At a discussion programme held, the other day, to take stock of the service delivery performance of the local government institutions over the last five years, several speakers drawn from the relevant discipline took cognizance of the improvements in public service delivery at the local level. Some speakers discussed and appreciated the effectiveness with which local government institutions -- rural municipalities and municipalities -- have started to deliver services and gain a broader democratic legitimacy and approval of the people. However, a few other discussants referred to the issues of accountability and transparency at the local level, citing several examples of the misappropriation and misuse of resources, irregularities and fund embezzlement as pointed out in the reports of the Commission for Investigation of the Abuse of Authority (CIAA) and Office of Auditor General issued this year.
Critical deliberations As the second local election after the promulgation of the federal constitution of Nepal is going to be held next month, widespread critical deliberations into the performance of the local government are not only relevant but also a necessary. Such reviews and assessments provide much needed food for thought in finding ways for reforming the institutional arrangement of the local government and improving their performance to deliver services.
The rationale and importance of the local government lies in the fact that they have proved their rigour and effectiveness in delivering services to the people compared against the federal and provincial governments. Federal governments generally lack the specific knowledge about local needs and preferences to produce and provide civic amenities and services of adequate scale and quality to their citizens.
Local governance comprises the local government units like municipalities and rural municipalities. A set of institutions, mechanisms, and processes through which citizens and community groups can voice their interests and needs, mediate their differences, and exercise rights and obligations locally.
When local governments lack their own administrative and technical capacity to design or administer public services, local civil society -- citizens and civic groups -- can fill the gaps. Civic engagement in the local government affairs develops individual capacity of the citizens, builds civic trust, norms of cooperation, and the ideal of the common good; and promotes protection of collective interests.
Local governments become successful in addressing the service delivery issues and challenges only when they are able to raise sufficient funds or use existing local resources more efficiently and effectively. They can use three major widely appreciated mechanisms for public service delivery, according to the report of the Asian Development Bank titled ‘Governance and Public service Delivery’ a few years back. The first mechanism is empowering citizens to enable them to participate in public service delivery or monitor service provision, as well as demand accountability from service providers, thereby limiting scope for corruption and misappropriation of funds.
Second mechanism is engaging local governments to work in partnership with non-state actors to provide public services to address communities’ particular needs. The third mechanism is expanding the use of information and communication technology in making service delivery quick and effective.
Civic empowerment grants people both capacity and freedom to decide on matters that affect their lives and ensures right to participate in development. Empowerment is possible only when people achieve the capacity to expand their assets and capabilities. The concept of empowerment is influenced also by the rights and capacity approach elucidated by the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.
It emphasises that people should be free to choose what they want to do, have the ability to put those choices into action, and live in an environment that allows them to actually get it done. When adequately empowered, citizens can use their client power to improve service provision and demand accountability of their representatives and service providers. As mentioned in the ADB’s report, empowerment can occur in three major ways. The first way includes rights-based entitlements, in which the state guarantees to people the right to information and specific social services and basic necessities, such as food, employment, health, and education. The second way is monitoring of performance of the service providing agencies by citizens and communities.
Citizens can monitor and evaluate the implementation of public services against indicators the people themselves have selected toward demanding better performance from service providers. The third way is participation, wherein groups of end users or entire communities become involved in delivering services and thereby directly controlling their quantity and quality.
Enforceable rights Some public services are so basic to decent human life that they are considered fundamental human rights. Without formal rights, as outlined in the ADB report, people struggle under continual uncertainty, at risk of deprivation and destitution with no means of subsistence. A common form of empowerment is through rights-based entitlements -- enforceable rights enshrined in the legal framework or national constitution -- with specific roles and responsibilities for implementing authorities, and clear criteria for identifying eligible beneficiaries.
Though the Constitution of Nepal and several other legal arrangements have guaranteed civic rights and entitlements, these have not been realised due, among others, to absence of democratic capacity of citizens to take part in defining, producing and delivering the civic services. Citizens need to be empowered and their participation has to be secured in ensuring an effective delivery of public goods and services. This can alone correct the deficits seen in the use of resources, delivery of goods and services at the local level. A renewed focus needs to be put in participatory governance, transparence and accountability in Nepal, especially following the elections slated to be held next month.
(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow. email@example.com)