Four things citizens want to see in the future service delivery policy in Serbia

As citizens – regardless of age, gender or educational level – we are concerned about the quality and efficiency of the services that the government of Serbia offers. Starting from, say, renewing your ID card or enrolling your child in school, people expect less bureaucracy and paperwork, fewer (if any) institutional visits and a quick processing of service requests. This has been the trend all over the world, with more countries placing the administrators in the users’ shoes and understanding the citizens’ journey through the service request. Countries are increasingly trying to simplify procedures – for example, by enabling entire transactions (including requests, payments and receipt of documents) to be carried out through a smartphone.

The government of Serbia has made some progress. Examples include helping parents of new-borns to overcome administrative steps through a no-stop shop[1] while still at the maternity ward, or allowing the business sector to register their businesses entirely online in less than a day. Good results brought about a favourable international assessment by the European Commission and OECD/SIGMA, commending the government’s efforts to create user-oriented administration. This motivated the government to continue placing its digital transformation under the spotlight, proving that “where there is a (political) will, there is a way.”

But in spite of the efforts the government has made, service delivery is about much more than digitalisation. There are still very limited mechanisms that would reinforce the government’s commitment to a citizen-centred, transparent and accountable administration. CEP has already written about some key issues based on the recent WeBER PAR monitoring. One of the points is that, although the Serbian population recognises the government’s digitalisation policy and its efforts to simplify administrative procedures, people cannot tell precisely what it intends for them as end-users and they do not know how to take advantage of these efforts, as tangible effects remain unclear or are not communicated in the right way.

Renewal of the strategic framework is one of the recent activities on the government agenda, with two significant documents to be adopted and enforced in 2020 – public administration reform strategy and e-government programme. If we disregard a crucial point, which falls outside the scope of this blog post and relates to the need to change mindsets so that there is less strategy and more delivery (for which Serbia has not yet reached the maturity level), it becomes important to highlight four key issues that should be addressed in the future strategic framework for advancing government services.

1.      Citizens want to track how service providers handle their personal data

As many institutions keep official records with citizens’ personal data and regularly access other government registries, the question of accessing, managing or processing that data in a transparent and accountable way is important for service users. However, there is currently no system in place that allows citizens to monitor how the government handles their personal data. In other words, citizens cannot track which providers keep their data; what precisely is being kept, how and where; and who has access, when or for what purpose.

This contributes to the fear of potential data misuse, especially after cases in which, for example, excerpts from electronic databases with personal data ended up in publicly available online sources. Another example was demonstrated by CEP’s recent public opinion poll on service delivery, in which people identified poor protection of citizens’ personal data as one of the abuses in the work of the police administrative service.

2.      Citizens want to be better informed on their rights as service users

Citizens are often unaware of their rights as service users because the government makes little effort to communicate it to them. This makes it harder for them to recognise and report misconduct. A recent CEP opinion poll showed, for example, that citizens feel uninformed or minimally informed when requesting primary health care services. In the case of administrative services (such as registering your car), CEP also found that some providers published incomplete information on how to request a service. Even this mere posting of information would take no effort, because it is often copied from official regulation and does not contain any user-friendly content or Q&A. Moreover, the information that does exist often contains highly bureaucratic language, with little or no visual or audio-visual guidance. Uninformed users, in their turn, allow the administration to use old, complicated and predominantly paper-based procedures. Aside from the paperwork hassle, this enables new entry points for corruption and bribery.

Innovations in the service delivery area are also miscommunicated. For example, if you go to the nearest police administration office, you will see people queuing to submit a request for passport renewal, unaware that they can save time by making an appointment online. This lack of information, particularly in the digital government sphere, is in part due to poor communication: CEP’s recent monitoring determined that “fewer than a half of Serbian citizens are aware of e-services, and even fewer have used them”. This is demonstrated by the fact that only 11% of Serbia’s population (excluding Kosovo) have accounts on the e-government portal, where citizens can access digital government services.

3.      Citizens want to track the government’s performance and spending in service delivery

The government has no method for evaluating and reporting on its performance (including overall user experience) in service delivery. This is significant when it comes to checking what is going well and what is not and planning improvements. As OECD/SIGMA also determined, there are no mechanisms for gaining a “bigger picture” overview; there is no dashboard (like this one in the UK) to collect and compare fundamental service statistics, such as transaction volumes, costs, satisfaction rates, complaints and digital take-up rates. In other words, there is a lack of data collection practice that would allow the government to evaluate performance and take actions accordingly. Information that is collected is not publicly available, which prevents citizens from monitoring, holding the service providers to account or making informed decisions on which services to choose. This is especially important given the value of information on where taxpayers’ money is spent and how well public services are performing. Without the systematic collection of such data to inform policy, it is highly unlikely that any new service delivery development will last.

4.      Citizens want to be involved in service design and delivery

Public service providers make decisions with little knowledge of people’s preferences. There is currently no systematic practice that allows users to participate in the design of a service from the very beginning, which has been criticised by the European Commission and OECD/SIGMA. Consequently, services are not sufficiently tailored to users’ needs and are underused in practice. (Remember the e-government portal? It is full of bureaucratic language, outdated and unsuitable for mobile devices.) The administration should start thinking of public services from the users’ point of view. It needs to realise that citizens have a complete picture of their life events, unlike the administrators who tend to focus on the procedural steps of service provision. Users’ early inputs are therefore crucial, through focus groups or testing/prototyping, for example, instead of when the service is already designed. This can reduce risks or inconsistencies, and save costs by preventing time and money from being spent on projects with poor user acceptance (for example, only 5% of citizens have a qualified electronic certificate, which allows you to sign documents online and use some digital services). This policy brief by CEP offers tangible recommendations to the government on how to involve citizens in service design.

To sum up

When developing service delivery policy, the government needs to give special attention to personal data protection, better communication of citizens’ rights and novelties in service provision, transparency about spending and performance, and user engagement from the start. Also, by making the administration more transparent and accountable, the government could contribute to corruption prevention. There must be a focus on these issues in order to achieve public administration reform goals and to finally fulfil the promise of user-oriented administration.

[1] No actions or forms are required from a citizen to receive a certain government service