Openness and participation in Jordan: The expected impact of decentralisation reform

The validation of the 2015 Decentralisation Law and Municipality Law is a significant step towards reinforcing local governance, and holds the potential of moving forward the open government agenda at the level of governorates, municipalities and districts. With the approval of bylaws regulating the election and function of the governorate councils, work on training programmes for local public officials, and awareness raising activities at the governorate level, the Government of Jordan has initiated a series of urgent measures to translate the new legal framework into practice ahead of the local elections in August 2017.

This chapter discusses the links between the current decentralisation reform process, the open government agenda and the broader democratisation agenda in Jordan. It illustrates the mutual reinforcement mechanisms that exist between the three agendas, which culminate in the King’s vision that “political development should start at the grassroots level, then move up to decision-making centres”. The current reform holds great potential to encourage the emergence of a “culture of governance based on innovative and sustainable policies and practices inspired by the principles of transparency, accountability, and participation that fosters democracy and inclusive growth” at the local level. With the creation of elected councils at the governorate and local level, there is a momentum for a coalition of local public officials and civil society actors to foster representative, deliberative and direct forms of citizen participation. The involvement of local CSOs, citizens and other non-governmental stakeholders in identifying service needs and policy priorities, and the monitoring of government performance, can increase transparency and accountability mechanisms, which have, so far, suffered from severe shortcomings.

However, it must also be noted that many of the detailed procedures and chains of responsibility are still to be defined. Despite a generally positive attitude towards the objectives of the reform process among CSOs and most government officials, some scepticism prevails as to whether the government is indeed serious in allowing for a bottom-up process to planning and development and new forms of citizen participation.

For instance, criticism focuses on the limited attention that has been devoted to increasing popular awareness and grassroots support during the reform process. For some CSOs, the government’s orchestrated approach is perceived as a tool to stimulate “defensive democratisation” (i.e. concessionary democratic reforms to pre-empt more fundamental challenges to the status quo), which is unlikely to vitalise greater citizen participation, transparency and accountability (Identity Center, n.d.).

This chapter points to two critical determinants for the success of the reform. First, it stresses the need to improve the overall context for open and participatory government across the different layers of government (e.g. access to information framework, a review of decisions affecting the freedom of the media and expression, and the operational freedom of civil society). It reflects that a vibrant civil society is critical for increasing popular awareness and grassroots support for the reform, and, as soon as the local councils begin their work, holding representatives to account. Second, the Chapter highlights the need to establish effective tools and mechanisms to strengthen representative, deliberative and direct forms of citizen engagement at subnational level.

In his recent visit to the Ministry of Interior, the Prime Minister stressed the urgency of raising awareness for the law and the future function of the governorate council. The Prime Minister suggested the prospect of organising debates in the governorates regarding the preparation of the state budget to experiment with the interaction between the councils and central government (Watnjo, 2016). Led by the Ministry of Political and Parliamentary Affairs, a national dialogue to raise awareness for the decentralisation reform was initiated in December 2016, featuring meetings with local authorities and community members in each governorate. The sustainability of these initiatives will be critical for ensuring that the current reform process will be understood as a unique opportunity for citizens to shape development in their region. According to the Ministry of the Interior, the Inter-Ministerial Committee in charge of the reform is currently preparing capacity building programmes for different target groups (e.g. youth, CSOs, private sector).

In pursuing the objective of improving the state-of-play for open government in Jordan, and to lever the decentralisation reform to increase popular participation, transparency and accountability at the subnational level, the Government of Jordan could consider the following recommendations:

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