Seize the moment

Published On: September 13, 2017 12:30 AM NPT By: Nathaniel Heller

Nathaniel Heller

Nathaniel Heller

The author is a leading practitioner and social entrepreneur in the open government and government accountability fields.

Joining Open Government Partnership will be a sign of seriousness of the current administration in building trust with local communities.

In mid-September, world leaders will gather in New York City for the UN General Assembly meetings to tackle a range of thorny sustainable development and geopolitical challenges. Among the most important challenges is how to rebuild trust in government.

In dozens and dozens of countries around the world, public opinion polling shows public trust in government and public institutions at an all-time low, regardless of geography or income levels. Nepal is no stranger to this conversation; successive governments have been wracked by corruption and public financial management crises, with many observers lamenting the political class’ habit of “recycling” leadership at the top despite their involvement in previous scandals. 

Can Nepal break this cycle and rebuild trust in government? Perhaps. But it will take sustained political leadership and a commitment to embracing the country’s ongoing decentralization efforts, in order to cement principles of transparency, accountability and participation from the grassroots all the way up to Kathmandu. This is Nepal’s open government moment.

When I had the chance to visit Kathmandu this past June for several days, I benefited from extensive conversations with government reformers, civil society champions, educators, and development partners focused on whether and how Nepal could break its decades-long cycle of impunity and corruption. Almost all of those conversations circled back to a central theme: as the ongoing constitutional reforms devolve power and budget responsibility to local governments and communities, Nepal has a unique opportunity to rebuild trust with local communities while also empowering those communities to take charge of their own spending priorities through fiscal decentralization. 

If coupled with renewed, genuine commitment to these same transparencies and accountability principles from national leadership in Kathmandu, perhaps Nepal can lead by example in demonstrating how principles of transparency and citizen engagement can be the default mode for governing in the 21st century, even in resource constrained contexts.

To get there, several practical steps are needed. First, ongoing fiscal decentralization efforts must be complemented by strong oversight of local spending and budget decisions. Whether through community monitoring of local expenditures through social audits and citizen scorecards or government-led spending reviews, newly empowered local leaders need to be held accountable if and when funds go missing or are misappropriated. Local communities can also contribute to smarter, more targeted spending on social services and infrastructure projects by being included in the decision-making process from the start, not simply by being “consulted” after the fact in a box-ticking fashion. 

Co-creation and co-decision-making around local spending priorities—a key tenet of a true “open government” philosophy—should be guiding principles of Nepal’s ongoing fiscal and budgetary decentralization processes. Inspiration can be drawn from the work of the citizen movement Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in neighboring India, whose mantra of “Our money, our accounts!” mobilized tens of thousands of ordinary citizens to monitor local budgets as a way to ensure that spending benefited the poor rather than enriching the elite.

In parallel to these bottom-up efforts, national political leadership is required to reinforce grassroots initiatives to improve transparency and accountability. This could start with a commitment by the national government to join global open government movements, particularly the Open Government Partnership (OGP), as an indication of the seriousness with which the current administration takes the agenda of rebuilding trust with local communities. 

Conversations around joining OGP—an initiative that comprises more than 70 governments and civil society partners working towards improved transparency, participation, and accountability—have circulated cabinet and the parliament for some time. Now is the moment to seize the initiative and for Nepal to formally join this global network of reformers working to bringing communities into the governing process through genuine co-creation of public sector policies and programs. Symbolism matters when it comes to building trust between communities and government; joining OGP now would send a strong signal of commitment across Nepal’s diverse political spectrum.

Bridging the citizen-government divide is a generational challenge at best; we should hold no illusions that one-off reforms will magically do the trick. But the journey needs to start somewhere. Now is the time for Nepal to put into place the building blocks of truly open, participatory, and transparent government.

The author is a leading practitioner and social entrepreneur in the open government and government accountability fields. 

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