Since Ghana (knowingly or unknowingly) decided to adopt a Gradualist Approach to decentralization, we are bound to grapple at this time with certain issues which could have been addressed long ago. It is nevertheless said, ‘better late than never’. The effectiveness of a decentralized system is measured by certain indicators across the strands of political decentralization, fiscal decentralization and administrative decentralization. The interrelatedness of these triads is so fluid that one cannot effect a change in any without impacting the other (s). So when it comes to the position of Chief Executives (elected or appointed) it is important to note that it falls directly under political decentralization. The decision to elect or appoint must be viewed against the overall objectives of decentralization and the established structures, processes, traditions, aspirations and players (formal and informal) which we may together call ‘local governance’.
Decentralization occurs when central government actors possessing authorities are willing to grant discretion, delegate decision-making powers, or share responsibilities with other actors, inside or outside the government and its public service, in order to accomplish certain tasks for and with the people. It is often touted as promising a set of governance arrangements that is more conducive to determining local needs, encouraging innovation and responsiveness to citizens, and furthering autonomy and democracy in comparison to central government. The end result in a decentralized local governance system are the following;
- An established local government (official body and territory) by legislation, typically in the form of a Charter/Legislative Instrument that gives the unit legal personality, defined as established by law with the right to sue and be sued. That body is;
- Located within clearly demarcated jurisdictional boundaries within which there is a sense of community, consciousness, and solidarity;
- Governed by locally elected officials and representatives;
- Has authority to make and enforce local bye-laws related to devolved public sector tasks;
- Has authority to collect legally earmarked levies and revenues; and
- Empowerment to manage budget, expenditure, and accounting systems, and to hire own employees, including those responsible for security.
There is supposed to be no ex-ante controls over the decisions of local governments by central government but since Ghana chose the bit-by-bit approach there is only partial empowerment of the district assemblies at a time with central government crowding-out MMDAs and the local people in the very things that are supposed to be the drivers of decentralization. Nonetheless some progress has been made on some of the decentralisation progress indicators. The critical ones – the very ones that impact the daily lives of the local people including judiciary, law, order and safety, education, health, commerce, food, housing, water, electricity, natural resources, maintenance and environmental protection, among others are yet to receive functional expression. Unlike the Asian Tigers, taking that bold comprehensive approach in Ghana has been elusive over the years. The Ministries, Departments and Agencies and other public institutions vigorously compete with and sometimes duplicate Metropolitan, Municipals and District Assembly activities. We seem not be prepared to live by the original 1998 policy that sets out the following roles which are the pillars for our decentralization (a) Devolve central administrative authority to the district level (b) Fuse governmental agencies in any given region, district or locality into one (c) Divests the centre of implementation responsibilities and transfer those responsibilities to the districts (d) Assign functions and responsibilities to the various levels of government as follows:
- Central government ministries/departments undertake policy planning, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes;
- Regional Coordinating Councils and their respective Regional Planning Coordinating Units will play the important role of coordination, not in a regulatory manner, but to ensure consistency, compatibility and coherence of district level development - facilitate joint ventures among districts and monitor the activities of District Assemblies (DAs) within the regions;
- MMDAs will be primarily responsible for the implementation of locally generated development policies, programmes and plans under the guidance of the National Development Planning Commission (NDPC).
To a very large extent these roles have been set aside mostly by national level institutions and some of them have encroached on district assembly space, directly implementing projects that are not aligned to the priority concerns of the local people. There are even worse scenarios when some of them have the fortitude to issue directives to the MMDAs in pursuance of a so-called national interest projects. What is national interest when the projects fail to resonate with the people they are supposed to serve?
The national budget and resource allocation is still sector-based and has seen no real change in substance ever since this country embarked on a constitutionally mandated journey of decentralization more than 20 years ago. Are we willing and ready to make a big push by changing the format of our national budget and resource allocation in line with the roles assigned national, regional and local level institutions under the decentralization policy? The on-going attempt to put in place a regional budgeting system is a joke when examined against the framework and standard practice for local governance budgeting and resource allocation. We do not have regional governments in Ghana and a de-concentrated unit cannot assume independent resource budgeting and allocation status. It goes well beyond that. For successful regional budgets and enhanced decentralization, Ghana must begin thinking through the establishment of regional governments - not in the old-fashioned mode of federal or independent regions.
