Leo Babauta said: â€œAt the end of the day, the questions we ask of ourselves determine the type of people we become.â€
The same could be true with our governance system; the questions we ask on how we are conducting our affairs will determine the nature of governance we end up with. From that assertion we go on to ask: What is the state of accountability in our local governance system?
The objective of local governments, according to the Local Government Act, is to further a constitutional order based on democratic principles, accountability, transparency and peoplesâ€™ participation. An accountable and transparent government at local level is what is envisaged by law and policy. But is there any accountability in our local governments?
Accountability exists when officials and politicians are compelled by and act on the obligation to explain and justify their conduct to some significant other. Public accountability, on the other hand, connotes the accountability that is open or at least accessible to the citizen. It is at this juncture that a question still stands: How far are the councils publicly accountable, if they are accountable at all?
It may as well be said that the systems and mechanisms of accountability obtaining in our local governance need to be revisited. It is not a secret that at the moment the local governance system is devoid of political accountability owing to two factors; the absence of local elections through which the communities hold their representative councillors to account by ballot, and the absence of the councillors to whom the community directs their questions to make him or her accountable. At the same time, it is these politicians who, as representatives of the people, hold the administration of the local authorities to account. That apparatus is not functioning. The system is critically awaiting resuscitation by any grace of leadership commitment.
Yes, there are no politicians and no political accountability in local governments. But what mechanisms and practices are there for organisational accountability? Who holds the local authorities in our critically sick system to account? What about administrative accountability in terms of audits, safeguards, controls and oversight? How efficient are the tools of accountability in use within the current abnormal governance system?
The practice shows that there is an attempt by the relevant ministry to exercise some oversight over local governments, but the same does not seem to be paying dividends due to the absence of some essential organs of the system. The office of the Auditor General as legally mandated does conduct audits periodically, but to what end?Â There are instances where a report indicates that a local authority has not externally audited its accounts nor has it had any bank reconciliation for a period of four consecutive years. Then you wonder where the Auditor Generalâ€™s office was in all that period.Â And after finding that fact, how accountable is the organisation or any individual for such a slip of administrative practice? In most cases not any at all. That is a clear proof of inefficiency of those who have a duty to account and those who have a duty to oversee. Then there is the National Local Government Finance Committee which is involved in budgeting processes. The sad fact is that no reasonable oversight on implementation of the budget and plans of the local authorities exist. That is if there are any tangible plans worth that name.Â How accountable or responsible is the organisation or any individuals for fruitless, wasteful or unbudgeted expenditure? If such accountability is there, the question is: Is the community aware? If there is no such openly available information and facilitated awareness, then the conclusion is that there is no public accountability in our local authorities, if there is any accountability at all.
Public accountability is not only a hallmark but also a pre-requisite element of democratic governance.- The author is a legal services manager for Lilongwe City Council.