The agenda of governance reform has emerged as a pressing challenge for all the nations across the globe as the clear-cut answer for the governance reform remains elusive. Since what constitutes ‘governance reform’ is a tough question, the priorities of such reform initiatives vary across countries and regions thereby adding to the intensity of the problem. Moreover, with the changing notion of the ‘governance’ which entails not only the exercise of the authority but more importantly the processes involved in it has invited fresh thinking in the reform approaches. While the classical concept of governance denotes practicing authority through the State, delegated entities including other institutions, the modern notion adheres much importance to what the citizens get out of such exercise and how are the outcomes achieved. One of the most prominent aspects of defining the reform agendas involves understanding the perception of the citizens. In this regard, a national level Nepal National Governance Survey 2017-18 has offered some interesting insights into the pertinent problems the citizens have been facing from the public institutions in terms of service delivery and their expectations. Conducted by Nepal Administrative Staff College- an autonomous research and training institution for civil servants, the survey was administered across the 7 provinces among 12,872 respondents. With the aim of knowing citizens’ perspectives at the point of historical transformation from unitary to federal system, the survey identified some critical issues facing the Nepali public administration system. The first is the issue of ‘communication gap’. Although there are several entitlements to the citizen through constitution and other policy documents, citizens are largely unaware about those provisions. In other words, the State has not been able to effectively communicate such arrangements to citizens. According to the survey, 45 per cent of people don’t understand the provisions of such entitlements enshrined in the constitution. Hence, majority of citizens are not in a position to claim their rights. Amid this scenario, the survey indicates a serious mismatch in the language and the intended message between the State and its citizens. In other words, the way citizen understands and the way State expresses have been found to be contradictory. Even those who understand don’t have the feeling that these entitlements will be easily accessible implying that citizens confidence to access the public service without any perceived barriers is pretty low. Furthermore, people don’t have adequate knowledge and information regarding the political parties and their working modalities. The survey respondents had low appreciation of the role of the media and the perception that media are not fair and distort the information was found to be profound among the public. Media are often accused of being ideologically biased by the respondents. Interestingly, the survey has highlighted the matter of perceived quality of various institutions and service delivery as an important aspect of governance reform. Almost 30 per cent of the people said that they have not even heard from political party candidate whom they voted which clearly depict the voters mindset in our context. Respondents further stated that they don’t have complete trust on the judicial system. On a critical question of the citizens’ assessment of the work of the government employees, 10-15 per cent of respondents consented that employees follow the government rules while providing services. More importantly, the issue of ‘nepotism’ and ‘favouritism’ was raised strongly during the interaction. Although respondents had a positive outlook towards the performance of a handful of public officials, the larger picture remains bleak. In fact, citizens clearly expressed the bureaucratic hassles they have to undergo in getting their work done. Ranging from the problem of bribery to having various scuffles with the civil servants were documented during the survey. Active participation of citizens in the electoral process is also a major yardstick to evaluate the quality of governance in a State. On this front, 70 per cent of the respondents informed that they participated in the last election held in Nepal. But a pertinent question is the replication of active citizenry in aftermath of the polls in various public forums through which they can caution the government and exert pressure for more accountability and transparency. Sadly, the follow-up was found missing. To sum up, reform agendas must be decided adopting a pragmatic and realistic approach. Contextualising the reform strategies is equally important. In Nepal’s context, creating a trust system where citizens can spontaneously and voluntarily communicate and engage with the government is an integral part of the governance reform. With the local government emerging as the first responder of public service, citizens’ direct contact and high trust in the public service offered by the local government assumes greater significance in institutionalising governance reform. Strengthening the public communication to ensure the quality of services by empowering the sub–national government is the way forward.
(The author is a member of the Social Science and Research Faculty at NIMS College.)