It is fascinating to listen to some pessimists in central government and public institutions who make the point that the district assemblies do not have the capacity hence their resistance to concede to decentralization. It is no gainsaying that many challenges that face Ghana’s decentralization and system of local governance today are due to the refusal of central government entities to cede activities and resources to localities and the lukewarm attitude of politicians in standing firm to make things work the way we agreed as a nation. Unlike Kenya or South Africa for example where more than 40% of the annual national income is transferred to local governments, Ghana has a paltry 7.5% which is further sucked with deductions at source in Accra. The NPP Manifesto 2016 captures it as follows, ‘Only 33.3% of the allocated DACF is actually transferred for direct utilization by the Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies (MMDAs). This weakens the effective functioning of local government’. If an assessment is made of transfers from central government to MMDAs against their development plans over the past 6 years or so, one may question if our leaders have really meant to empower the local people to be integral to the democratic governance process and participatory development?
It is important to note that many of the lead factors that affect Ghana’s local governance process are beyond the control of Chief Executives. This is not to suggest that Chief Executives cannot or should not be elected. Far from that. It is however worth asking the question, ‘to what extent can the election of Chief Executives yield the tangible and intangible benefits of local governance? For instance; will an elected Chief Executive have authority to do the following?
a) Hold public officers who are supposed to work with him/her accountable? The current arrangement does not facilitate local people (through their representatives) to exert any control over those who work to deliver on their needs and aspirations. The national arrangement is to have a central body to be in charge of administrative functions including recruitment, working conditions, sanctions, etc. As it stands at the moment a Chief Executive is powerless; he/she will have to complain to regional levels or Accra for action to be taken against a recalcitrant staff of the Assembly. The Coordinating Director is in a similar situation. The hiring and firing powers of a local authority is basic and a major driver for the empowerment of the local people. The Local Governance Act (2016) seems to address that gap but in the real sense of decentralization it has failed to empower the political side of the Assembly and recycled this important activity among selected local bureaucracies (which are supposed to be implementers) without recourse to the General Assembly.
b. Command more resources from the national level? The unconditional transfer based on a formula as enshrined by law (the 1992 Constitution and the District Assemblies’ Common Fund Act) is bedeviled by man-made problems in Accra. The donor-funded District Development Fund (DDF) although well-intended will soon come to an end and the move to reverse to the original 5% DACF allocation and use 2.5% as performance grants shows how little we care about transferring more resources to quicken the pace of development in the localities. Beyond the initiated Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development funding sources for MMDAs, there are substantial resources sitting in other Ministries, Departments, Agencies and other public institutions that are targeted at development activities in the districts. An unbelievable amount of resources from development partner-funded activities are in this country and no one is keeping track of them. Meanwhile these projects claimed to be working in the localities to improve the lots of the people. As to how they are designed and integrated into the development plans of MMDAs, only God knows.
c. How will the Chief Executive be held accountable? The accountability mechanisms exist in the current system on both the supply-driven and demand-driven sides. What the election of Chief Executives seeks to do is to move away the political accountability aspect of the supply-driven accountability from the President or Regional Minister to the local people. The reliance on elections every four years is not really responsive enough to hold Chief Executives accountable because the period is too long for the effective practice of local democracy and development. The local people must have the opportunity to recall a non-performing Chief Executive as early as possible. How will this be done?
d. How is the Chief Executive going to be elected? Local governance at its height has no room for political appointment, be it directly or indirectly. Even for administrators they are to be appointed to serve based on the standards set by the local political system within broad national guidelines. The recommendation of the CRC regarding the matter is an affront to empowerment of the local people. No President is bigger than the power of the votes of the people. So if the people can elect the Executive President why can’t they choose their Chief Executive at the local level without any suggestive interference from the President? But the situation dicey because there is a high possibility that we will be overwhelmed by the huge numbers of candidates who will vie for the position if no screening measures are put in place.
There are other pertinent issues that must be looked at including the following;
- Will the Chief Executive sign performance contract? If so with whom?
- How independent will the Chief Executive be? In other words who is going to hold him/her directly and periodically responsible for performance?
- What is going to be the reporting system for his/her stewardship?
- How long will his/her tenure be? Is it the regular two terms or as long as possible like in the case of MPs?
- Can a former Chief Executive serve in another local government area one day as Chief Executive?
- Who can mediate a clash between the MP and elected Chief Executive? Who can impose sanctions on the elected Chief Executive?
- Since the Chief Executive is elected by the people, what will be the overall implication on the Political side of the District Assembly? Can the General Assembly control him/her and to what extent?
- How guaranteed are we about the managerial and administrative skills of the candidate for Chief Executive? One of the disadvantages of representative democracy is that it does not necessarily emphasis skills. Likeability and popularity can win majority votes at times.
- Will the election of the Chief Executive facilitate governance arrangement in which there are reciprocal, mutually beneficial, and coordinate relationships between central and local governments?
- Will the election serve as a mechanism to control activities of governmental bodies by the local people?
- Overall how does this play out in line with administrative decentralization and fiscal decentralization and overall service delivery to the local people?
Notwithstanding these challenges, Ghana stands to reinvigorate the local governance process by the election of Chief Executives. It will increase people’s appreciation of their power and likely whip up their interest in local governance matters. It creates that sense of ‘We feeling’ and lifts up the ‘Can do’ spirit which are fundamental to any successful empowerment programme. It is coming at a time that research findings show there is a high level of apathy among Ghanaians in the local governance process.
For nation to fully profit from the election of Chief Executives, some key reforms are urgently required within the next one and half years.
- Review the legal framework for Local Governance: The 1992 Constitution and Local Governance Law (2016) among others must be looked at again and adjustment done to the areas that are not in line with the new vision. For instance the appointment of (not more than 30%) Assembly Members must be revoked in order to make political positions in the District Assemblies fully by election.
- The non-partisan status of District Assembly election must be annulled. It means the district assembly election will be contested on the tickets of political parties. This approach has several advantages; it is a means of pruning down on the large numbers of potential candidates, it will create the grounds for future leaders to begin the grooming and mentoring process, it will make local level democracy and development more vibrant, etc.
- The election of the Chief Executive must be done by the elected representatives of the people in the General Assembly. It means that the Chief Executive must first be an Assembly Member and belongs to a political party. It will also mean that the party that won majority electoral areas stands a chance of electing the Chief Executive. This is complex though but we can work out the details if we choose to.
- For this purpose there will be established a statutory Appointments Sub-Committee of the General Assembly which will in due course assume the ultimate responsibility of hiring and firing of staff of the district assemblies.
- In terms of accountability, the District Chief Executive will have to sign performance contract with the General Assembly and be held accountable as such. Normally the District Development Plan is a good source for determining the content of the contract. In order to deepen accountability the contract will be publicized in the locality for the people to discern the agreed commitments within a given period.
- A recall of the Chief Executive by the General Assembly for non-performance will not be construed as an abuse of the electorates’ mandate. He/She reverts to the capacity of an Assembly Member. This situation is comparable to a Minister who has lost a ministerial position but remains in Parliament as an MP.
- The District Chief Executive must be given the free hand to select his Local Cabinet from and outside of the General Assembly (elected Assembly Members)
- He/She will sign performance contract with the Coordinating Director as the person who is actually responsible in the implementation of the terms of the contract. It means the Chief Executive and the Coordinating Director and his/her local Cabinet are likely to go if they fail to deliver on the terms of the contract.
- When the propitious time arrives the position of District Coordinating Director and hence other positions in the Assemblies must be advertised in the national media within set guidelines from central government.
- Central Government must take urgent steps to transfer more funds to the district assemblies and also, strengthen the supply-driven accountability institutions and measures.
- Urgent steps must be taken to put administrative decentralization in the hands of the districts. Kenya did it in a quick spate of time. Why can’t we?
- The current 7.5% DACF allocation is too small for any meaningful development impact in the localities. There must be a national plan to progressively increase the percentage to not less than 40% in the next 4 years. By so doing the tangible results of decentralization and local governance will be visible to the local people.
Admittedly the myriad of challenges facing Ghana’s local governance system cannot be addressed within 4-years or the next decade because decentralization itself is a process. Nonetheless, the election of District Chief Executives as mentioned in the 2016 NPP Manifesto coupled with other measures to facilitate their effectiveness will give a major boost to participatory development and democratic governance in Ghana. When this is done it stands to confirm the theorists view that decentralization and local governance are indeed tools for political parties to use and stay in power for a long time.