In our country where decision-making has been long centralised with the political, administrative and technical elite at the helm of affairs, genuine devolution of power is still a problem regardless of the federal polity
The Public Service Commission (PSC) has conducted an examination with the purpose of finding recruits for the human resource division of the local governments. This particular endeavour has been met with two primary criticisms: the first was from the sub-national who accuse the central government of overstepping their constitutional jurisdiction in hiring personnel for the local governments, an act that falls within the powers of the sub-national governments. The second objection contended that the central government’s personnel hiring process failed to uphold the provision of inclusive representation and mandatory reservation for underprivileged sections of society in the civil service system.
However, the central government’s decision to employ the PSC for the recruitment of personnel can be sufficiently justified, as there is currently a pressing need of human resources in the local governments. The lack of personnel has severely hindered the local government’s efficacy in ensuring service delivery and producing development outcomes.
The local governments are also in need of adequate financial resources, technical capacity and a competent set of official staff that are accountable to them.
Article 285 (3) of the constitution grants local governments administrative autonomy with regard to staff management. Staff recruitment for the local governments, under normal circumstances, is conducted by a Provincial Service Commission. But since such an institution has yet to be ratified into law, the central government has assumed the transitional responsibility for local governments.
There are generally three types of public personnel institutions in federal countries.
The first is a separate personnel system, in which governments at all levels act as completely autonomous employers, as in Switzerland. The second is an integrated personnel system, in which officials of sub-national and local governments are composed of central civil servants, as in India. The third is a unified personnel system, in which local government staff are employed and organised nationwide as part of a single civil service.
The current mix of centrally transferred personnel and locally recruited staff means that the Nepali civil service system is an amalgamation of the integrated and unified systems. This type of service offers some homogeneity within the system while concurrently enabling transferability, since key officials belong to the central civil service.
However, this kind of merger has a tendency of creating conflict of loyalties for the senior officials, as while their operational loyalty lies with the sub-national level, their career loyalty is to the central government. The effectiveness of the local government administrations depends on whether or not their staff are truly under their control and supervision. If parallel staff and structures continue to exist at the command of the federal and provincial governments, the internal conflict of interests among the functionaries will persist, which, in effect, will completely undermine the administrative abilities of the local government, as has been the case in Nepal.
If the local governments are to be effective in carrying out their functions and mandates, as listed in Schedule-8 of the constitution, relevant line agency offices, personnel and functionaries should be brought under the purview of the local governments. Article 302 (1) (2) of the constitution enables the central government to make this arrangement. But, as mentioned earlier, it remains essential that the personnel provided by the central government to the local governments are made institutionally and operationally accountable to them, as a situation where civil servants are faced with dual accountability and multiple loyalties will undermine the functional effectiveness of the local government.
Needless to say that in the federal framework we have institutionalised, local governments do matter, both in constitutional and material terms. However, the real test lies in how they are organised, empowered and employed, and whether the financial and human resources that they have been endowed with matches their needs. In our country where decision-making has been long centralised with the political, administrative and technical elite at the helm of affairs, genuine devolution of power is still a problem regardless of the federal polity.
In more recent times, the issues of inter-governmental relations have been coming to the fore. The central government has been accused of meddling in the affairs of the sub-national government, as in the hiring and deployment of civil servants, among others. If such inter-governmental conflicts are allowed to germinate and grow, they can badly affect the functioning of the federal system.
Political corruption and party hegemony are another challenge to the workings of our federal polity. These must be limited through strengthened constitutional governance, accountability and oversight mechanisms.
Vested political, social and regional interests tend to cripple state institutions at all levels – federal, provincial and local level. Besides, unscrupulous political actors and corrupt administrative and technical personnel should not be allowed to corrode and weaken the integrity of the nascent federal polity in the country.
A version of this article appears in print on July 24, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.