Using SMS Messages to Improve Project Effectiveness

clip_image001The SMS message was “Drainage is not being done properly in the village Achajur. Please fix.” While it was disturbing to hear that there were problems in one of the projects I was responsible for, at the same time I was very encouraged since this proved the value of an SMS-based system we developed to facilitate local residents advising on social, environmental or engineering issues on our project.

The World Bank undertakes very thorough preparation of its projects, particularly with regard to minimizing the negative social and environmental impacts of our projects. We go to great lengths to support the client in preparing resettlement action plans (RAPs) which identify those impacted by the project, and outlines the compensation they are entitled to. The environmental management plans (EMPs) clearly identify the actions that civil works contractors are to take with regard to their operations covering everything from materials storage and disposal to noise impacts. These documents are usually part of the legal agreements and are binding on the government, the implementing agency, and the contractors.

Unfortunately, while the documentation is thoroughly done, there are often problems with implementation. People do not always receive the compensation they are entitled to; contractors cause temporary or even irreversible environmental damage; designs may sometimes not be fully appropriate since conditions may have changed. The challenge that people face is that they do not know who to complain to or, if complaints are made, they may not be acted on in a satisfactory manner. Some end up writing to the World Bank’s president—who, I can assure you, makes sure that the project team address the concerns!

A few years ago my resettlement specialist in China—Liu Zhefu—proposed that we put in place a mechanism which would allow people to send an SMS to a number, and that message would then be relayed automatically to the implementing agency, the roads department, the independent resettlement monitoring consultant, and the World Bank. I designed a pilot in China, but I transferred to the South Caucasus before it became fully operational. I decided that it was something worth doing again, so designed and implemented another pilot in Armenia for the “Lifeline Roads Improvement Project” (LRIP).

LRIP was an ideal project for SMS monitoring. The roads are distributed all over the country, often in very remote areas, and difficult to visit and monitor closely.  I used a local Armenian programmer who developed the system and provided local support to the implementing agency once it went live. The concept behind the system is shown below.

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This process is termed a ‘Complaints Handling Mechanism’ (CHM). In addition to SMS, complaints could be lodged by e-mail or through a web form. The screen shot below shows the web site (www.lrip.am).

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To ensure that the public knew of the way of making a complaint, we included in the bidding documents the requirements for the contractor to put in place signs at the start and end of the project. The signs contained the message to send SMS complaints to 055-33-55-33 (see the first picture above).

When complaints are received the business process is as follows:

  • The complaints are automatically relayed to the Armenian Roads Directorate, the Project Management Unit (PMU), and the World Bank team.
  • The PMU reviews the complaint and acknowledges its receipt. 
  • It is assigned a priority (High/Medium/Low) and the type of complaint (e.g. Social, Environmental, Engineering, etc.)
  • Once resolved, the date of resolution and solution is recorded in the system.

It is straightforward to monitor the time to resolution, identify any unresolved complaints, and to track the overall situation. Now that the system has been operating for a few months we are refining the system and including new features—such as the ability to plot on a map the locations of complaints. The system is designed in Joomla, an Open Source Content Management System, which means that it will be very easy to implement on additional projects or in different environments.

So what happened with our first (and to date only!) complaint? The PMU advised that the design was revised and an additional 132 meters of concrete drains had been installed. We will confirm during one of our implementation support missions that the complaintant is satisfied with the outcome.

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4 Responses to Using SMS Messages to Improve Project Effectiveness

  1. Ron Allan says:

    Very good idea.

    This reporting system is needed for road maintenance. We can point to countless instances where pavements have broken up due to untimely drain clearance, repair of potholes, etc. If maintenance defects were reported, reports would not just be occasional. There would be a flow of notifications, hopefully with matching responses by the road agency– giving positive feedback.

    Those who post notifications do so at their personal cost. Positive feedback is essential to make the reporting system ‘sustainable’.

    If the road agency responds appropriately, fewer of their pavements will collapse.
    Defect reports can be integrated into performance monitoring. The evidence they provide may be persuasive (especially to politicians) and help secure increased funding for maintenance.

    There is a lot of talk of the economic gains from information technology. Here is one that, applied worldwide, could save more than a billion of dollars a year, I suggest.

    Not as transformative as cell phone banking, but outstanding nevertheless.

    • Marian Zachara says:

      Agree that the concept is good, but possibly more useful for operational issues (significant snows events (road closures) or accidents(slow response results in more deaths)). In many countries in central Asia winters/snows last for 4 to 5 months.

      In many developing countries pavements deteriorate not only because they are poorly maintained but because they they have been poorly designed and constructed (more significant then maintenance). Road pavements in developing countries start to fail in the first few years of a roads life. The demand for funds is therefore much higher and is required much earlier than required in a developed country. I know of a few IFI funded projects where the pavements failed in the defect liability period. Correcting this and ensuring that there is a flexible system (not present in many countries)for using maintenace funds is key. Having an SMS system is OK for monitoring performance (in Australia each depot has a complaints log (telephone, mail, etc))but it would never replace a good maintennace system which includes regular inspections to identify problems (typically a few time per week to once every 2 weeks).

      Problems with maintenance would be improved significantely if IFIs handed over roads that achieve their design life and/or designed pavements for a longer design life. There would therefore be less need for mainetnance and funding.

      While there is a definate role for SMS reporting system (limited by mobile phone coverage) IFIs should also focus on delivering quality and pavements with a normal maintenace requirements.

  2. John Lee says:

    Move to performance-based contracts. Make logging and responding to SMS complaints (copied to WB, Roads Authority or independent third party) a KPI. Let users help monitor performance.

  3. Ruan says:

    Chris this is encouraging to see. I hope the Bank realises and acknowledes your work going beyond the required call of duty… China and the HIV awareness workshops, the SMS initiative above to name a few, you’re
    setting an example of true stewardship re the project’s overall impact. Keep it up…

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