Published: October 27, 2015 4:20 am

Newspaper section: News


CDC must enable decentralisation in new charter 

Decentralisation is one of the most important government and management reforms of our generation. It has deep implications for the nature and quality of governance, the growth and sustainability of our economy and the welfare of citizens.

          In the late 1990s, 80% of the world's countries began experimenting with some form of decentralisation. Effectively, the trend encompasses all of the world's regions and now includes nations rich and poor, large and small, as well as those that have different political histories and systems. In short, decentralisation is being implemented essentially everywhere.

          Their aim is to restructure government, from a hierarchical and bureaucratic mechanism of top-down and strict control to a system of nested self-governing, characterised by a high level of citizen participation and cooperation to establish transparency and political accountability.

          The scope of authority and the resources that many countries have devolved to their local governments is remarkable. For example, in many Latin American countries, local governments spend 40% or more of central government revenues, well above the 28% proportion most Thai local governments have to beg for.

          Decentralisation, which has political, fiscal and administrative dimensions, is a relatively new concept to Thailand. It was first adopted as a national policy in 1997, after promulgation of the so-called ""People's Constitution"". Even after the 2006 coup, the new charter under the new military government dedicated a chapter of 10 sections to local government. It also granted the highest degree of political decentralisation until that time. Although the level of progress was not on par with that of Indonesia and the Philippines, where their citizens enjoy the right to elect their own governors, the 2006 constitution did give Thai citizens the power and freedom to elect their own local administrators and councils.

          On July 10 last year, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in his capacity as leader of the National Council for Peace and Order, signed an order to stop all local government elections. This may be an ominous sign for the future of political decentralisation in Thailand.

          Looking at the proportion of government expenditures controlled by local governments as a measure of fiscal decentralisation, Thailand is one of the least fiscally decentralised countries in Asean. Strikingly, Vietnam, which has a more centralised political system, has delegated more of its fiscal autonomy to local government than Thailand, according to the World Bank. Further, a comparative study between Khon Kaen, Thailand and Entebbe, Uganda, conducted by the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University, reveals the disturbing fact that municipalities in Thailand appear to have less fiscal autonomy than Entebbe, the former capital of Uganda.

          However, the study shows three positive developments: 1) despite the low fiscal autonomy, elected local politicians here are viewed as having high political accountability; 2) they are seen as sensitive and responsive to the needs of the people whom they serve; and 3) because of citizen engagement and the visibility of government processes, a high degree of transparency is safeguarded. All these findings argue that there is a favourable setting for granting greater fiscal autonomy to local self-governing bodies.

          As for administrative decentralisation, for almost two decades Thailand has made little or no progress in local governance. The government still uses the strict hierarchical bureaucracy as the chief mechanism for policymaking and service delivery to people at the local level. Command and control remains the main management apparatus used by the central government, acting through appointed public administrators at the provincial and district levels.

          Yet administrative decentralisation has direct consequences for national development through distribution of authority. National political leaders who trust that locally elected leaders share their aspirations for Thailand will bring more management effectiveness and efficiency. Unfortunately, judging from the current political landscape, there is no evidence to suggest that the current government is preparing a strategy or reform initiative promoting administrative decentralisation. The current government should begin moving in this direction.

          It is only natural to look to the new Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), headed by Meechai Ruchupan, to chart a new course and invigorate decentralisation efforts.

          The previous draft constitution, which was voted down on Sept 6, proposed a chapter on decentralisation and local administration with six sections. They were vague and potentially could even weaken local governments. For example, it could open the door for the influential provincial administration to control budget disbursements. This was disguised in the phrase that the ""State, Provincial Administration and Local Administration"" have to work together in local development or in any other designated affairs in accordance with the approved budget. This raises the question of whether local government can function alone and be sufficiently free from provincial administration interventions.

          While one section stated that ""more decentralisation"" must be achieved, it read more like a discourse than words leading to action, as it did not specifically define the meaning of ""more"".

          The responsibility now rests with the current CDC to draft a new charter, the purpose of which is to enable decentralisation and local governance to help lead us toward a stable, prosperous and economically sustainable Thailand.

          Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, PhD, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. Richard Pratt, PhD, is Professor Emeritus and Senior Advisor on International and Community Programmes, College of Social Sciences, University of Hawai'i at Manoa, US.