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Local Government reform?

By John Spence

Part I

Government has published a policy document on Local Government entitled: "Policy on Local Government Transformation and Modernisation". This is a glossy publication with much of the space taken up by unnecessary photographs. No doubt it must have cost much more than was necessary of a document to inform the public of Government's intentions. It refers to many sources of information but does not give references or a bibliography so the serious reader cannot inform himself/herself fully on the issues discussed in the publication.

The document is very difficult to obtain. One would have supposed that in the spirit of Local Government reform it would have been made available at all municipal offices. Contact with the headquarters of one of the political parties in the People's Partnership indicated that that office did not have copies. This document should be carefully studied as it is my view that a casual reading may give a misleading picture of Government's intentions with respect to Local Government reform.

There is much written in the publication on participatory democracy and devolution of authority from Central to Local Government and the importance of local communities. These aims and objectives are quoted from statements of the Prime Minister.

The trouble that I had to undergo to obtain a copy gave me the impression that Government did not want it to be widely read. This impression was deepened when I read the document since on reading Chapter 5 (the essentials of which I give later in this article) lead me to the conclusion that (like the previous Government) this Government has no intention of devolving power to Local Government. In this respect it is like the recent bill on Tobago which is affirmed to be giving Tobago further autonomy whereas the real power is retained in the central Government.

It is this circumstance, as much as anything else, that resulted in the people of Tobago rejecting a member of the People's Partnership (the Tobago Organisation of the People-TOP) in recent elections. It will be interesting what the people of Trinidad will do in the upcoming Local Government elections. A lot will depend on a detailed assessment of this policy document. It is for this reason that I urge that every effort be made by citizens to obtain a copy before the consultations which are to start later this month.

A summary of the main Local Government transformation and modernisation programmes (given in Chapter 5 of the policy document) are given almost verbatim below (a few words are omitted to save space). This may be tedious reading but it is essential that citizens understand Government's intentions clearly:

Constitutional Reform Agenda for incorporating Local Government in the Constitution; Public consultations on the Local Government reform policy; Reviewing the Local Government legislative framework; Strengthening the representation and good governance systems for Local Government representatives; Full implementation of MCA (Municipal Corporations Act) 1990, as amended, subject to appropriate amendments; Defining and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of institutional stakeholders (e.g. between the Ministry with responsibility for Local Government, and Municipal Corporations); Local Government boundary realignment; Organisational restructuring, redesigning and development; Reviewing human-resource policies and systems; Capacity building and institutional strengthening; Reviewing service delivery modalities and systems; Establishing a robust information communication technology (ITC) platform; Strengthening the regional coordination mechanisms; Establishing mechanisms for sustained and effective participatory democracy; Establishing mechanisms for strengthening the local revenue base, as well as equity in the allocation of national revenue; Strengthening and modernising accounting systems; Establishment of Quality Management (QMS) and Result-Based Management Systems (RBMS) and standards and mechanisms for effective monitoring evaluation and review; Developing mechanisms to improve project management and boost productivity; Development of the institutional organisational and operational framework for the devolution of local area and regional planning and development to Municipal Corporations, consistent with the Planning and Facilitation of Development Bill (Act); Modernisation of waste-resource management systems; Strengthening of Disaster Management; Expansion of the role of the Municipal Police in community safety and security; Strengthening technical cooperation and partnership arrangements for promoting local democracy, and governance and local economic development with regional (CARICOM) and international Local Government bodies/agencies; Strengthening the Local Government Authorities Association; Public/Stakeholder awareness and sensitisation campaigns.

Careful reading of the above will indicate that the majority of proposed transformation processes are concerned with management issues and not devolution of authority. Certainly these should be addressed whatever form Local Government may take but the major concern in a policy document should be with devolution of authority as opposed to Central Government control.

In the above list of transformations only three can be said to be relevant to devolution (1.Defining and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of institutional stakeholders (e.g. between the Ministry with responsibility for Local Government, and Municipal Corporations); 2.Establishing mechanisms for sustained and effective participatory democracy; and 3.Development of the institutional organisational and operational framework for the devolution of local area and regional planning and development to Municipal Corporations, consistent with the Planning and Facilitation of Development Bill (Act). With respect to (1) defining the roles does not necessarily indicate that there will be any devolution of authority. With respect to (2) the mechanisms are not defined except perhaps by reference to participation of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) which I shall discuss subsequently. With respect to (3) since the Planning and Facilitation of Development Bill (Act) has not yet been finalised it cannot be assumed that this act will give Local Government bodies any significant role in planning.

If we are to have significant participatory democracy this must start at the community level and yet there is no discussion on the role of village councils. I am aware that they are not now a part of the formal Local Government system and are regarded as NGOs. It seems to have been assumed in this document that participatory democracy can be achieved through the involvement of NGOs. In my next article I shall include in my discussion the building of Local Government from community level and the role of NGOs.

* John Spence is professor emeritus, UWI. He also served as an independent senator.

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