If one searches the phrase ‘citizens’ charter’’ on Google, they would get more than 2.1 million results. The charter is a written document that constitutes a list of services, standards, rights and duties of service seekers, grievance handling and redress mechanisms, and the address of the service provider agency, among others.

The first citizens’ charter initiative dates back to the early 1990s. United Kingdom’s charter approach was in an effort to respond to growing demands for accountability, transparency and efficiency, on one hand, and to the pressures from the community for more and better services, on the other. This was best expressed by John Major’s speech made to The Economist Conference on the Streamlining of the Public Sector, on 27th January 1992: “The citizen’s charter came about because it is high time to raise standards of performance in our public services demand of the consumer….And, it was also the wish of those who work in the public sector themselves. They had the skills, the dedication and the enthusiasm to do it. All they needed was the freedom and the encouragement to try out new ideas”.

Following the UK’s first initiative, several countries, from Australia to Jamaica, France and South Africa, formulated their own. And, most recently – in 2012 to be exact – the Ethiopian Ministry of Civil Service announced that every government organisation shall have their own charter.

However, the actual content of charters and the motives for introducing them differ from one country to another. In some countries, there has been substantial motivation to improve performance and in others the main goal seems to be to justify government performance. In some cases, a major driving force has been pressure from aid donors, while in some others it follows the bottom-up approach.

Tony Blair’s Labour Government relaunched the charter in UK under the newly titled ‘Service First’ program, in 1998. This elaborated the principles further. Later on, the initiative was dismissed and the ‘customer service’ idea was integrated into the charter mark programme – an award for organisations that achieved excellent customer service in the public sector.

However, charters still play an important role in public transport, education, hospitals and housing, but they are now on voluntary basis. The charter mark programme was replaced by a new customer service excellence standard, which became the sole award for customer service in the public sector, in 2011.

The citizen’s charter initiative in India saw fruition on the state level at a conference of the Chief Ministers held in May 1997. The “Action Plan for Effective and Responsive Government at the Centre and the State Levels” was then adopted.  This paved the way for the formulation of charters among ministries, departments and agencies that have significant public interaction.

However, an initial evaluation of the citizen’s charter development shows a lack of stakeholder consultation, which could have resulted in improvements in client satisfaction and the quality of services provided.  After ten years of implementation, it was found that no charter in India contained the essential components of an internationally accepted charter.

Generally, end-users and civil society organisations were not consulted in the development of the charter.  The charter was found to contain outdated and poor quality service standards.

The major obstacle of citizens’ charter implementation – a lack of focus – could be attributed to the top-down approach of the initiative, inadequate training and sensitisation of employees and citizens, the improper reshuffles during early formulation and implementation of the charters, unrealistic standards and conceptual challenges.

In the Republic of South Africa, the white paper on transforming public service delivery was introduced in 1997 to put into effect the commitment of the government to extend services to all citizens. The overall purpose was to transform public services into a people-centred institution and promote accountability. It was driven by principles, such as – consultation, increasing access, providing information, openness and transparency.

However, the then-government audit of the initiative indicated that the execution of the correct monitoring and evaluation standards had been problematic. Most provinces were reliant on conventional approaches, rather than being innovative to service access  and  there was lack of integrated access strategy, which recognised all new initiatives. In addition, redress was a problem especially in the social service sectors.

In contrast, the concept of a citizens’ charter is a new phenomenon in Ethiopia. It appears on the civil service agenda of the country, three decades after its birth in the UK.

Since its introduction, in 2012, trainings were given to different organisations on the very essence of the charter, necessities and constituents. Some organisations, including the Ministry of Civil Service (MoCS), the Ethiopian Railway Corporation (ERC), the Federal Ethics & Anti-Corruption Commission (FEACC), the Textile Industry Development Institute (TIDI) and other federal and regional organisations, have drafted their own.

Of course, the Ethiopian civil service has developed the twelve ethical principles in service provision. A decade has passed echoing and posting these principles.

Thus, there remain no concrete standards to measure. Thus, the charter approach to public service delivery continues to preach the same old principles.

But, the question is; is a citizens’ charter a necessity for Ethiopian public service delivery?

The rightful answer is yes. The charter approach to service delivery could enhance the transparency and accountability of the public service delivery system.

In Ethiopia, the public service delivery system, although an improvement compared with the past, still is not up to the expected standards. This could be attributed to the absence of a serving mentality, loose accountability, a lack of information about service standards and requirements, and poor grievance handling and redress mechanisms. Thus, if the charter approach is well-designed, communicated and implemented, it can address these problems.

What are the potential challenges in implementing the charter?

A conceptual challenge is the first issue to be addressed in the design and implementation of the charter approach. For an ordinary citizen, the phrase citizens’ charter can be vague.

There should be a local and plausible phrase to express it. This is challenge faced more often than not by service seekers.

It may also not be easy to design and implement a citizens’ charter from one’s own organisational point of view.  Experiences of other countries shows us the importance of crafting fully-customised charters.

But, in our public service, different reform tools have been introduced and their level of success has varied from sector to sector. In general, however, there has been a tradition of copycatting, as well as deficits in sustaining the implementation of reform tools.

Citizens’ charters may also suffer from these common setbacks.  For instance, during BPR implementation, some standards are found to be irrelevant, some activities were missed and the quality dimension of a given activity was hardly measurable. These same challenges of relevance and inclusiveness may hamper the success of the charters.

On the other hand, the organisational culture of sustaining newly introduced procedures, systems, and reform tools will impact the effectiveness the charter approach to public service delivery. In the Ethiopian context, this might be the major bottleneck that the charter implementation faces.

The experience the public sector has in designing effective communication strategies might also be another challenge. After a year and half since the herald of the charter approach in Ethiopia, I could only access the charters of two organisations online. But a charter has no value unless it is communicated well and the service seekers get access to it.

What should be done to materialise the charter approach in public service delivery?

Some tips could help. These include internalising the essence and the necessities of the charter approach, scrutinising the success and failure of newly introduced procedures and systems in the organisation, developing effective communications strategies and strengthening the legal support for accountability and transparency of service delivery.

Yet, there could not be a one-size-fits-all formula for all organisations. Everything ought to be customised.

By Fekadu Nigussa
Fekadu Nigussa - nigussaf@yahoo.com – a lecturer at the Ethiopian Civil Service University (ECSU). Published on Addis Fortune August 04, 2013 [ Vol 14 ,No 692]