Civic Engagement At Local Level

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Mukti Rijal

The historic local poll has been held successfully in Nepal. And elected officials for the local government institutions — rural municipalities and municipalities -- will take office shortly.  It is a big achievement in the institutionalisation of local democracy as adult citizens have expressed their choices more or less freely in selecting their representatives who in turn are mandated to govern for the upcoming five years according to the federal constitution of Nepal. It indicates that local democracy is set to take root in Nepal and federal governance is poised to entrench at the grassroots despite impediments, challenges and constraints that come on its way.  

However, electoral democracy that features voting by people in a five-year periodic cycle is just a rite or a very limited exercise in the broader canvas of democracy. Election essentially endorses and legitimises the process of democratic representation but does not make it a reality in the life of the people.      

People’s aspiration

Election does not fulfil the preconditions to make democracy function properly and address the interests and aspirations of the people. In fact, local democracy in the country like ours is limited and constrained by the process and structures that inhibit the scope and possibilities of democratic engagement between the ordinary citizens and the local state institutions. 

In this context, it can be said that the public officials-- both elected representatives and administrative officials -- hold power, resources and authority and allocate them indiscriminately only for serving their own ends. They mostly practice opacity and jealously guard the culture of secrecy. As a result, the asymmetrical allocation of authority, resources and information becomes the norm. Local government officials dominate the governance process and mechanism as if they were the principals and citizens are just the recipients of the benefits doled out by them at their wilful discretion. 

 The indiscriminate use of authority is not only maintained in the local political realm but also in the sphere of the management of local public service delivery. The imbalance of power in the political realm gives local politicians or the public policymakers the discretion to pursue policies that are more in their tastes and interests than in the interests of the ordinary citizens. Going by the experiences of the last five years in Nepal it can therefore   be said that local government institutions that were expected to represent the interests and aspirations of the ordinary citizens have not been able to perform as anticipated. But it is satisfying to note that their institutional entrenchment as the important locus of state authority and outpost of public service delivery has been fully established.   

For a successful local democracy to deliver properly, citizens should also be enabled to exercise and secure meaningful and substantive participation in decision making process, especially in   producing and delivering local public goods and services. Besides, citizen should be   endowed with democratic competence to engage with the local state institutions to seek accountability and claim and demand delivery of services. Generally, “to exist not to deliver” has been the nature of the governments that are not responsive to the people. Measured by this yardstick too, local democracy in Nepal is characterised by the gap between formal rhetoric and reality.  Nepal enjoys an enabling legal framework to build a vibrant transparent and accountability governance system. The legal instruments like the Right to Information Law, Good Governance Act, and Local Government Operation Act are in place. However, their implementation is weaker. As a result, local public institutions have failed to deliver in sufficient terms. This is also because they are not made to face civic scrutiny, sanction and discipline for their non-performance and poor delivery.   

The last five years of local governments have shown that informed deliberation in public sphere is hardly the case at the local level. The absence of the informed democratic discussions, deliberation and inputs has created the glaring agency problems at the local level. Consequently, 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 at the local level have been its manifest consequences.

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 democratic and participatory setting. Moreover, the institutional design created for   transparency and accountability at local level is not sufficient in itself to produce results. They should be coupled with and supported by awareness, knowledge, capacity and willingness of the stakeholders for engagement and the democratic participation. However, this is utterly lacking. In fact, the Right to Information Law provides a compelling framework for information disclosure. The information may be related to budgets, planning documentation, contracts, procurement, and government organisations/ projects and their operations and so on. 

Accountability system 

However, most of the local governments have not implemented this disclosure-related provision and the accountability system is very weak both in structural and functional terms. Not only the ordinary citizens but even government officials seem not fully aware of its provisions and lack competence and know-how as to how to use and implement them. Moreover, political

willingness is utterly lacking and the culture of secrecy reigns dominant at the local level. The new team of the officials elected should help correct the democratic deficits at the local level.

Participation for deliberation and decision in the production and allocation of public goods and services should be ensured so that citizens are graduated into the shaper and makers of the goods and services.  Civic forums and institutions at the grassroots can be the important vehicles for enhancing civic competence for participation at the local level.

(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow.  rijalmukti@gmail.com) 

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