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The politics of strengthening local government: Lessons from Zambia

Decentralisation of government functions can improve accountability and service provision, but this pursuit presents key political challenges.

Due to greater decentralisation, local governments around the world are increasingly expected to play a major role in tackling key development challenges, from mitigating climate change to improving access to healthy diets. The Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) have even reinforced the importance of local government through SDG 11, which strives for inclusive and sustainable cities.

Yet, local governments cannot have a transformative role in their communities without sufficient capacity to deliver services and the autonomy to determine local policy priorities. Identifying the constraints to low subnational capacity, and opportunities to surmount them, is therefore critical for local governments to be able to fulfill their potential.

The study: How political economy dynamics affect subnational capacities in Zambia

Our team from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the University of Zambia (UNZA) has analysed how political economy dynamics affect subnational capacities. We examined these dynamics in Zambia where, since 2011, the number of district councils has proliferated from 74 to 119. Like many other countries, Zambia has embraced decentralisation as a way of addressing spatial and economic inequalities as well as to enhance participatory governance.

Since the early 2000s, successive governments have prioritised devolution, which is the most comprehensive form of decentralisation, in the country’s national development plans. Yet, progress towards this goal long has been disappointing and fitful. Given the current government’s Revised National Decentralisation Policy (R-NDP), which also emphasises a devolved form of governance through democratically elected local councils, there is a greater need to understand why progress has been so difficult.

The data: Learning from local bureaucrats and politicians

Despite many studies lamenting weak decentralisation in Zambia, our research is the first to rely on primary data collected from more than 150 bureaucrats across 16 councils located in Central, Copperbelt, Lusaka, and Southern Provinces. The sampled councils included a wide range of variation on rural and urban geographies, poverty levels, length of existence, and partisan affiliation of mayors.

Bureaucrats were randomly selected at all levels of seniority. In addition, they included departments of housing and social services, public health, planning, and finance. Since Zambia’s councils contain both administrative and political wings, these surveys were complemented with interviews conducted with ward councillors in the sampled councils, who typically are elected by citizens every five years.

The data revealed a well-educated group of civil servants who enjoy being able to use their expertise to improve local development. More than 80% were satisfied with their jobs. However, only 42.7% and 38% were satisfied with their wages and non-wage benefits (e.g. pensions, training opportunities), respectively. More worrying is that 60% of the sample aspired to leave local government within five years’ time.

Key challenges for Zambia’s government structure:

  1. Organisational setting

The organisational setting in which bureaucrats operate constitutes one key challenge that they encounter. Specifically, the Local Government Service Commission (LGSC), whose commissioners are appointed by the president every three to five years, has a mandate over hiring, firing, transfers, and promotions at the local level. The transfer process is viewed as arbitrary, opaque, and top-down, resulting in unstandardised tenure times for civil servants and their families.

Some councils experience very high levels of turnover, undermining institutional memory and continuity of service provision. Livingstone was the most extreme: In 2017, 80% of its staff were transferred. The proliferation of councils in recent years has contributed to this problem by requiring staff to be reshuffled to fill expertise gaps.

Overstaffing also occurs, which places a burden on council finances to pay for the additional staff. Salary arrears and reduced pension payments are not uncommon. According to most of the administrative heads of the councils, known as Town Clerks or Council Secretaries, they are rarely informed about these staffing allocations or requested them.

  1. Central government control

High levels of control by the central government represent a further key challenge to both local bureaucrats and ward councillors. Council decisions and adjustment of tax rates need to be approved by the Ministry of Local Government (MLG), which often occurs with major delays.

In addition, the central government often issues or halts local policy directives with little explanation. The devolution of some education, health, and agriculture functions, which began in 2015, has not been fully implemented, such that accountability still functions upwards to sectoral ministries rather than to the councils.

  1. Mismatched incentives

A final area of contention is a mismatch in incentives between local bureaucrats and politicians. Bureaucrats cited many instances when their decisions were bypassed by ward councillors with respect to land allocations, law enforcement, and selection of procurement suppliers, among others. For their part, ward councillors noted that they are held accountable by the voters for policy outcomes and that they often know the communities that they serve better than the bureaucrats who may be transferred to their council.

Consequences for accountability and service provision

These dynamics between the national and local levels, as well as between politicians and bureaucrats, are critical to improving the accountability of government to local citizens. But it equally has implications for service provision. A further set of in-depth interviews with chair-people in 20 markets across Zambia’s four largest cities – Kitwe, Livingstone, Lusaka, and Ndola – and with five major private waste companies in those cities, uncovered how these aspects affect market infrastructure and solid waste collection.

Key findings were that staff rotations, particularly in the Markets and Solid Waste Units of the city councils, are problematic for policy momentum and information flows in both service areas. The burden placed on councils for paying salaries and allowances for staff can reduce the resources available for waste collection.

Increased taxation for waste collection is often opposed by politicians who worry it will hurt the poor. Similarly, revenue from markets can be reduced through extortion of traders by party cadres, who are vigilantes that lobby on behalf of political parties. Yet, bureaucrats feel powerless to confront this issue without sufficient political will from national and local politicians.

Policy implications

By learning from local government officials, ward councillors, and service providers, we obtained greater nuance about the political economy constraints to government devolution in Zambia. Given the 2019 Local Government Act, and a renewed focus on aspects of decentralisation in a proposed amendment to the 2016 Constitution, there is an opportunity to consider the following policy recommendations:

  1. Slow down the creation of new councils — which places unnecessary stress on staffing, budgets, and infrastructure — without clear benefits for service delivery.
  2. Reform the operations of the LGSC to make it more transparent and standardised and consider a more technocratic way to appoint the commissioners to remove any suspicion of the body’s politicisation. Legislation that prohibits transfers based on purely political reasons can also provide some protection to bureaucrats who speak up about party cadres or other forms of political interference.
  3. Devote time and resources to developing principles of cooperative governance between the MLG and the councils to mitigate the current top-down relationship between the former and the latter. Local government autonomy also needs to be respected in those functional areas where they have been given exclusive responsibilities

Get the sequencing of devolution right before scaling up. This means finalising the ongoing devolution of health, education, and agriculture functions and learning relevant lessons before devolving further sectors and responsibilities.

Editor’s Note: This blog is part of the IGC’s 10 year celebration series. This blog is linked to our work on public sector effectiveness.

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