How to Make Local Government in Tunisia more Accountable
Participatory Democracy and Open Governance in the new Tunisian Constitution
Intissar Kherigi, Jasmine Foundation
Article 139: “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 programs and land management and monitoring of their implementation, in accordance with the law.”
Decades of authoritarian rule in Tunisia have led to a crisis of accountability and a trust deficit between citizen and state. Corruption, inefficiency, poor public services, repression and a lack of responsiveness and transparency inspired calls for a new model of governance. Following the Revolution in 2011, a new constitution was introduced that ushers in a governance model “based on citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of law,” and on decentralization as a central pillar of democracy. An entire chapter of the constitution
is dedicated to local authorities, which are required to operate according to the principles of “good governance”, “open governance” and “participation by citizens and civil society.”
These principles are a far cry from the status quo – lack of transparency and participation, a vast communication gap between local authorities and few mechanisms for holding local authorities accountable.
A broader cultural change within political institutions is needed if decentralization is to succeed in making local authorities more transparent and inclusive and shifting their role from implementing the diktats of central government to responding to the needs of their local populations.
Such change, however, requires real bottom-up pressure for reform. Broader citizen participation is key to creating the pressure needed for local authorities to change the way they work and improve their performance.
This paper identifies and recommends measures needed to ensure greater accountability and citizen participation at local level.
Decision makers at central, regional and local government levels, parliamentarians, international donors, and Tunisian civil society must all play a role to make this historic institutional shift successful and achieve the goals of decentralization improved public services, more inclusive local development and more engaged local communities by enabling participation in local decision-making.
The paper is based on interviews with central government and municipality officials, academics, representatives of civil society and international organizations, as well as a roundtable at which initial findings were presented and discussed with stakeholders.
It makes the following key recommendations:
- Clarifying legal obligations of local authorities–
A new local authorities law is needed to set out the legal obligations on local authorities under Chapter 7 of the Constitution in more detail –this should include specific measures to implement open governance and citizen participation – for example, a duty to provide simplified information on services; a duty to respond to citizen grievances and requests for explanation of local authority decisions, policies or procedures within a certain period of time; the right to demand public hearings and consultations; and the right to submit public petitions;
- Providing clearer guidance to local authorities:
Central government should provide clear guidance to local authorities on their powers and obligations through publication of local authority code, which will clarify procedures for local authorities as well as give them suggestions for concrete mechanisms and tools to encourage citizen participation (for example, social audits, participatory budgeting;
- Encourage open communication by local authorities-
The new local authorities law must include a focus on open communication between local authorities and local communities – including an obligation to strive to use the most appropriate communication methods to engage the public, including public meetings, publishing information, use of websites, and social media;
- Strengthen political will for accountability at local level through financial incentives and supervision:
Central government must tie budget support to local authorities to evidence of changes in their institutional practices towards greater transparency and citizen participation;
- Introduce oversight of local authorities:
The new local authorities law must introduce an oversight system to supervise the exercise by local authorities of their new powers and fulfilment of their obligations under the Constitution, including promoting participatory democracy and open governance– for example, through the development of local government transparency and citizen participation indexes;
- Strengthen access to information:
Central government must reintroduce the draft law on access to information to parliament that it withdrew earlier this year and amend it to more narrowly define exceptions to the right of access, and introduce tougher sanctions for refusal to share information. The government should also issue clear guidelines to local authorities on their access to information obligations and provide training programs to local authorities’ expertise and capacity in this area. The new Access to Information Commission proposed in the draft law should strongly focus on public awareness campaigns in its work plan, in order to develop the public’s understanding of their access-to-information-rights;
- Build the capacities of local authorities:
Central government must significantly expand the range and number of training and capacity-building programs for local officials in preparation for decentralization, particularly on communication, participatory mechanisms and accountability, and strengthen the mandate and resources of the Centre de Formation et d’Appui a la Décentralisation (CFAD – Center for Training and Support for Decentralization) in this area;
- Build the capacities of the public:
Central government, international agencies, donor countries and civil society must work to build the capacity of citizens and civil society to participate in local decision-making, through targeted trainings on mechanisms for participating in local decision-making and monitoring and evaluating local government, particularly in marginalized regions.