Civic Engagement Missing At Local Level

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Local governments are set to complete the first year of their operation. They are due to formulate budget and present their policies and programmes for the upcoming year. An outcome of the local polls held last, according to the provision of the federal constitution of Nepal, elected officials for rural municipalities and municipalities seem to have reportedly attempted in most of the cases to address local issues despite the problems related with optimum resource use and utilisation. It is a big achievement in the institutionalisation of local democracy as adult citizens have expressed their choices twice in post-federal setting freely in electing their representatives who in turn are mandated to govern. 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 ordinary citizens. Elections do not fulfill the preconditions to make democracy function properly and address the interests and aspirations of the people. Local democracy, despite formal elections 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.

Governance process

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 selectively for serving their limited interests and 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 ruling norm. In many situations, it is found that 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 willful 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 give local politicians or the public policy makers 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 previous years, 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. However, it is a matter of solace that despite instability and changes of the governments in the federal and provincial levels, political stability has been maintained at the local level. Their institutional entrenchment as the important locus of state authority and outpost of public service delivery has been fully established.  

In fact, for a successful local democracy to deliver results, citizens should also be enabled to exercise and secure meaningful participation in decision making process especially in producing and delivering local public goods and services. Besides, citizen should also be endowed with democratic competence to engage with the local state institutions to seek accountability and claim and demand delivery of services.

However, measured by the good governance and downstream accountability yardstick, 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 accountable 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 very weak. 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 in a continuous way.  Periodic polls and exercises in social auditing once a while cannot warrant sufficient civic engagement in the process of local governance and development. 

The past six years of local government operation have shown that informed deliberation in public sphere is hardly the case at the local level. The absence of the informed democratic discussions, deliberations and inputs has created the glaring agency problems at the local level. As a result, 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 reported these days have been its manifest consequences.

Legal framework

The legal and institutional framework can yield positive results and outcomes only when they are effectively implemented 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.  

The Right to Information Law provides a compelling framework for information disclosure and sharing. 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. 

Political willingness is utterly lacking and the culture of secrecy reigns dominant 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 should be strengthened to perform as the important vehicles for enhancing civic competence for participation in decision-making at the local level.

(Rijal, PhD, contributes regularly to TRN and writes on contemporary political, economic and governance issues.)

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