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07.03.2006 Press Review

Editorial: For Ghana to progress decentralisation must be made to work

By Statesman

The pursuit of higher economic growth is fundamental to Ghana's prosperity and the quality of life in all our communities. Only with a successful economy can we continue to increase investment in public services. But we must have best value and maximum impact for that investment too – because Ghana's public services are vital for the health and happiness of Ghanaian families and businesses.

It is public services that provide education opportunities for our children, sweep our streets, and protect us from aggressors, external or internal. It is public services that help us when we are sick, get the boreholes done and taps flowing, fix the street light and repair the road. We may despise them for constructing opened gutters in a mosquito-infested country. But, hey! What stops Parliament from enacting a law that bans the practice?

It is the public service that helps us when our rights are infringed upon, when we want to get married. It tracks down the thief and the drug dealer, protects us from the spread of disease and responds in times of emergency.

In every part of your life and ours – public service makes a difference. This, needless to say, could have been said by an either a Scottish or Ghanaian analyst; because that vital public good is universal.

As we welcome the public sector reform being undertaken by Government, we must also admonish the same government from being particularly slow in making the local government concept work better. Kwesi Ndoum's policy initiative to get the Metropolitan and District Chief Executives to sign a performance bond before taking office is laudable. But, is the current structure as it stands workable? What is stopping the Local Government Act of 1993 from being fully implemented?

On January 31 2005, The Statesman made a controversial call for the Accra Metropolitan Authority to be scrapped. Our reason was and is simple: the system was and is not working.

Our trigger was a survey we undertook of 140 properties which covered about 14 areas in Accra. It showed that 85 percent of landlords did not even know how much property tax they were supposed to pay, while some plainly admitted that they do not pay tax on their properties at all. Accra, in our view, may be summed up as thus: a badly run, sprawling criminal den of a ghetto, too big for the current structure of local authority to handle, its revenue too woefully small to run the system, with corruption and inefficiency too ingrained for any chief executive to make a difference.

We therefore called on Government to set up a commission on how to make the decentralised system of government work. We believe the area of local government requires a specific reform effort beyond what is being looked at by Dr Nduom.

Every Ghanaian lives in one of the 138 districts. While the concept of decentralisation is accepted by Ghana's Constitution, we are afraid what is being currently practiced is a botched form of deconcentration rather than devolution.

Decentralisation inevitably changes the location of power and jobs. Decentralisation creates more opportunities for local autonomy and responsiveness to more specialised constituencies, but it also gives subnational governments more room to fail if specific steps are not taken to build local technical and managerial capacity.

Decentralisation relaxes national control and creates the potential for more regional variation in ensuring that public service provision is area-specific. Some room for variation allows regions the flexibility to hire a civil service or engage the private sector in a way that matches a community's needs and budget constraints.

A cursory look at the personnel of any given local authority evidenced one major reason why the delivery system is scandalously inefficient. From central government to the sub-metro level, the lack of quality of personnel remains the unspoken problem. Local (or at least regional) capacity is one of the most important factors in creating a well-functioning decentralised civil service. For those who worry about retrenchment, empirical evidence – of the Rawlings era – suggests that retrenched workers are often reabsorbed by local governments. There is thus no net change in public sector employment. In the worst of cases, central government employment remains unchanged, while local government employment grows.

The degree of local capacity determines the kind of human-resource management strategies that will be feasible and desirable. Decentralisation of human resource management is more likely to succeed in cases where lower-level authorities have the financial and managerial ability to set competitive compensation packages and salary levels that will attract local talent.

As Ghana celebrates 49 years of being, we must approach the next golden jubilee with a public sector that can promise and deliver. The task is to ensure delivery of prompt, efficient service to the public in a courteous, professional, non-corrupt and non-partisan manner.

A public service sensitive and responsive to the needs of Government for positive changes in service delivery in the interest of greater efficiency, effectiveness and productivity, for sustained human development, social justice and the economic well being of all remains the goal. We are yet to show sufficient commitment to its achievement.