The ambitious agendas recently adopted by the international community – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the 2030 Agenda, Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the New Urban Agenda – call for a deep shift in economic, cultural and political systems in order to achieve long-term well being, prosperous societies, ecological regeneration, and decentralized democratic governance. For the first time, local governance is being recognized as both a major challenge and opportunity for economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.
Today, more than half the world resides in cities. According to the UCLG latest report, big metropolitan areas host more than 1.6 billion people (41% of the total urban population), while another 1.4 billion people (36% of total urban population) live in growing intermediary cities (i-cities), and 896 million people (23% of total urban population) live in cities of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. The relationship between urban and rural areas is evolving; the borders between the two are becoming increasingly blurred, and they are ever more interdependent (see Graph 1). Two key challenges in this context are 1) the design and implementation of integrated decentralized governance approaches, and 2) effective service delivery systems.
As mid-size cities continue to grow and expand, and population shifts due to migration ensue, the demand for services will continue to increase, including among vulnerable and marginalized populations. While there is no blueprint for strengthening service delivery in local governments, available evidence does recognize that local governance is a complex and multidimensional process. As such, any service delivery and local governance improvement strategy must be integrated and responsive to ever changing conditions and targets of opportunity. Below are some factors and lessons to design and implement these types of initiatives.
Service delivery at the local level is driven by degrees of decentralization: Globally a large number of developing and transitioning countries are engaged in a type of decentralization process. These decentralization processes are not monolithic. Some countries have undergone political decentralization, allowing for elections and empowering local stakeholders to make decisions related to what affects them. Others have promoted administrative decentralization, giving local government planning and management responsibilities. And others have gone further by promoting fiscal decentralization, and addressing public finance. The majority of the countries have implemented a combination of these types of decentralization, with different degrees of deconcentration, devolution and delegation.
As these decentralization processes take place local governments are expected to be more responsive to their communities’ needs. Today local governments have become critical actors for effective local service delivery, human development, and poverty eradication, as well as for achieving the SDGs. Since service delivery is a multi-variable process, its success and effectiveness depend upon a complex array of interconnected processes, resource and capacity. Thus, close integration between governance approaches and sectoral interventions and the interconnectedness of interventions to strengthen state capabilities with those to empower citizens is a key factor to consider. Resulting local service delivery methodologies and approaches will be driven by this dynamic, which in turn is driven by the degree of decentralization a country undergoes. This determines the space local actors and institutions have to maneuver policy, actions, and service delivery which in some cases is broad and in others narrow.
Policy dialogue can create a foundation for stronger social cohesion: Local service delivery cannot be seen as an isolated realm, but rather as part of a much larger system of governance involving horizontal and vertical interactions. While decentralization processes and decentralized governance are technical processes, foremost they are political, requiring a gradual set of reforms aimed at transferring responsibilities, resources, and authority from the top to the bottom. In light of this, a fundamental element in strengthening demand for decentralized governance and enhancing service delivery is to build a shared vision for local governance that includes understanding the ways in which decentralization can help solve localized challenges and promote local economic development. Local communities will likely measure the success of decentralized governance in large part by the local governments’ ability to improve the quality of their lives. This includes improved public services.
Because the local space nourishes citizen engagement and citizenship construction, policy dialogue affords the opportunity to discuss the current state of decentralized governance and quality of services while sharing relevant best practices, knowledge and evidenced-base data. Done well, these conversations can serve as both powerful tools for amplifying outreach regarding institutional reforms and as spaces that promote civic education. Through two-way policy dialogues, citizens can improve their knowledge of the functions of local government and better understand citizens’ roles in local governance.
Policy dialogue should be considered a crucial investment in integrated local governance and service delivery programs. These conversations build trust between the government and the governed, promote participatory governance, and allow not only disadvantaged groups to participate directly in decision-making processes, but also encourage dialogue between groups otherwise separated by wealth, gender, and social status.
Local capacity matters: The quality and access to service delivery in local governments is in large part linked not only to technical capacity, but also to financial, management, organizational and institutional capacity. Therefore, building and/or strengthening capacity development is an essential component for localized service delivery. Developing and or strengthening capacity to improve service delivery involves an array of strategies aimed at increasing efficiency, effectiveness and responsiveness in decentralized governance. To be clear, capacity development in this case refers to both citizens and service providers—and not just related to technical capabilities of how to deliver services, but more importantly in how to continuously improve and expand, anticipate needs, and recalibrate the strategy. Similarly, capacity building should address not only human resources, organizations and institutional context, but also vertical and horizontal linkages to improve service delivery, government-citizen engagement, public-private partnerships, and even scaling-up innovations.
