Ruth Kapwepwe, a 27-year-old mother of two from the area of Traditional Authority Ndindi in Salima, is old enough to know that the world has always had problems: Sometimes forgotten, but always there somewhere.
She says this appreciation of problems has helped her endure challenges she encounters both in her private life and public life such as the delivery of public services.
“Even in families, marriage counsellors encourage us to endure instead of rushing to them whenever we face challenges,” says Kapwepwe, now a resident of Chiphala, T/A Kalonga. In Salima.
It, therefore, came as a surprise when officials from the Malawi Human Rights Resource Centre (MHRRC) introduced the concept of service charters, aimed at improving the provision of public services, six years ago.
The Salima Service Charter saw the Salima District Assembly (SDA) with support from MHRRC implementing a pilot phase on District Level Service Charter with the aim of improving public service delivery in 2009. The project was rolled out in T/As Mwanza, Ndindi and Bibi Kulunda.
In a bid to ensure effectiveness, the District Assembly courted journalists with the goal of empowering community members to know what standards to expect from the service providers and make demands accordingly. A media taskforce was thus put in place.
Times Group’s Business Editor, Thom Khanje, was elected to chair the taskforce, which was mandated to assist in the promotion of the formulated Service Charters as well as initiate an issue-based advocacy campaign premised on the charters.
Khanje says the task force publicised successes and challenges registered in the course of implementing the Salima Service Charter.
“We were also actively involved in the drafting of service charters between some public offices in Salima and their community beneficiaries,” says Khanje, adding:.
“A charter helps public institutions in creating effective conditions for the proper functioning of the public service and ensure that public services are available, accessible and acceptable,” says Khanje.
Return of the charters
Following the success of the Salima Service Charter, The National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) in partnership with MHRRC have embarked on a three-year pilot service charter project in a quest “to improve public service and strengthen the inclusion of the public in service delivery by consolidating the commitment of the government to ensure that basic public services are provided in accordance with well-known, transparent, accountable and realistic standards and are accessible and acceptable to all people in Malawi”.
The project will be implemented in five districts namely Chitipa, Mchinji, Nkhotakota, Mwanza and Mulanje. The project will be implemented in phases.
Nice executive director, Ollen Mwalubunju, is optimistic that the initiative would promote accountability in the provision of public services.
“There is need to pass information to people on why service charters are important in order to enhance service delivery, promote the participation of rights holders (users) and to ensure that people are holding duty-bearers accountable,” says Mwalubunju.
Mwalubunju adds that for service charters to be meaningful in the Malawian context, service users, also known as rights holders, should own the services. He says all sectors in national development, be it in sports, the arts and business industries, can adopt the concept if the quality of services delivered is to improve.
MHRRC director, Desmond Kaunda, concurs, but adds that media practitioners are equally important in the provision of public services.
Kaunda says service charters, which he describes as documents developed by service sectors in consultation with staff and citizens setting out the standards of services that citizens can expect, help service providers gauge the expectations of rights holders while the rights holders, on their part, know what to expect from service providers.
“This empowers the rights holders and helps them hold service providers accountable. When things are not going according to plan, the rights holders can take appropriate action,” says Kaunda.
However, gender activist Emma Kaliya warns that service charters may not bring positive results if gender issues are thrown out of the window. She observes that members of some genders often bear the brunt of service neglect.
“Therefore, conducting a gender analysis helps service providers design effective, target specific equitable programmes and projects. Most often, if you visit health facilities, you rarely see men taking care of fellow men. The same applies to the sector of water and sanitation as most users of water are women. Gender balance is, therefore, very important,” says Kaliya.
The case for service charters
The Malawi government is a signatory to the African Public Service Charter, which calls for all countries in the African Union the implement and adopt Service Charters. As part of its commitment, Malawi celebrated the Africa Public Service day, which is designated in the African Public Service Charter, in 2008.
During the celebration, the then President, the late Bingu Wa Mutharika,
announced that the government had plans to introduce Public Service Charters as an instrument for raising quality, effectiveness, efficiency, and responsiveness at all levels of public administration and service delivery.
Following the celebration, the Office of the President and Cabinet initiated the formulation of the Malawi Public Service Charter and the Malawi Public Service Code of Ethics and Conduct as “cornerstones of the African Public Service Charter Framework”.
Simultaneously, the government initiated a review of the Malawi Public Service Regulation.
The Malawi Public Service Charter was launched in 2009 “as a commitment to provide best possible service standards to the people of Malawi”.
The charter is a framework designed to introduce service charters in all public institutions to guide them in creating “effective conditions for the proper functioning of the public service and ensure that public services are available, accessible and acceptable”.
Its moto is to achieve a “highly motivated, productive, professional and results-oriented public service that thrives on accountability, honesty, impartiality, loyalty, integrity, justice, objectivity, selflessness, transparency and excellence”.
Khanje says the media have a crucial role to play in ensuring that players meet their obligations.
“The media can be used in diverse applications to accelerate information dissemination, improve efficiency of public services, increase the transparency and accountability of government administration, to reduce corruption, and facilitate citizen participation in local governance.
“The media can help increase the efficiency, speed, and transparency in delivery of services and, on the other hand, assist in the generation and dissemination of information and knowledge on public service delivery,” says Khanje.
All these steps are premised on the idea that, while challenges shall always be present— sometimes forgotten, but always there somewhere— rights holders expectations should, at least, be managed.