Monday, 17 June, 2024

Ensuring Accountability At Local Level

Mukti Rijal


In its ideal form, democracy is described as the rule of the people, for the people and by the people. But it is not the reality in most of the democracies in the developing world like Nepal where the people are far still removed from the locus where power is regularly exercised. Moreover, democracy in the developing world is limited and constrained by the process and structures that inhibit the scope and possibilities of communication between the ordinary citizens and the state officials who are in control of the governing mechanism and process.
The crucial part is that the public officials hold, accumulate and control the public information only for meeting their own ends. They mostly practise opacity and jealously guard the culture of secrecy. Many governance experts characterise it as the asymmetrical allocation of authority and information where government officials behave as if they were the principals and people. They are just the recipients of the benefits doled out by the government.
Management of economy
This lordship of bureaucratic power wielders is not only maintained in the political realm but also in the sphere of the management of economy. Asymmetries of information and power in the realm of economy gives  managers the discretion to pursue policies that are more in their tastes and interests than in the interests of the shareholders.
The asymmetries of information allow the officials controlling the government apparatus the willful and indiscriminate discretion to pursue policies that are more in their interests than in the interests of the citizens. In a democratic polity, access of citizens to public information needs to be ensured.
Citizens should be enabled to exercise and secure meaningful and substantive participation in decision-making process especially in producing public goods and services. More important in this respect is that the modern democratic governments are supposed to work for empowering citizens and promote their wellbeing. Besides, citizens should be endowed with democratic competence to engage with the state institutions to seek accountability and claim effective services from service providers. However, outcomes are often found to be miserably poor in most of the cases.
Generally, “to exist not to deliver” has been the nature of governments. This is true not only in Nepal but also in many democracies where the democratic institutions are weak and mauled due to political instability. Judged in this context, democracy in Nepal is characterised by the gap between formal rhetoric and reality. It means that Nepal enjoys an enabling legal framework to build a vibrant transparent access regime. The federal constitution of Nepal provides a sound framework for local democracy and accountable governance.  
The legal instruments like right to information law, Good Governance Act, and Local Government Operations Act are in place. However, their implementation is abysmally weaker. As a result, public organizations fail to deliver. And they are not made to face   civic scrutiny, sanction and discipline for their non-performance and poor delivery.   
The informed deliberation in public sphere is hardly the case. The absence of the informed democratic discussions, deliberation and inputs has created the glaring agency problems both at the local and national level in Nepal.
As a result, the accountability deficits have outgrown to rupture the democratic relationship between the citizens and the government. The cases of blatant misappropriation of resources and the abuse of authority both at the local and national level have been its manifestconsequences.
As mentioned above, the legal and institutional framework can yield positive results and outcomes only when they are effectively implemented and put to practice in an ambient social and institutional setting.
Moreover, the institutional design created for transparency and accountability is not sufficient in itself to produce results. They should be coupled with and supported by awareness, knowledge,  capacity and willingness of the stakeholders - in this case both government officials and citizens- for information sharing and the democratic positive engagement. But this is utterly lacking.  In fact, the Right to Information Law provides a compelling framework for information disclosure - both government held and generated – across all levels and tiers. The information may be related to budgets, planning documentation, contracts, procurement, and government organizations/ projects and their operations and so on. 
However, this has not been implemented and the accountability system is very weak in structural and functional terms. In fact, not only the ordinary citizens but government officials  are not fully aware of its provisions and lack competence and know how as to how to use and do the rich harvest of  them. Moreover, political willingness is utterly lacking and the culture of secrecy reigns dominant.

Civic engagement
Nonetheless, at a time when the government seems committed to promote and implement social accountability tools like social auditing across the government system, the Right to Information Law as the social accountability instrument needs to be embedded together in the process. Facilitating civic engagement and participation for deliberation and decision in the production and allocation of public goods and services can graduate citizens into the shaper and makers of the goods and services. The local development bodies, ward committees and many other civic forums at the grassroots can be the important vehicles for using and implementing right to information law and social accountability tools.
However, in order to ensure that democratic accountability is established and strengthened, it is necessary that democratic civic engagement in local government needs to be enhanced. In the absence of democratic local government institutions functioning effectively and responsibly, democratic institutions at provincial and federal levels cannot function effectively.

(Rijal, PhD, writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues.