How Local Governance Should Work

A wise saying goes: “all politics is local.” It reflects the wisdom that the issues that really matters in people’s daily life – water, sanitation, primary health care, primary education, year-round access to affordable and nutritious food, access to markets and employment opportunities, basic safety and social justice – must be resolved locally. They all depend on responsive, effective local governance.

A simple way to think about this issue is to ask the question: if things were really sustainably working here, how would they work? If I’m a citizen with rights (not a subject of an authority on whose favor or whims I depend) – how can I work with my fellow citizens to make my community sustainable?

Our multidimensional index goes beyond the traditional three dimensions of government decentralization (political, administrative and fiscal). It starts with an active citizenry, and includes the vital role of the social and private sector in planning processes.

So – imagine you are a mother, and your child’s teacher is not regularly showing up to class. What do you do?

First – you should be empowered as an Active Citizen. You need to be aware of what you can do and how you can do it. Your country should have a Right to Information Law in place that allows you to find out – in a reasonable length of time – whether this is just your problem, or whether it is happening everywhere. Your local government should be providing oversight of the schools, and posting a “citizen charter” telling you who to call for what public service. The process should be inclusive: officials should listen to you as equally as a woman as they would a man, and there should be a woman in authority you can turn to. You – hopefully – are organized, as a member of a regularly participatory parent and teacher association (PTA), which should give you strength and some access to key people. If necessary, your PTA should have the right to take the issue to the courts.

Second – you should have a government that represents your local
interests. Your local council should have been democratically elected, not appointed or hereditary, and you should be able to run for office if you so desire. Your local council should be autonomous, responding to your interests rather than not merely following orders from above. Bureaucrats should not be able to remove or override the decisions of your local council without going to courts. Your local council should be honest, accountable (as demonstrated by audits and reports) and transparent in its actions.

Third – public services should be locally administered. The local council should be able to require that the teacher be fired, even if he is the nephew of the governor. To this end, local administrators should be trained and effective at doing their jobs.

Fourth – your local government should be well funded. Perhaps the teacher has not been paid in three months, because the central government failed to transfer money. Ideally, your community should be able to raise its own revenues, or – if too poor – receive central funds through a transparent mechanism. The local council should be independent in setting its own budgets and controlling its own funds. It should not have to wait for layers of bureaucracy to make approvals.

Fifthyour community should be able to plan. Perhaps the teacher is not coming to work because the roads are unsafe or there are no working toilets in the school. The previous local council had planned to fix it, but a the newly elected one scrapped the old plans and has not created new ones. The community needs a long-term plan that lives outside the council – through a multi-sectoral planning mechanism that include the voices and priorities of teachers, local businesses, cultural and  community groups and everyone. A citizenry who then elects the local
council that can implement the plan.

Ensuring basic public services is never simply an administrative matter – it’s an exercise in ensuring human rights.

The transformation from “subject” to “citizen” is the great unfinished narrative of human history. At its core, citizenship bears the principle of human dignity: every person has both the right and the responsibility to be the author of their own destiny.