Notes from the Field

Incentivizing Better Local Governance in Sri Lanka

December 14, 2011

While local governments are widely viewed as critical to development because they are considered citizens’ most accessible government unit, in many developing countries these local government institutions don’t live up to their potential because they suffer from inadequate capacity and resources. Nevertheless, local governments can do better despite these constraints.

Sri Lanka local government office

Despite the relative stability in Sri Lanka following the end of the civil war, local governments are limited in their ability to work effectively due to vague and at times contradictory expectations. Photo by Karl Grobl.

This is certainly the case in Sri Lanka. For the Local Authorities (LAs) – a general term encompassing elected municipal councils, urban councils, and village-level pradeshiya sabhas – their ability to lead is hampered by vague and at times contradictory expectations, despite the relative stability following the end of the civil war in 2009. Decentralization reform in Sri Lanka is challenged by a dualistic system of de-concentrated government (secretariats at the district and town level which are agents of the central government) coupled with a weak, devolved government (provincial councils and LAs). Both tiers are involved in services and planning, which confuses the public and increases opportunities for corruption, political conflict, and wasteful duplication in service delivery.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the accompanying Provincial Councils Act (1987) introduced Provincial Councils (PCs) and brought local authorities under the purview of PCs, but its proposed framework of more delegated authority to sub-national government was never fully implemented. Moreover, the Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils (MLGPC) at the center still plays an important role in overseeing local authorities. Local government is further hindered by the fact that, according to interviews that we had with individuals who oversee local government in Sri Lanka, many LA employees are transferred from other government bodies or departments and lack the background and orientation to efficiently address local issues and concerns, or to undertake day-to-day processes and protocols of the local government sector which differ significantly from those of other levels. Even now, local government experts who can offer guidance on reform and best practices are few and far between in Sri Lanka. To its credit, the MLGPC has shown interest in improving the performance of LAs, which have been around for much longer and have greater acceptance in the broader society than provincial councils. It has pursued concrete initiatives to advance the capacity and knowledge of LA staff with resources, and to provide recognition for good performance. Until The Asia Foundation and the International City/County Management Association began introducing a “local authority development scale” in 2005, measuring and rewarding local government for effective management of projects and budgets was largely unheard of in Sri Lanka.

Recognizing this potential, The Asia Foundation collaborated with the MLGPC to refine the local authority development scale – which was mainly a device to track the results of a Foundation local government strengthening project – and in 2009 launched a more refined tool called the Performance Enhancement and Consolidation Tool (PERFECT), with the support of the Australian Agency for International Development. PERFECT provides robust parameters and measurements for LA performance in 20 of their key service delivery functions and had government ownership from the outset. Based on this tool, annual awards for excellence for LAs were held last week at the annual Local Government Symposium 2011 with the president, the minister of Economic Development, minister of Local Government and Provincial Councils, provincial governors, and all the heads of local government present. Winners received cash awards, plaques, and treasured moments of glory before their peers and the nation’s highest leaders.

These annual awards were the result of more than a year of evaluation and ranking using PERFECT. The Asia Foundation provided technical assistance to the Sri Lanka Institute of Local Governance (SLILG), the training arm of the MLGPC, to develop and deploy the tool. Each LA is visited by provincial-level judges and evaluated using PERFECT in four areas: office and financial management, service delivery, governance, and the Millennium Development Goals. The names of the top three LAs in each province, one of each type, are forwarded to the central government, and another panel of judges visits these short-listed candidates to determine the top three in each category for all of Sri Lanka. The first year PERFECT was used, three out of the nine top-ranked LAs for the entire country were in the Northwestern Province. Kurunegala achieved the second highest ranking among Municipal Councils, and the other two categories, urban councils (UC) and pradhesiya sabhas (PS), were topped by Kuliyapitiya and Wariyapola, respectively. In an interview, the Commissioner of Local Government (CLG) for the Northwestern Province, W.M.M.B. Weerasekara, attributed the high achievement of the Northwestern LAs in the competition to actions taken based on data from PERFECT.

In January 2010, Commissioner Weerasekara used PERFECT to monitor and evaluate LAs within the Northwestern Province to guide and improve their delivery of services. Currently, 14 LAs in the province (to eventually be expanded to all 33) submit monthly progress reports to the CLG assessing services in 20 categories. The information is used to improve performance in areas highlighted as deficient, such as a particular school facility, which are not properly maintained. These reports contribute to regular performance evaluation discussions that the CLG holds throughout the year with the local authorities and provincial government departments that oversee them.

Because Sri Lankan partners were involved from the beginning, PERFECT is both comprehensive –referred to by one CLG as a “Bible” for local government – and actionable, applied on a regular basis in numerous government offices by a variety of staff. At this year’s awards ceremony, Kuliyapitiya and Wariyapola were once again awarded first place in the UC and PS categories, respectively. The Northwestern CLG is no doubt pleased with his continued success and the accolades associated with the island-wide competition. This institutionalization of PERFECT and recognition awards also incentivizes improved local government service delivery. By helping to clarify the responsibilities of LAs in a practical way, and rewarding good practices, PERFECT  is an important element of the Foundation’s formula for  enabling elected local government to contribute to long-term peace and prosperity for communities throughout Sri Lanka.

Tamara Failor is a program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Public Sector Development Services in San Francisco. She recently served as a temporary program associate for the Local Economic Governance (LEG) project in the Foundation’s Sri Lanka office. A. Subakaran is the senior technical advisor for the Foundation’s LEG project in Sri Lanka. They can be reached at tfailor@asiafound.org and asubakaran@asiafound.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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