Bangladesh is a unitary state. The Constitution of Bangladesh through various provisions requires the government to provide or strive to ensure an enabling environment for the all round development of the people of the country. This particular egalitarian approach is enshrined in different provisions of the Constitution. To achieve the above objectives and goals the state needs to provide various services to its citizens for which the government relies on different mechanisms.
These mechanisms include government line departments located at different tiers of administration or at the field level, public corporations and local government bodies both urban and rural. The executive branch of the government is organized into different functional ministries and within ministries by divisions. The system is two tiered: the secretariat is responsible for policy formulation, oversight and coordination of government departments, agencies and field administration. The departments and directorates are primarily responsible for the implementation of government programs. The public sector includes a large number of corporations and autonomous bodies. For administrative purpose the country is divided into Divisions. Each Division is subdivided into Districts which, in turn, are divided into Upazilas. Again, Upazilas are divided into Unions. At each level of administration, except division, there are provisions of local government bodies or institutions. Besides, there are also local government institutions for urban areas like city corporations and Paurashavas.Administrative units have their own administrative setups at different tiers which are in reality the field level extensions of the national government. Different line agencies of the government have their field offices at all levels. Most of the services in our country are delivered through the line departments with offices at different administrative units. This has been a practice since the colonial days.
Local government institutions, of course, do have service delivery functions but these are very limited in scope and scale. Again, the local government bodies do not have any oversight role and function with regard to the services delivered by the government departments. Under the existing system of service delivery, there is virtually no scope for effective participation of the people. Whatever opportunities are there to do so is constrained by other limiting factors. With respect to accountability, the government departments responsible for delivering services are only accountable to their respective departmental superiors.
Under the above-mentioned arrangement, the question of accountability to the people and the community does not arise al all. On the other hand, local government institutions like Union Parishads and Paurashavas have limited service delivery functions. Moreover, whatever scope these two bodies have in delivering services are also limited by the fact that they are resource constraint, lack capacity and also do not have adequate human resources and infrastructure.
The above scenario warrants that the system of delivery of services to make it more effective, transparent and accountable in place of the existing system under deconcentrated system should be entrusted with the local government bodies. This arrangement has certain advantages that include being closer to the community the services provided by the local government institutions can have immediate impact on their lives and these bodies are elected entities and answerable to their electorates will need to ensure accountability, productivity, efficiency and cost effectiveness with respect to delivery of services. This will result in overall efficiency and satisfaction of the people. The other advantage is that the local government institutions are close to the communities and as such, these can ensure community participation in their affairs. It will also accelerate the pace and spread the benefits of growth and development and use scarce resources more efficiently to promote development.
In recent years, Bangladesh has taken up a number of initiatives to increase community participation in local government functions and activities. Different local government Acts enacted in recent years has a number of unique features to facilitate particularly the participation of the local community. Some of these are the provision of constituting Ward Committee with the residents of the wards and the elected Councillor is to act as the Chairman of these committees. This has created an opportunity for the local population to participate in the running the affairs of the wards.
The other important aspect is the provision of keeping membership reserved for women. This has been done to enable womenfolk to become active participants. The other important provision has been the Citizen Charter. Now the local bodies are by law bound to prepare a charter describing what services the citizens should receive from them. This is expected to greatly benefit the local communities in awareness development and demanding services from these institutions. On the other hand, other relevant provisions have also ensured the right to information of the local communities. These provisions would help ensure free flow of information and also transparency of the operations and functions of the local government institutions.With respect to delivery of services, the local government bodies have been assigned with a number of functions. These are grouped into different broad categories. But many of these services are also delivered by the central government’s service delivery departments and autonomous public agencies on those the local government bodies practically have no control. They function on their own. Thus all the above mentioned arrangements are limiting the opportunities of providing services to the people by the local government bodies.
Over the years, incremental developments have taken place in strengthening the local government institutions in delivering different services. Increasingly it is being felt that their jurisdiction, capabilities and resource base need to be further widened or broadened so that these institutions can take up more responsibilities in delivering more services to their respective communities. It is now a well established fact in view of the positive experiences of a large number of developing countries this participatory mechanism of service delivery is very effective in ensuring peoples’ participation and ultimately providing satisfaction to the recipients of the services. It is participatory in the sense that these local institutions are elected by the local communities and function by soliciting or enlisting opinions of the citizens through various mechanism that are inbuilt within them. This calls for full implementation of the different provisions of the different local government Acts. For institutionalizing communities’ participation in the affairs of the local government bodies, the new innovations that are incorporated in various Acts should be made fully operationalized and practised in full earnest to institutionalize the mechanism of popular participation. This will establish direct link communication with the local community and help in ensuring accountability, transparency and cooperation between them.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude.)
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka.