Leverage decentralisation reform to foster open government and genuine citizen participation at the local level

As discussed in Chapter 2, decentralisation reform has been on the political agenda in Jordan for more than a decade. King Abdullah II has played an important role in reminding each new government that implementing decentralisation is a national priority for fostering popular participation and local democratic governance. In his letter to the former Prime Minister, Abdullah Ensour, of 29 March 2014, which precedes Jordan 2025, he reiterates the need to enhance local governance and implement decentralisation with a view to ensuring a just distribution of development gains by giving priority to governorate development programmes (Inform, 2015).

The rationale behind the reform, which is to allow for a more participatory and citizen-driven approach in the development process, has remained the leitmotiv, while different concepts to reorganise the subnational layers of government have been discussed. The Executive Development Programme 2016-18 places the current reform in the context of the broader democratic transformation process in Jordan, stating that engaging a variety of groups in society in the development process will improve government performance and foster a wider set of open government principles (e.g. transparency and accountability). These will improve citizens’ livelihoods, reduce local development disparities and promote democratic development across different regions.

The sense of urgency conveyed by the Royal Court resonates with the perception among the members of the Network of CSOs that reform is a priority both for the government and the citizens of Jordan.12 The country’s legacy as a highly centralised state with strong tribal affiliations calls for a context-sensitive approach. Considerable differences between the governorates and municipalities exist in terms of the economic weight and composition of the population, as well as regarding the participation of nongovernmental stakeholders in local decision making and available capacities. Therefore, the tools and mechanisms applied to realise the King’s vision of a development process

that is driven by the grassroots should be sensitive to specific circumstances in each region. Local community engagement may take a different form in highly populated urban areas than in rural, impoverished and culturally more conservative regions.

The evolution of the institutional framework at the subnational level and its impact on the relationship between government and citizens

The creation of elected local councils at the governorate and district level is the most prominent institutional change introduced by the 2015 Decentralisation Law (DL) and Municipality Law (ML). In the words of the Executive Development Programme 201618, it presents the most tangible commitment by the Government of Jordan to realise the vision of “[i]nitiating local development across the Kingdom's governorates through an effective and accountable decentralised system that responds to the needs of citizens in local areas and provides services to them at the highest levels of efficiency and effectiveness in partnership with them and within available resources”.

With the decentralisation reform, the new reality at the local level in Jordan will be characterised by a largely deconcentrated system of day-to-day service delivery, and a more active stance of the local level in the national planning and development process. For both processes, the procedures for local non-governmental stakeholders to participate in the assessment of local needs, and partner in the implementation and evaluation, are yet to be defined. The bylaw for the elected governorate councils, which was approved in December 2016, provides limited clarification in this regard.

The bylaw stresses that the governorate council shall meet at least once every month upon the invitation of its chairman. The council meetings shall be open to the public, unless the council decides otherwise (Article 9). At its first meeting, the council elects the members of five permanent (thematic) committees. Each permanent committee is composed of four to seven council members who alone have the right to vote on the issues that fall under the competence of the committee (Article 17). For each governorate, a local society committee is tasked with studying the basis for improving public service delivery, communicating with local societies on all levels to discuss service needs, and fulfilling any other task delegated by the council (Article 16).

The bylaw for the elected local councils is expected to be finalised in 2017. Their proximity to citizens has created expectations that policy making and service delivery will become more inclusive and responsive to local requirements. However, some scepticism prevails among CSOs as to whether the elected councils will indeed act as a local parliament with adequate resources and capacities to represent the interests of local community members and encourage new forms of popular participation. OECD experience shows that concerns related to the additional financial and human resource needs of local elected councils (and potential voting fatigue) can be addressed by clearly defining and communicating their mandate regarding the elected body at the higher (i.e. governorate council) layers of government.

The creation of elected councils is a first and crucial step for Jordan in the process of replacing centralised planning by a bottom-up approach to the identification of local needs. According to MoPIC, LDUs, once transformed into directorates (see Chapter 2), will feature a directorate in charge of liaising with citizens and CSOs. This mechanism could, if effectively interlocked with the elected local officials, overcome the current ad hoc approach to popular participation. The dominance of the central level in addressing the day-to-day (service) demands of citizens in their local community, however, may risk slowing down the rise of a new administrative culture in which CSOs and citizens refer to their elected local representatives as a first choice.

As discussed in Chapter 2, the delivery of public services remains largely in the hands of the line ministries and their deconcentrated entities (directorates) in the governorates. Through the governor, the central level is expected to continuously exercise significant influence over local affairs. Furthermore, the financial dependence of many municipalities on central grants and donor support suggests that the scope of action for elected local representatives will still be limited. If the decision-making power remains vested outside the subnational elected bodies, CSOs and citizens are likely to direct their attention towards the ministries and their deconcentrated entities and, in many cases, Parliament, to benefit from the strong tribal affiliations that link many parliamentarians to their constituency. The experience with the so far directly elected municipal councils suggests that in the absence of sufficient resources, and the dominance of the central level in determining local needs, there is a weak incentive for local CSOs to form partnerships with elected subnational bodies.

Given the absence of strong transparency and accountability mechanisms at the subnational level to date, a certain degree of central oversight in local affairs is reasonable. However, vast centralised power over the subnational layers of government risks slowing down the rise of a new administrative culture in which citizens address their demands to elected local representatives. In this system, the lines of accountability tend to be blurred, especially between the entities at the different subnational layers and the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. If citizens feel that their participation has little impact on the decision-making process, they may be discouraged, as would be the emergence of a genuine culture of open and participatory governance.

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