage more effective and efficient delivery of services. However, we discovered that in some LGUs, charters are not easy to find or understand, not always followed, and some public servants were not fully aware of the indicated business process.
3.ICT: Mind the Gap
In leapfrogging to 21st-century service delivery, a reality check on existing ICT infrastructure and literacy of staff is important to understand appropriate digital solutions and any upskilling that may be needed.
We observed that there is a general preference for paper-based processes and outputs. In some LGUs traditional typewriters are still used, while only a handful of staff know how to use a computer. Even where computers are used most inputs remain paper-based and then digitized, leading to considerable duplication of effort.
Continued use of paper-based systems is partly a reflection of the sense of security printed transactions bring compared to digital documents stored in computers that are not considered reliable. It is understandable that the confidence of users in digital transactions depends on their perception and experience of both reliability and convenience.
Yet, some LGUs do invest in both human and infrastructure capacity to advance the digital agenda. Some LGUs have digitized both the front-end and back-end of service provision to simplify services and minimize the risk of corruption by reducing physical contact between service provider and client. A large city in Metro Manila now permits citizens to pay their property tax online using a digital payment platform.
4. Data! What data?
Many mayors and LGU staff recognized the importance of data but found it difficult to pinpoint exactly what data are needed and how they would be used. Data is typically seen as a tool for public servants, not for citizens. More consistent use of data is precluded by outdated systems, a lack of communication between different data sources, and delays in access and availability of data. Some LGUs complained that they reported a lot of data to higher levels of government but little of that data was returned in a form that was useful for local decision making.
Advances in digital technology provide more accessible channels for citizen to influence and co-design service delivery. For example, machine learning and data visualization tools, make it possible to gather data, analyze, and generate insights with greater speed, precision, and relevance.
5. Citizen engagement: We are all (Facebook) friends now
LGUs use various communication channels to engage with people. Many LGUs have established official websites but these are not based on common design standards, while some LGUs are promoting web portals that are no longer active!
Most LGUs position suggestion boxes for paper-based suggestions from citizens. It seems unlikely that this is a very effective way to get useful, regular feedback and in some cases the boxes were not easily visible to the public.
While suggestion boxes may not be the most effective way to gather inputs from citizens, this doesn’t mean that LGUs are not interested in receiving feedback or complaints. One of the few findings from the mission that applied across nearly all LGUs was the use of social media—Facebook in particular—to maintain continuous communication with citizens. Communication via Facebook is often the preferred channel of mayors to collect feedback and follow up. Due to its wide reach, Facebook clearly functions as an important channel for public accountability, though it is not used consistently and there are risks associated with its use.
6. Too many left behind
Finally, even if in many instances internet and digital technologies can ease engagement of end users and make service delivery more transparent and faster, geography still poses persistent difficulties in ensuring entire communities are not left behind. This is especially true for barangays situated in upland areas far from town centers or on remote islands where the country’s two mobile network providers have little interest in extending connectivity. Imagine the “user journey” of pregnant women or senior citizens trying to access services in these situations!
But even in these cases LGUs are finding ways to close the gap. Some better-off LGUs have established sub-offices where people can access services without needing to journey to the town center. One LGU we visited decided to pay one of the mobile operators to extend its service coverage, so people can get access to the internet.
These are just some of the key insights from our trip. In the coming months we will be turning these observations into a set of working hypotheses that we will put to the test and refine during a prototyping phase. Rather than trying to come up with a predetermined design that would apply uniformly across all LGUs, we want to offer a menu of flexible options that LGUs, their citizens, and other stakeholders can use as a starting point to chart their own path to service delivery improvement.
Some hacks may be quite simple and low cost: making sure that offices are easily accessible for those who are less physically mobile or posting local job advertisements on social media sites. But other innovations may take longer and require more funding: upgrading IT hardware or bringing more services online.
We will engage with adjacent groups of LGUs that are early adopters of digital solutions to pull together resources, facilitate mutual learning, and promote participatory governance through digital transformation.
But a bigger question remains: how can we move from a series of (hopefully!) successful prototypes to systemic change in local public service delivery? This is where UNDP will try to increasingly work as a platform to facilitate co-learning between national government agencies, LGUs, and local stakeholders to help “directed improvisation” towards scaling new models of service delivery.
Stay tuned to learn more about our progress towards 21st-century service delivery.