Evidence shows that capacity efforts to improve local service delivery, can have a positive effect on decentralized governance and in reinforcing trust of government institutions. Capacity efforts often are articulated with national, regional and/or local political dynamics. As such, the active involvement of champions and local leadership in generating support for capacity initiatives and for their institutionalization is essential. Electoral cycles tend to promote incentives. Sometimes, candidates for local office are using service delivery performance and improvement issues in their campaigns. Other times, electoral cycles can undermine capacity efforts or discontinue initiatives, particularly when newly elected officials have different priorities. Thus, a key lesson is, building the capacity of local government systems alone would yield limited positive changes unless this effort is accompanied by capacity building of civil society and ordinary citizens to make their voice heard, hold the government accountable, and exercise oversight.
Engaging citizens and putting them first: Decentralized governance and service delivery require citizen participation and involvement throughout the entire policy and decision-making process cycle. It also necessitates a responsive state and governing processes that are open, transparent and inclusive. Improving relationships between citizens, civil society organization, and their government means working simultaneously on state responsiveness and effectiveness, citizen empowerment, and accountability of local elected officials.
Experience has shown that there is no cookie cutter approach to promote citizen participation, but increasing the effectiveness of service delivery in local governments relies on adopting integrated approaches to citizen engagement. In order to do this governments must transform themselves or build capabilities for citizen engagement and collaboration. Improving the dialogue between local governments and citizens is grounded in trust-building and institution-building. It involves rebuilding or strengthening the institutional architecture of local-level government while winning citizen trust and increasing participation.
Dimensions of capacity building that are key in engaging citizens in service delivery include:
- Creating spaces for dialogue and collaborative work between citizens and local government. As mentioned above, this builds legitimacy for local government, ensures that plans and activities are genuinely premised on community wishes, and creates relationships based on trust between authorities and citizens.
- Building the capacity of local institutions to respond to community demands and advance confidence building. This includes improvements to the articulation of local and departmental/provincial government planning within national frameworks.
- Building the capacity of community, civil society organizations, and citizens to organize, participate, and provide oversight regarding service delivery.
Promoting accountability and transparency in service delivery is easier said than done: In addition to citizen engagement and participation, promoting transparency and accountability is a critical component of decentralized governance and service delivery. In theory the close proximity of local government to citizens should make it easier to participate in decision making and hold officials accountable. In reality this is not always the case. Oftentimes official information is not readily available, data is neither open nor accessible, and the scope for public participation in decision making is limited. Providing citizens with options and opportunities to engage with the state is desirable in and of itself, contributing to local governance and promoting democratic values. Accountability and transparency serve as means to achieve particular ends, such as better service delivery.
While a decentralized structure matters for local service delivery, performance depends on holding local governments accountable. There are multiple channels of accountability, including elections, and mechanisms that allow citizens to interact more regularly and meaningfully with local governments. These include participatory planning/budgeting, social audits, and citizen report cards. Transparency and access to information on local processes and decisions are essential for accountability and require awareness, capacity, and citizen interest. Information on budget and expenditures may be available, but citizens may be unaware of them, may not know how to access them, or may be unable to use them to engage with local governments.
National governments and their central agencies (finance, planning, and civil service) have already in place policies and frameworks to regulate/monitor local government compliance. Sectoral ministries (health, education, and environment) also have policy standards to monitor service delivery, and manage conditional fiscal transfers. Although these current mechanisms promote passive accountability, particularly when preparing reports for agencies / entities and ministries, it is not sufficient when it comes to service delivery. For the provision of local services, and active transparency and accountability is needed, one that is constantly informing the public about performance, changes and / or improvements.
Accountability and transparency for service delivery can deliver multiple outcomes. These can include reducing the costs of transactions (registrations, tax reports, and property evaluations), strengthening organizational process for key services (prenatal care, delivery of school materials, solid waste management), and promoting uses of technology and open government principles. All of these enhance service delivery and increase opportunities for innovation, as well as builds trust.
The past three decades have seen enormous progress around the world in democratic governance. More people than ever before are living in more democratic and decentralized governance spaces. As local governments keep pace with inevitable demographic changes, their capacity to respond and address policy issues, such as urbanization, resilience, crime and violence, and service delivery becomes crucial. The complexity of decentralized governance and the context in which is unfolding create challenges for realizing local governments’ potential to deliver services more effectively and accountable.
The delivery of services, a key goal of local governance, is a multifaceted and multi-actor task, one that includes central governments, local governments, NGOs, civil society organizations, and in some countries donors. A key lesson from our experience is that ultimately service delivery in local governments is about finding win-win relationships between beneficiaries of public services and local governments. It is also about finding better ways to integrate the services that governments provide, taking into account the specific needs of different communities while offering readily accessible information on service delivery to the public. Most importantly, strong citizen engagement mechanisms allow often-disenfranchised groups to have their voices heard, enabling them to contribute meaningfully to enhancing localized service provision.
*A shorter version of this article was published in Devex on September 25, 2017. I want to thank Alexandra Smith who contributed with research and inputs to the earlier and this article as well.