Decentralisation is now a core part of the development agenda. Moving resources and powers to local government and closer to communities is widely regarded as essential, if developing countries – and their citizens – are to grow and prosper. But adopting decentralising policies at a national level and making them work at a local level are two very different things.
Decentralisation is important for a number of reasons. Local government is generally more trusted than central government, in part due to its proximity to the people it serves. Local government can be more immediately accountable. It can also take and then implement decisions more quickly. All this means that compared to national government, local government can have a more profound impact, more quickly, on the people it serves.
But these benefits should not be taken for granted. The approach taken by different actors to devolving power is key to how successful devolution will be. This is particularly the case in places where there is little or no culture of local political activity, responsibility and accountability.
I have spent the last 18 months working in Jordan as part of a team of experts, organised by Global Partners Governance and funded by the UK Embassy in Amman. We have been supporting councillors, who were elected for the first time in August 2017, to embed a new approach to local government. Prior to these elections, local decisions had been taken by centrally appointed officials who were accountable to Amman not local communities. So, decentralisation was a big change with no guaranteed outcomes.
The first stage of our work concluded successfully in the last few weeks, and it’s worth looking back for lessons that others might find useful when shifting powers and resources from central to local government and communities.
Building new governance structures is hard work and takes time, but people are impatient
Politically motivated people want to change things and they are impatient for change. But building a new organisation, purpose or culture from scratch is a painstaking process that takes time.
In any newly decentralised system, expectations will be high: from the national government who decided to devolve powers; from the people who put themselves forward to be elected locally; and from citizens who have invested in a new structure. But it is unlikely that the any new layer of government can start delivering straight away.
This tension was evident in Jordan from the outset. At a very practical level the councillors inherited their first year’s budget from the officials they were elected to replace. They were, rightly, ambitious for the communities they served and what they could achieve. But they felt strongly they didn’t have the right tools to achieve what they wanted to achieve in a short enough time frame. Helping councillors unpack this tension and understand how to prioritise which issues to tackle in which order is key to embedding decentralisation.
Take the time to understand who decentralisation is for.
Decentralisation isn’t just for the people in the place that powers and resources are devolved to. Understanding who benefits (and who might lose) from any shift of power and resources is key to being able to navigate a new system – both in terms of establishing the structure itself and in delivering outcomes for citizens.
Obviously local people and local politicians, as well as businesses, civil society and institutions could gain or lose from decentralisation. At a strategic level the gains and losses can come from whether decentralisation is done “well” or “badly”. But people and organisations will also gain or lose from individual decisions – in many cases quite directly. This can create an internal pressure for new councillors to “do nothing” in the early stages so they can’t be blamed for adverse decisions. This pressure is particularly acute if they don’t feel in control of key elements of the process, like the budget. Part of any decentralisation has to be helping politicians transition from being campaigners or activists demanding action from the outside, to being accountable decision makers on the inside.
There can be winners and losers beyond the locale as well. Most obviously, the government ministers and departments that have championed and implemented decentralisation. They stand to win if it works and lose if it doesn’t. It is vital to understand the dynamics of this in each decentralising context. In practice, this means identifying allies who can help you succeed and opponents who can stop you in your tracks. In Jordan, decentralisation was championed by the king but responsibility for implementing it was spread among four government ministries, with other subject-specific ministries also having an interest. There were a lot of potential winners and losers to navigate and understand.
There is never enough money or resources.
I know from my own experience that no council ever has enough money or the right powers. Every local politician I’ve ever spoken to anywhere in the world has told me the same – and every one of us blames our national governments!
Understanding this “truth” is invaluable for supporting decentralisation.
I lost count of the number of times the councillors we were supporting complained of their lack of money and power. Frequently the complaint was accompanied by the suggestion that maybe they should wait until they get more money and more power before they take any actions to deliver. In a way this isn’t unreasonable. If you’re new to a job and turn up on the first day and think you don’t have the right tools to do it, then you should go and ask for them. That’s how most jobs work.
But that not how politics works. Politics is built on trust and people don’t hand out money or power until they are confident that it will be used well. In Jordan the councillors have a real case – for example, some of the governates are very large and there’s no help for them to travel. The staffing to support their work isn’t really adequate for the power they already have. But in politics you need to persuade and make a case, not just ask and receive.
Think small while aiming big
There are a significant number of obstacles to starting a process of decentralisation. But these challenges should not mask the fact that even with the most meagre set of formal powers and budgets, change can still be made to happen.
One big thing that newly elected councillors have on their side is a mandate. This ‘soft’ power can have effects far beyond any legislative permissions to act that councillors have. But again, it takes time to understand this power, to realise you have it and to learn to use it. This is why we started small, helping the councillors to run a fact-finding inquiry – what the UK system calls a scrutiny inquiry.
The process of running an inquiry allowed councillors to experience first-hand a good range of their soft and hard power without immediately taking decisions that would be contested. The reports from the inquiries have provided evidence-based recommendations for future action and one of the councils has already made changes to its budget as a result.
Moreover, the process helped demonstrate how the soft leadership power that councillors have can make quite big changes from quite small actions. The councillors used the inquiries to convene local groups around areas of interest and to come up with ideas for action that they can deliver together. This stretches resources much further than if the councillors had acted alone.
And, while a number of the recommendations are relatively small or straightforward, they now fit in to a more strategic approach. Once delivered, the smaller actions will help demonstrate to central government that the councillors can use power and resources responsibly and perhaps make the case for more of both. Small steps really can lead to much bigger change.
Some of this may seem obvious to people used to working with established local government. But if decentralised democratic power is completely new, or returning after a long absence, it is less obvious. If you’ve never done something before, how do you know how to do it? Supporting newly established councils with people who’ve been there and done it is powerful, and potentially transformative.