NRI research highlights need for greater local participation to improve governance and service delivery

The National Research Institute has published a discussion paper looking at how we can improve the currently very poor level of service delivery in PNG and the impact different systems of government can have on improving political governance.

The paper looks at the experiences of different countries around the world  to suggest some ways we can make improvements in PNG and concludes major changes like introducing a Presidential system of government are not needed.

Key findings are that to improve service delivery in PNG we need to:

  1. Empower ordinary people to have a voice, strengthen civil society and ensure a free media
  2. Delegate revenue raising and spending power from central government to the local level. This should include getting rid of the 'distorting influence' of Electoral Development Funds
  3. Address all the gaps in policy development, setting priorities, delivering funds and monitoring performance through which service quality currently leaks away
  4. Investigate further how we can integrate indigenous collective action and decision making mechanisms within a citizen-focused model of decentralization

The paper begins by noting that despite significant increases in resourcing over the last two decades, service delivery in PNG is still failing to reach most people. 

The design of our national and provincial government institutions are often partly blamed for this situation so could changes improve our political governance and what should those changes look like?

While the paper argues the decline in service delivery is not causally related to our political architecture in that none of the basic features of our system of government can be held directly responsible, it does identify areas where changes could assist.

The paper argues that a more fundamental problem than our basic government structure is the way institutions are used, or abused - and this is a key issue. This means that changes to political mechanisms cannot themselves be effective as vested interests tend to find a way to maintain the status quo by abusing the system.

Thus what is needed is not more changes to the architecture itself, but what the paper describes as second-generation decentralization, which promotes direct citizen participation in decision making about service delivery and in monitoring government activity. This means emphasizing more direct forms of democratic participation and citizen-led oversight.

What we need as a nation is to find ways to resist vested interests and respond more directly to the demands and concerns of the people.

Parliament failing to fulfill key role

The paper points out that our National Parliament is failing in its key role of holding government to account and has become nothing more than 'a rubber stamp for the Prime Minister's agenda'. One impact is that while service delivery has declined, governments at all levels seem unthreatened by this lack of performance.

One of the big problems the paper identifies is the Electoral Development Funds which promote corruption, nepotism and bad governance as MPs become more concerned with service delivery in their electorates and strengthening their own power bases rather than debating policy and legislation at the national level.

International assessments rate PNG as a "flawed democracy" and those assessments show a continuing decline. 

Government has different goals to its citizens

The paper states that what we are seeing in PNG is a breakdown in the relationship between government and the people, where  the goals of citizens and civil society have diverged from those of the government and the political classes. This divergence or breakdown is the result not only of different priorities but also the physical distance between the elite and the people. 

Pervasive corruption such as we have in PNG  typically leads to state capture, in which parliamentarians and bureaucrats become proxies for crime groups and transnational corporations, working not in the interest of the nation but of these shadow economy actors. 

Decentralisation as experienced so far in PNG has not worked because the structures and LLGs in particular have been captured by vested interests and political elites at the centre of government. This has undermined their ability to deliver benefits to the people.

Possible reforms

What is needed is second-generation decentralization that, rather than being technical in nature, promotes direct democracy - inserting citizens into the heart of government activity and decision making. This can undermine the capacity of corrupt players and those with a different agenda.

International experience "suggests that it is the power of citizen engagement and the oversight created by citizens, civil society organisations and a strong and free media that are key to solving many of the problems plaguing first-generation efforts at technical decentralization" and can improve service delivery.

Secondly, we need better ways to distribute finances from central government to the local level where the services are needed and find ways to delegate revenue raising and spending at the local level. Localising revenue raising can help avoid the moral risk of those who might waste or abuse the funds not being the same as those who generate the funds. Local revenue generation (including local tax collection) can mean "local-level administrators are spending their own hard-earned money, not simply turning on the central government money tap".

This includes removing "the distorting and unhelpful influence of monies intended for communities via the essentially unaccountable mechanism of Electoral Development Funds" . EDFs are just one mechanism "by which central government figures and local big men can influence discretionary spending at the local level".

Third improved service delivery should be achievable without government having to spend more money. This is because the "problems with service delivery stem not from a lack of funds per se, but from ineffective or inefficient mechanisms for developing policy, setting priorities, delivering funds and monitoring performance".

Currently there are "so many holes through which service quality leakages occur, simply stopping the holes and setting in place better and more citizen-focused methods should be capable of producing major improvements in a short time and in a budget-neutral fashion".

"Finally PNG is a multi-ethnic society with a highly dispersed population. Citizen-led participatory budgeting, decision-making, oversight… should provide greater control over service delivery to all of these groups". 

This means we need to further examine how we can integrate indigenous collective action and decision making mechanisms within a citizen-focused model of decentralization:

"There is international evidence that where indigenous structures exist they can provide a more satisfactory and effective means of citizen participation than technical democratic instruments based on a western model. Currently in PNG, local behaviour and customary governance are the fundamental determinants of service delivery, rather than macro-institutional factors".