Efforts to increase transparency frequently rely on a top-down approach, in which a policymaker demands information about how the government is delivering services in a particular sector. Bottom-up transparency interventions differ by offering citizens the opportunity to directly initiate efforts to investigate potential corruption, and ultimately improve public goods or services. The legal right to request information (RTI) is a federal policy in India (and other countries) that mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information. The explicit goal of India’s 2005 RTI policy is “to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, (…) and make the government more accountable to the governed.”
How does increasing transparency through RTI requests of public service agencies affect the quality of services delivered? In this pilot project, anonymous Right to Information (RTI) requests were sent to officials working in health centers in the Indian state of Haryana, where staff absenteeism is a major problem. These requests aim to increase officials’ perceived level of “bottom-up” monitoring, and hence reduce corruption. The pilot intervention was intended to provide learning and proof-of-concept for a future larger scale RCT.
RTI requests were sent to ~160 health centers, asking for a copy of the attendance records of staff working in the centers. The team then sent surveyors to manually count the number of staff in attendance. The median health center was recorded as having four staff present, though records show that the median center has eight staff. Eight health centers had no doctors present, and some centers were closed when surveyors arrived during working hours.
The pilot intervention provided proof-of-concept that collecting data on healthcare worker attendance is feasible, both through RTI requests and in person monitoring, and can be carried out independently from the Health Department. However, the results indicate that RTI requests may not match “ground truth” data, calling into question the potential limitations of accountability through this mechanism.
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