People’s participation key to better public services

If the officialdom is the interface between the government and the populace, its archaic system urgently needs an overhaul.

Comparing the Thai bureaucracy to the human-computer interface system, TDRI Senior Research Fellow Dr Kannika Thampanishvong said the officialdom is the obsolete 1.0 version, unable to meet user needs and ridden with inefficiency.

“Because the interface is out of date, the public services are difficult to access and unresponsive to people’s needs and demands,” she said. “Because the interface is obsolete, it cannot harness people’s creativity or mobilise resources from different sectors to improve system performance.”

From the top-down 1.0 interface mode, the bureaucracy must switch to the bottom-up 5.0 version to make the system responsive and user-friendly, she said.

Dr. Kannika Thampanishvong – Senior Research Fellow

People’s participation as key to better public services is the recommendation from “The Interface of Thai State and People’s Participation” at the 2020 TDRI Annual Conference by Dr Kannika Thampanishvong and Senior Researcher Tippatrai Saelawong.

At present, the state public participation process mostly merely aims to inform or ask for opinions about the de facto state projects. The participation process fails to give well-rounded and easy-to-understand information to the public and often uses  highly technical jargons that ordinary citizens cannot comprehend.

“The public hearing process is often ceremonial while some groups of people affected by the projects are excluded,” she added.

If the government wants to improve public services, it must treat the citizens as equal stakeholders, allowing them to work shoulder-to-shoulder in planning, deciding, and carrying out the projects.

“The government must also support the citizens to initiate projects and deliver public services themselves, switching its roles from an implementer to a facilitator.”

Some public services are adapting under this direction, she said. For example, community outreach services for bed-ridden patients and other innovative projects to handle waste recycle, corruption, and education reform.

According to the research by Thailand Development Research Institute, two decades from now, there will be nearly one million homebound or bed-ridden elders in Thailand. Preparing for the challenges ahead, local administrative organisations are teaming up with local hospitals and community health volunteers to give outreach services to the homebound, bed-ridden elderly in their areas.

Yet these efforts are only possible in communities with strong local governments, partnership with health teams, and budgetary support, she pointed out.

Another interface innovation is the collaboration between the private sector and civil society on waste recycling.

At present, the government focuses on awareness-raising campaigns on the sorting of household plastic waste, but people don’t know what to do after that. To answer their needs, a group of businesses are working with civic groups to set up drop-off points and collect the plastic waste to recycling factories.

The project has increased the amount of plastic for recycling by 2,268 kilogrammes and reduced the greenhouse gas by 5,262 kgCO2 e.

The top-down education with uniform policy unresponsive of local concerns is also the country’s grave problem, said TDRI Senior Researcher Tippatrai Saelawong.

Due to centralisation, local schools have no say in school management and design of curriculum. Insufficient state funding also makes them lag behind city schools while local groups have not yet got organised to address the problem.

To overcome the obstacles, the Education Sandbox has been established. It allows some schools to design their curriculum to answer local needs and work with civic groups on teacher training, teaching media development, and quality assessment. Meanwhile, the local governments are coordinating with central education authorities to give these schools legal breathing room to experiment with their innovations.

Another noteworthy innovation against corruption is the Integrity Pact (IP) project by Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT), he said.

Khun Tippatrai Saelawong – Senior Researcher

Aiming to make government procurement transparent, ACT sends volunteer senior engineers to monitor the government’s mega construction projects with permission from concerned state agencies for ACT to observe and audit government procurement processes. The Comptroller General’s Department, meanwhile, acts as their coordinator and project funder.

According to TDRI’s calculation, IP helps the government save at least 51 billion baht or 14% of total budget of 62 mega projects during the past five years.

“These efforts show that upgrading the interface of the bureaucracy is possible, that people’s participation can significantly improve the quality of public services,” he said.

To scale up these policy innovations effectively, the government needs to unlock the rigid rules and regulations that prevent change, said Mr Tippatrai Saelawong. The government must also be the facilitator providing change-makers with financial and infrastructural support, and useful data.

“Importantly, the officials must not hijack the innovative projects initiated by private sector and civic groups and claim them as their own work because it undermines trust,” he said. “Instead they should see civic groups as equal partners for input and innovations.”

An efficient interface addresses people’s problems, Dr Kannika. The system must also be dynamic, responsive to new demands, open to public input and innovations for more efficiency, she added. 

“The government must understand people’s needs to design and deliver better public services. The government must then listen to the people.”