The task at hand

Capacity building initiatives are crucial to the smooth functioning of local government systems

Since independence, Pakistan has experimented with several local government (LG) systems. This has led to a growing perception that LGs are grossly incompetent to deliver local services in their constituencies. To some extent, the perception has become a reality as various regimes, either under military dictatorship or representative governments, did nothing to build the capacities of various LG functionaries, including appointed as well as elected officials.

The biggest reason for this is the use of development funds at the discretion of the provincial assembly members under Gen Zia’s military regime. This restricted the local government officials’ ability to utilise these funds. In 2017, the KP government allocated 30 percent of the development funds to various LG tiers, but only 8 percent were utilised. In the following years, the KP government promised an allocation of Rs 43 Billion but the actual release came to Rs 3 billion. The local governments’ lack of capacity is a big reason for the low utilisation of funds.

Provincial variation in the local government systems is related to different laws promulgated by the governments. The KP law under the PTI, for example, devolved governance to the village level whereas the Punjab under the PML-N and Sindh under the PPP, devolved it to the union council level. The Punjab Local Government Act 2019 has now reduced the number of LGs from 25,000 to nearly 10,000. In Karachi, political wrangling between the PPP and the MQM and weak capacity did not let LGs perform well.

Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has urged the LGs to generate their own financial resources as the provincial government cannot spoon-feed them for long. However, he did not mention their weak capacity and the provincial government’s lack of concerted efforts to build capabilities.

Recent research on LGs’ capacity for service delivery during Coved-19 in Sindh, found that not a single training was imparted to elected representatives of union councils, during their four-year tenure. A majority of these elected officials have little education. They are unable to understand the complex official procedures, including budgeting rules. In addition to technical skills, the local councillors lack leadership skills to vouch for their constituencies’ concerns at the assembly floor.

In most cases, representatives of vulnerable groups, including women and religious minorities, do not even attend local council meetings. They do not consider participation as a means to enhance and strengthen their constituents’ voice in the assembly proceedings. The union council staff too do not have hands-on knowledge of local laws. Such capacity constraints hinder effective and efficient service delivery to the society’s marginalised segments.

Capacity constraints at the local level hinder effective and efficient service delivery to society’s marginalised segments.

Variations in the provincial LG systems has also hindered development of expertise.

In a recent move, the Punjab government has abolished all union council offices and replaced them with field offices that cater to a cluster of union councils. In the absence of a comprehensive recruitment strategy, the Punjab government has inducted security guards and trained them in the new LG law and placed them in the new field offices next to the registration clerks. Nominally, every province has a local government academy to deal with the capacity challenges. However, these institutions cater primarily to the appointed officials’ training and professional development needs in various cadres. The training academies are located in Lala Musa, Tando Jam, Peshawar and Quetta. These institutions face many challenges, including weak staff capacities, weak curricula, lack of necessary equipment and weak linkages with other trainers.

The establishment of a local government school in Peshawar and a LG academy in Lahore have raised hopes.

Capacity building is a growing challenge for each provincial government. The new normal includes implementing the cronavirus safety SOPs, greater use of information technology, information sharing and knowledge creation. The Punjab Information Technology Board has taken revolutionary steps in digitising the service delivery functions, including information sharing and monitoring and evaluation. A mobile phone-based application in Urdu with easy instructions for each of the elected representatives can help them discharge their responsibilities.

This will still exclude those who do not have access to android phones. A public-private partnership model can also help provincial governments build capacities of elected local representatives.

The writer is an expert in local governance systems studies and a founding member of the Inclusive Local Government Impact Consortuim (iLogic). He can be reached at [email protected]

The task at hand