Policy issues in local governance reforms

Insufficient policy discourse is a recurrent pattern in the recent history of local governance reforms in Pakistan. Framers of Local Government Act 2001 spent more energy in getting rid of the institution of District Magistrate compared to what was invested in addressing core service delivery questions. Reversal of LGO 2001 during 2009-10was similarly characterized by a blatant urgency to eliminate the office of Zila Nazim. In both cases, a threadbare policy debate on overarching principles of decentralization was prominent by its absence.

Indications are that federal and Punjab government are presently firming up proposals for a new local government system which provides appropriate moment to present some policy level pointers to help inform the on-going debate and avoid past mistakes.

First and foremost, utmost clarity is needed on the extent and depth to which the leadership would want to go on three core aspects of decentralization; political, fiscal and administrative. A conscious decision on this count will largely define the final shape of the new LG laws in the provinces.

On political decentralization, questions such as political or apolitical local bodies’ elections and boundaries on authority of political head in the district and province would need to be addressed. The former is particularly relevant based on past experience. Strong political heads of provincial governments will be less comfortable with a strong Mayor or Nazim as witnessed in Musharraf era when provincial Chief Ministers wrestled back powers from Zila Nazim, against NRB advice. Ensuring functional independence of political head of a local government within provincial framework should be guided by explicit constitutional provisions on decentralization.

Administrative decentralization discussion needs to be informed by consensus on respective roles of provincial administrative departments and the local governments. LGO 2001 shifted over a dozen provincial government functions to districts; latest LG Act in Punjab totally wrestled back these mandates from districts while KP LG Act ended up striking a balanced compromise on this count. Each option needs to be clearly understood in terms of administrative and HR capacity implications and the complexity of existing provincial government structures. In Punjab for example, a complex institutional landscape with existence of Health/Education Authorities, Corporate Governance entities (service delivery companies) and on-going Public Private Delivery models will make decisions on extent of administrative decentralization complex and highly contested.

In terms of fiscal decentralization, leadership will need to look afresh at formula-based transfers to various local government tiers at district, tehsil and Union level. What distribution formula should be adopted (based on population, under-development, resource mobilization capacity, performance) would need to be synchronized with political manifesto and future vision of the government. It is useful to remember that the latest experience from KP in designating 30% of ADP resources for local governments can at best be termed as partially successful, producing mixed results with different districts performing differently in terms of planning and utilization of development resources.

The next threadbare discussion needs to address the issue of urban-rural divide which is also a complex phenomenon. LGO 2001 introduced by NRB ended urban-rural divide for the noble objective of equity of resource distribution while Punjab saw re-emergence of this divide in its latest law. Does one want to retain “equity” of treatment between urban and rural areas or urban metropolis areas (Lahore, Faisalabad, Gujranwala, Rawalpindi, Multan etc.) need additional resources over and above the call of equity to respond to urbanization challenge is a critical question.

And now some allied issues of direct relevance to new LG system which would need urgent answers. What relationship, district administration will have with local governments? In KP, district administration was brought back in local government through rules of business while Punjab came up with a full scale Civil Administration Act (this is a core question in terms of preserving regulatory and enforcement writ of the government). Also would one still want to keep Police happily out of ambit of local governments, contrary to spirit of external oversight of state’s coercive arm and international best practices? And the all-important question of coordination between local and provincial governments or various LG tiers in a district (High Promise VC/NC experience of KP LG Act appears frustrated due to weak coordination, left to ADLG office).

And before saying “Good Luck” to the framers of new LG Act, important to note that putting in full operation a new LG system means a time lag of around twoyears, based on earlier experience in KP and Punjab(consequential legislation, rules of business, SNEs). A proper transition plan should accompany any new version of LG Act if service delivery disruptions are to be avoided -something newly elected government can ill-afford.

The writer is a retired PAS officer who has worked in District, Provincial and Federal Governments and can be reached at syedrizwanmehboob@gmail.com

Published in Daily Times, September 26th 2018.