Public Hearings Can Fight Corruption

Mar 1 2017 - Bangladesh is a lower middle-income country with a promising and stable economy. The economy of Bangladesh continues to maintain its sustainable growth momentum with a healthy 7 percent-plus growth rate in FY 2015-16. The gead count poverty rate declined from 31.5 percent in 2010 to 23.2 percent in 2016 while the extreme poverty rate decreased from 23.2 percent in 2010 to 12.9 percent in 2016 (BBS, 2016). The foreign exchange reserve shows a steady increase and the exchange rate of US dollar remains stable. The country’s remarkable steady growth is possible due to a number of factors including macroeconomic stability, population control and openness of the economy. Building on its social-economic progress so far, the government has taken up multifarious initiatives to elevate Bangladesh to a knowledge-based and technology-driven middle-income country by 2021.

Illustration: www.simple.com

Illustration: www.simple.com

However, despite economic progress, corruption remains a formidable problem in Bangladesh. According to all major global indicators of corruption, namely Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), World Bank’s Control of Corruption, World Economic Forum’s Irregular Payments and Bribes and Fund for Peace’s Fragile State Index, Bangladesh finds itself among the most corrupt countries in the world. Empirical evidence from a number of countries shows a strong correlation between government effectiveness and the level of corruption. Highly corrupt governments usually have big problems in delivering public services, enforcing laws, and representing the public interest (Fukuyama, 2014).

In Bangladesh, citizens have to travel long distances, often multiple times, incur high costs and endure considerable delays and hassle to access public services (PMO Bangladesh). Systemic corruption sufficiently undermines a state’s ability to carry out its basic functions such as supplying public goods and services (IMF, 2016).

With the help of a social accountability tool, such as public hearing, it would be possible to deliver corruption-free public services to citizens. Article 7(1) of the Constitution stipulates that all powers in the Republic belong to the people. This study is based on the corruption experiences of about 1000 people who participated in 42 public hearings conducted by the Anti-Corruption Commission in collaboration with Transparency International Bangladesh, JICA and the World Bank in 37 upazilas of 36 districts and 5 offices in Dhaka, namely RAJUK, BRTA, Passport, three offices of AC (Land) and three offices of Sub-Registrar and a follow-up of public hearing on RAJUK.

The Cabinet Division in a circular issued on June 5, 2014 authorised the Anti-Corruption Commission to conduct public hearing for improving integrity and preventing corruption in public offices.

Public hearings are formal meetings at the community level where citizens express their grievances on matters of public interest to public officials and service providers try to address their grievances. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) conducts public hearings at the upazila level for ensuring the accountability of public officials and also transparency of their work. Public hearings can be thought of as a way of removing asymmetric information and thereby, empowering citizens with information, who can be expected to be in a better bargaining position than before. Second, anecdotal evidence suggests that the presence of a large number of citizens in the public hearing creates collective pressure on public officials who respond to the complaints raised by the citizens and tries to address their grievances. The public hearing invites public officials of a few government agencies and citizens of the same locality and allows them to question the officials directly on issues of corruption, and other hassles they face in service delivery. According to the World Development Report 2017, the three key conditions include transparency, which makes information available, publicity which makes information accessible, and accountability which makes information actionable. The ACC organises public hearings in collaboration with its Corruption Prevention Committees at the district and upazila levels, and Transparency International Bangladesh and development partners (World Bank, JICA and GIZ). The focus of public hearings is on land management (land registration, settlement and administration), health and rural electrification. The reason for selecting these organisations is that these services are essential for larger sections of households and, further, the ripple effect is even more. Based on the feedback received from public hearings, the ACC is holding dialogue with government organisations for improving service delivery through business process reengineering. Thirdly, public hearings attempt to fulfil the three key conditions for bringing accountability in public offices through citizen engagement.

The Anti-Corruption Commission in collaboration with Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) conducted an information fair and public hearing for the first time in Muktagachha, Mymensingh from December 28-29, 2014. A large segment of common people attended the programme. It was found through these public hearings conducted by the ACC that every public office is vulnerable to corruption; the system hardly works for public service delivery, and systematic corruption prevails in public offices, land management, health, and rural electrification appear to be the most corrupt departments.

The major reasons behind corruption are the lengthy and cumbersome process of public service delivery, many intermediaries, little transparency and accountability, absence of exemplary punishment for corrupt practices, heavy reliance on manual system and so on.

The existing irregularities and corruption may be controlled if the following measures are to be taken like undertaking business process reengineering for better service delivery, introducing online public service delivery, recognising the champions of accountability in public service, developing partnership with government organisations, NGOs, civil society including media, introducing decentralised governance, bringing the corrupt officials to justice, etc.

The ACC works to achieve the two objectives of building effective citizens against corruption and improving the system of public service delivery. In this regard, public hearing and its follow-up appear to be effective instruments of corruption prevention. The ACC has decided to take follow-up action of public hearings already conducted and document the success stories. The ACC and TIB will jointly undertake a research work to assess the effectiveness of public hearings. However, the challenge is to institutionalise public hearings and other social accountability tools in the system of public service delivery.

The writer is commissioner, Anti-Corruption Commission.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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