Whither accountability in public policy?

Since the restoration of democracy in early 1990s in Nepal, one particular area that the larger public is craving to see is improved accountability in public policy, which would lead to good governance, equality, and the welfare of poor and hitherto marginalised groups.
Because the 1990 and the 2006 movements were all for “a system of governance” by the people, for the people and of the people, they thought they could experience greater degree of accountability in public policies enforced by successive democratic governments.
The reality, however, has been something different. The public remains largely unaware of the processes of decision-making and finalising issues relating to public spending or budgeting. Consequently, there is little accountability in public policy-making.
The most glaring gap in accountability is seen in areas were there are higher incidents of corruption—public spending in local governments. The other areas at the centre, such as hydropower, are also suffering in the opacity of policy-making—the rules of project licensing change in the flick of a finger of those at helm in Singha Durbar.
Opaque public spending
The domain of public spending provides, notoriously, the biggest space for irregularities each year. Most of these malpractices come to light only when the annual budget reaches local bodies and fails to yield desired results. The flaws in implementation are probed but those at the policy-making level are simply ignored.
What is amiss here is the very understanding that the process, for instance, of budgeting, is not a technical one to be carried out by some bureaucrats and technocrats as a regular and routine job, but a very political one, which requires effective public engagement—from the shaping of concept to implementing and evaluating performance. “We have the 14-step measure to ensure public participation at the local level but that is of ad hoc nature and dysfunctional,” says Narayan Mahandhar, an expert who has carried out extensive researches on good governance.
Former Secretary at the Local Development Ministry Khem Raj Nepal points out a glaring example of policy level corruption: the ministry’s self-declared immunity over the Minimum Conditions Performance Measure. “If the ministry allocates budget to local bodies based on the MCPM, why should not the same apply to the ministry?” Nepal wonders. “Similarly, why does the Finance Ministry dole out budget which is not mentioned in the budgetary provision? These are the kinds of policy-level corruption we are failing to address.” The government’s continued indifference to such anomalies, say experts, has led to total absence of accountability measures required to check policy-making.
Given the high rate of corruption in resource mobilisation, the question of accountability matters the most in decision-making or larger policy negotiations at key stakeholders such as the National Planning Commission, the Finance Ministry and the ruling parties.
What could be the cure? Experts suggest there is the need for redirecting focus towards policy-level corruption. It is not only how and where the funds are mobilised, it’s about revealing how policies are formulated in the first place.
First, as Nepal says, each level of decision-making on resource use, eg during annual budgeting, should be transparent. This requires each stage of budget formulation to be public. Second, the government should be accountable to the public by revealing the members, experts and sources of fund or donors involved in shaping any public policy with clear objectives. Third, as former chief secretary Bimal Koirala rightly says, the public voices should have certain say during final budget allocation and performance evaluation of actors, which is possible when there is “downward accountability”.
The next important measure, according to Manadhar, is to bring Cabinet decisions under CIAA scrutiny. “That the Revenue Act concerning taxation undergoes the highest number of amendments shows there is strong influence of private sector or businessmen and this gets legitimacy simply because it’s a policy-level decision of the Cabinet.”
(Originally published by The Kathmandu Post, Author: Sigdel, K.R. http://www.ekantipur.com/2012/05/01/development/whither-accountability-in-public-policy/353236.html)

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