A barometer of performance

Resolution of citizen grievances is an indicator of the performance of government departments.

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published: July 21, 2016 12:16:59 am
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Resolving citizen grievances is a job for the department of administrative reforms and public grievances (DARPG). The DARPG has a public grievance portal. For 94 central government ministries and departments, citizens can write in with their complaints. The awareness that this portal exists is evidently increasing. There were 132,751 complaints between May 2014 and September 2014. Between May 2015 and September 2015, that number increased to 466,406.

In gauging citizen evaluation of the Union government, this database can be used with three sampling biases. First, not everyone knows this portal exists. Second, citizens write in when there is a grievance. A satisfied citizen doesn’t necessarily bother. Third, everyone doesn’t have access to the internet nor does everyone with a grievance write in.

Data analysed was for a longer period — January 2012 to September 2015. Seventy-three per cent of the grievances concerned just 20 ministries/departments. In descending order of importance, they are: Department of telecom, the Railways, financial services, home ministry, central board of direct taxes, higher education, ministry of external affairs, department of posts, health & family welfare, petroleum & natural gas, labour & employment, defence, school education & literacy, personnel and training, road transport & highways, urban development, department of justice, central board of excise and customs, department of revenue, and the department of ex-servicemen welfare.

Let’s pick one of these to see what the analysis tells us. The one department most people will readily relate to is possibly the Railways. During the period mentioned, there were 19,540 grievances against the Railways. Let’s slice it further to see what sub-departments within the Railways attracted the most grievances. (Railways is actually a bad example to think in terms of sub-departments since, functionally, it is driven by 17 zones.) Seventy-one per cent of the complaints were against zonal railways, 8 per cent against the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation and 5 per cent on passenger marketing issues. An even better idea is not to look at sub-departments but focus on the reasons for grievance. What service deficiency led to the grievance? You then find that 45 per cent grievances were about the inefficiency in the refund process, 34 per cent were about the delays in pension release, 7 per cent about the quality of service onboard trains, 2 per cent for unclean stations and 1 per cent for congestion on the IRCTC website.

Inefficiency in the refund process can be further disaggregated: For the period, 170,000 passenger refunds were pending with the average delay being 2-4 months. There may be a straightforward reason for the delay in refunds. For instance, in the context of delayed or cancelled trains, the charting may not be linked with the passenger reservation system and there is a delay in getting the information on train departures. Alternatively, the refund claim may be challenged because there is no evidence of a passenger not having travelled and because a refund receipt has not been collected from travelling ticket examiner.

In essence, one, ticket checking is a manual process; two, there aren’t enough TTEs; three, when trains are cancelled/delayed, charting information isn’t immediately fed into the PRS; four, passengers don’t collect refund notes from TTEs; and five, the verification system isn’t robust.

With this identification, solutions also suggest themselves. One, give hand-held devices to TTEs so that there is an electronic record of passengers actually travelling; two, introduce bar-coded tickets, irrespective of whether they are issued through counters or over the internet (they can even be delivered as bar-codes to phones); three, tickets should be activated on the day of the travel; four, dashboards should display empty seats; and five, integrated charting and PRS systems for refunds when trains are cancelled/delayed.

My intention is not to explore any of these and it is true that these problems are typically encountered by passengers who travel reserved — that’s roughly 5 per cent of the total passengers. After all, those were citizens who usually used the grievance redress system. It is also true that some of these solutions have already been introduced by the Railways on a pilot basis. Where the Railways haven’t done much, as yet, is on soft skills, like training of TTEs. However, this kind of analysis is useful precisely because it enables the central government ministries/departments to take corrective action.

In the list of the top-20 ministries/departments, the Railways is second. Number one is the department of telecommunications (DoT). Ostensibly, these grievances are about the DoT. As is perhaps natural, grievances are mostly about service providers, not quite the DoT proper.

Therefore, inevitably, having analysed grievances, there is not much the DoT can do, except track and redirect complaints better. Corrective action is quite different from that for the Railways. That’s true for financial services as well since most complaints are about banks.

All the reports in the public domain. I recommend you read them all. Despite obvious sampling biases, one could use these as rough indicators of how citizens perceive the government (at least the Union government) and to track improvements over time. Interpreted thus, priorities are telecom, the Railways, banking, home ministry, income taxes and higher education. Improvements in these will improve citizen perceptions substantially. I hope the next round of reports is done soon. The analysis has been done by the Quality Council of India.

The writer is member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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