Decentralization: How can we make Local Governments Accountable?

Friday, June 12th, 2015 at Ramada Plaza – Gammarth

Intissar Kherigi, Programmes Director at Jasmine Foundation

As part of Jasmine Foundation’s third annual conference on « Participatory Governance in the Context of Democratic Transition in Tunisia: Roles and Tools », I organized a roundtable entitled « Decentralization: Accountability of local governments » on Friday, June 12th, 2015 at Ramada Plaza, Gammarth.

The roundtable began with a presentation on decentralization and the related topic of accountability of local governments. There is no common definition or understanding of decentralization, but it is generally a common practice in many countries, and refers to “the restructuring or reorganization of authority so that there is a system of co-responsibility between institutions of governance at the central, regional and local levels… Decentralization could also be expected to contribute to key elements of good governance, such as increasing people’s opportunities for participation in economic, social and political decisions; assisting in developing people’s capacities; and enhancing government responsiveness, transparency and accountability.”[1]

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I outlined the benefits of decentralization – more open, responsive, and effective local government, greater public participation and improved quality of services, by bringing decision-making closer to citizens. It is important to note that decentralization is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Experiences of decentralization around the world show that decentralization is not always a good thing in itself – in some countries, it has led to increased corruption, when local government become prone to capture by local elites and private interests, as well as and deteriorating services, when local government is unable to deliver the services required. This means we need to carefully take into account these risks in designing and implementing decentralized systems.

Accountability: Key to Good Decentralization

What is particularly important in making decentralization successful is to ensure that local government is accountable to the citizen. When citizens elect officials, they are delegating responsibility to them as their agents. Thus, government has a duty to be downwardly accountable to citizens. Indeed, Arun Agrawal and Jesse Ribot of Yale University argue that “the presumed benefits of decentralization become available to local populations only when empowered local actors are downwardly accountable.”[2] This downward accountability is what defines and distinguDecentralizationDecentralizationishes decentralization – the local government is downwardly accountable to their local residents, not just upwardly accountable to central government. They have a duty to serve the interests of their local residents, provide them with better services, meet their needs and involve them in decision-making.

How to get accountability?

The question is, how to make local government accountable? What does accountability mean? And are the current tools for accountability enough?

Accountability, put simply, means that the holder of responsibility must report to citizens on the use of public resources and must be answerable for failing to meet their legal obligations. Holders of responsibility must be aware that there is a possibility of sanction if they do not fulfil their responsibilities.

Traditional tools for accountability include elections, parliamentary monitoring, public demonstrations, advocacy campaigns and judicial processes. However, these are very limited in bringing accountability. They take a long time to bring accountability (e.g. elections are every 5 years), often require significant resources (e.g. bringing a court case against the government) or expertise (e.g. advocacy campaigns).

Tunisians today have the opportunity to create new tools for accountability and design more effective and innovative ways for citizens to participate. Indeed, our new Constitution specifically emphasises citizen participation when talking about local government – article 139 states “Local authorities shall adopt the mechanisms of participatory democracy and the principles of open governance to ensure broader participation by citizens and civil society in the preparation of development programmes and land management and monitoring of their implementation, in accordance with the law.” So local government have the obligation to enable citizens and civil society to participate not only at the phase of preparation of local programmes, but also in monitoring their implementation.

However, in order for citizens to participate in holding their local government accountable, they must have the necessary information to be able to participate. A World Bank survey in 2014 found that only 2% of citizens had received any communication from their municipality in the previous year. How can we talk about accountability of local government where there is no communication between them and citizens? How can we think about citizen participation when citizens are not receiving information from their local government?

The first step to accountability is to improve communication and sharing of information between municipalities and the citizen. Without communication and information, we cannot move forward towards citizen participation and accountability of local government because citizens simply won’t know what their local government is doing and how they can participate.

Solution: Access to information?

Citizen participation in making local government accountable has to be based on information – which means citizens must have access to information. Following the revolution, laws have been introduced giving the public access to administrative documents of public bodies (Decrees 41 and 54 of 2011). Municipalities, like other public bodies, are now required to provide information to citizens, relating to their structure, organisation and policies, important decisions that concern the public, lists of staff and their functions, results of public tenders, economic and social statistics, all data relating to public finances including macro-economic indicators, public debt, public assets, medium-term expenditure, and budgets.

I conducted a number of interviews with municipalities and civil society representatives working in the field of access to information to understand what effect these new laws are having on accountability of local government and on citizen participation. I summarise my findings below:

  1. Municipalities are becoming more open and cooperative to sharing information – out of all the municipalities visited by Al Bawsala’s Marsad Baladia team, only six completely refused to cooperate.
  2. Geography does not make a big difference – whether a municipality is open to sharing information or not has little connection with regional location or level of resources. The municipalities with the highest transparency according to Marsad Baladia were Bargou (84%) and Kesra (77%) in Siliana and Thélepte in Kasserine (69%). Meanwhile, the least transparent were Fériana (8%) and Foussena (12%) in Kasserine, and Makther in Siliana (12%).

Having said this, interior regions tended to have fewer resources and staff, which can affect how much and how quickly they can respond to requests for access to information.

  1. Political will is very important in enabling access to information – the support of the mayor or special delegation for sharing information is critical. In some municipalities, the temporary nature of “délégations spéciales” (which are only in place until local elections are held) has created political uncertainty, and municipality staff are hesitant to share information because they do not want to take a decision that could lead to conflict with the municipal authorities.
  2. Lack of clear internal guidelines on information sharing causes an instinct to refuse to share information – municipality officials are hesitant to share information because they are not sure what is and is not allowed, so they err on the side of caution and refuse to give access.
  3. Getting access to information depends on the standing of the person – it is easier for a professional NGO or someone with connections or expertise to get access to the information than the average citizen.

The last finding raises the question, when we speak about access to information, who is “access” for, and how is information being used? As our topic here is accountability and citizen participation, is it safe to assume that access to information leads to greater accountability and citizen participation?

My interviews indicated that while some innovative NGOs are leading the way in pushing municipalities to give more access to information, the public and ordinary citizens themselves are not directly involved in this process. The process of accessing information requires resources (time, effort) and expertise that many citizens might not have. Furthermore, when municipalities do release information (e.g. budgets, staff lists), is the ordinary citizen interested in this information and how can they use it to make local government accountable? And does the mere release of this information increase citizen participation? These questions suggest that to get from access to information to accountability and citizen participation requires a few more jumps. This is what we will explore in our next article, “From Information to Accountability”…

[1] UNDP, Decentralized Governance Programme: Strengthening Capacity for People-Centered Development, Management Development and Governance Division, Bureau for Development Policy, September 1997, p. 4 .

[2] Agrawal, Arun, and Jesse Ribot. 1999. Accountability in Decentralization: A Framework with South Asian and West African Cases. The Journal of Developing Areas 33:473-502.

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