Local governance reform

By Tariq Husain

The second article in this series illustrated the potential for local action in organising basic services. Improved service delivery, however, is one part of the process of change that is needed in local governance. The second part is provincial reform that leads to effective local government. Reform in local governance is a political process for which leadership must be provided by political leaders at the city and district levels, taking the message up to provincial leaders. Local leaders need to demonstratet hat realistic alternatives for improving services are available, and that parties that support them will win favour with the citizens.

After the 18th Constitutional Amendment, it is clear that local government is a provincial subject, and that responsibility for its performance cannot be passed on to civilian or military leaders in Islamabad. Thus, it is in the interest of all political parties to help the government meet the expectations of the public. Moreover, it is to be expected that each province will devise its own system, reflecting not only political compromise but also its size, resources and demographics.

Indeed, it is desirable in a country such as Pakistan to abandon the one-size-fits-all approach to local government, not only across provinces but also within a province. The latter point has significance for three reasons. One, districts and cities within a province differ from one another in terms of their size, needs, opportunities and resources. It is logical for the provinces to allow their local governments to decide on the departments and staff they need.

Two, the boundaries for service delivery depend on the service area and not on the boundaries that define existing administrative units. It is sensible to allow local governments to be established for any service that residents can manage and let them work out their own models of service delivery in view of local needs and resources.

Three, government departments often follow a blueprint approach by building and staffing facilities in the same way throughout a province. For example, sub-district hospitals throughout a province tend to have the same land area, number of rooms and staffing profile, primary schools the same number of rooms and teachers, and every basic health unit a qualified doctor in every government project. As a result, many districts in the country with small and scattered settlements, and large distances between them, end up with costly service delivery plans and low population coverage. There is need for flexibility to adjust inputs according to local needs and resources, while pursuing agreed outcomes.

Consider examples of the benefits of moving away from a blueprint approach. Neighbourhoods within a city could be allowed to set up sanitation districts, raising money from the residents and freeing up government resources for needy neighbourhoods. These districts would agree with a division of labour with municipal authorities, collecting waste, transporting it to a designated location, and paying the municipality for disposal. A resource-poor district could make the same kind of arrangement with a better-off neighbouring district. Education districts and urban transport authorities could cut across district lines for better management. Communities with small access roads would have statutory powers to enforce rules for road maintenance, thereby reducing the government’s burden and the free rider problem that is associated with voluntary organisation.

Failure to innovate through such initiatives will continue to inhibit citizens’ initiative and burden senior governments. These examples, however, need to be seen in the broader context of local government reform, for it is imperative to reform the local government system, extend it to all parts of the country, provide it constitutional protection at the federal and provincial levels against arbitrary change and dismissal, hold regular local government elections on a party basis, and institute fiscal federalism, in letter and in spirit, with removal of regional imbalances as a central objective. To be certain, there is work to be done and a call to be heeded, and no short-cut to nation building.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 11th, 2016.

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