Paper tigers: service delivery standards

Paper tigers: service delivery standards

The move of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to formulate standards, including with regard to consumer complaints and after-sales service, for 12 core services, including telecom, aviation, e-commerce and healthcare, is timely in the backdrop of growing complaints from consumers across the services sector.

In the absence of any standards for after-sales service, consumers are left to fend for themselves, with the grievance redressal machinery turning a blind eye. However, standards by themselves will be of little or no use to consumers, unless they are backed up by legal force, as the record of some service standards in vogue have proven. Besides, the BIS would do well to learn a few lessons from the existing standards of services and their implementation.

It is not that there are no standards for the services sector. With the setting up of independent regulatory authorities in insurance, banking, telecom, power, etc., a host of quality of service (QOS) parameters have been prescribed. For instance, the RBI has issued scores of circulars about service standards; the Indian Banks’ Association has evolved a different set of service standards. In addition, the Banking Codes and Standards Board of India has published its commitment to customers. If one goes through these documents, it will be apparent that nothing is left uncovered. 

Yet, consumers are knocking on the doors of the Banking Ombudsman and Consumer Forums seeking redressal of their grievances. The increasing number of complaints in these two forums is an indication of the failure of the promised standards of service.

The insurance sector is not an exception. The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI) has prescribed a set of service standards and policyholders’ protection regulations, which includes quality of service standards. Yet, insurance companies are regularly hauled up by Consumer Forums for their failure to deliver services.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India has prescribed detailed Quality of Service parameters and has notified the consumer grievance redressal regulations. The Electricity Act, 2003, which governs the power sector, envisages various standards for quality of service. The Standards of Performance covers most of the services related to electricity service.

Besides fixed timelines for providing services, any failure to adhere to these standards will lead to payment of penalty to consumers. Nevertheless, not more than a dozen consumers in Karnataka have been able to get the benefit in the past 15 years. Here again, consumers prefer regular consumer forums for redressal of their grievances, as against electricity consumer grievance redressal forums and electricity ombudsman.

As for quality of delivery of public services by the State, the less said the better. During the 1990s, the central government replicated former British prime minister John Major’s concept of Citizens’ Charter. The Citizens’ Charter was built on the principles of information, standards, quality, choice and redressal of grievances. A nationwide campaign resulted in many of the central and state governments publishing their respective charters. But, since these charters are not justiciable, they failed to have an impact on the quality of services.

Forget about the citizens, the officials and staff themselves were not aware of the charters published by their own organisations. Visit some of the websites of government departments, you will find the outdated charters, but do not expect much from them. Then came the idea of Sevottam, one of the best tools to improve service delivery.

As the name indicates, it is a combination of seva (service) and uttam (excellence). The scheme primarily consists of formulation of Citizens’ Charters, setting up of Grievance Redressal Machinery and Service Delivery within each department/service unit. This was based on the central government document titled ‘Action Plan for Citizen Friendly and Responsive Administration’. 

More than 20 states, including Karnataka, made another attempt to improve service delivery by adopting what is known as ‘Service Level Agreements’. The Public Service Guarantee Legislations (Sakala in Karnataka) made a big impact on the citizens as well as the service providers. Initially, the scheme worked effectively and citizens were able to access public services within specified time limits. Besides, they were also compensated for any delay. However, with successive changes in governments, the scheme is going the Citizens’ Charter way. 

One need not research why these tools and standards have failed to improve service quality. First, some of the tools noted above are self-regulatory in nature and the possibility of the aggrieved consumer getting monetary relief is remote. Even if she
is eligible, the quantum is so low that it is not worth attempting.

Second, those responsible for delivery of services have not been trained on professional lines. It is felt that standards were fixed without consulting the cutting-edge personnel tasked with delivery of service. Besides, the success of standards in public service depends on infrastructure facilities, which are in bad shape.

(The writer is Member, Central Consumer Protection Council)