Here is how the new government can ensure good governance

Prime Minister Dahal should not forget that it all starts with personal accountability and some practical planning and deliverance tools.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

It seems the country has now found a Prime Minister interested in effective delivery of services. While it is really too early to predict any sincere and meaningful change in behavior at the highest level of the executive power, newly appointed Prime Minister Dahal is giving some signals that, after all, good governance matters.

First, Prime Minister Dahal said in Chitwan that this time around he won’t give too many speeches but be focused on deeds.  Then on Tuesday, back from the inauguration of the new Pokhara International Airport, he met all the secretaries and demanded action.

During the meeting, he warned that, if there is no improvement within their respective ministries in a month’s time, then there will be consequences. All those who, regardless of their political colors or even foreign observers like myself, wish to see a strong federal government in place might cheer these moments where the responsibility to govern is prevailing over the usual inconsequential and self-defeating narrow politicking.

We all need to take a breath and see if Dahal will stay the course and be focused on service delivery and his renewed interest for good governance. Certainly, the secretaries in their respective ministries can deliver more and better and with all the joint-secretaries and under-secretaries, the latter being the real pillars of deliverance and policy formulation and implementation.

The quest for action within the bureaucracy can be a turning point for the ways good governance is pursued and delivered. But it is going to be essential that all the newly appointed ministries do their job with responsibility and high degrees of personal accountability.

Otherwise, I find it just convenient to put all the burden of delivery on the shoulders of the secretaries and their closest associates.

Accountability matters

Personal accountability, after all, is a foundational aspect of leadership but it must be generated at all the levels and across the board, starting from the top. For example, will PM Dahal truly spend time being briefed about the nitty and gritty of policy making and with the knowledge acquired? Will he try to untangle the most complex issues affecting the future of the nation rather than ending up doing inauguration and giving speeches?

The PM needs a strong political office with recognized experts from across the policy spectrum, people deputed there from the civil society, private sector and, certainly, from the National Planning Commission.  His daughter can surely be effective at screening the various policy proposals and follow up on them.

One way that PM Dahal and his team could do to enhance the performance of the whole government is by issuing “mandate” letters for each ministry and state minister. 

At the same time, I am not entirely sure if she can play the strategic role of “Chief of Staff” that in the US presidential system is a political appointee that has the highest trust from the President and is someone who plays a huge role in ensuring that the President’s agenda is delivered.

Perhaps Ganga Dahal can assume this role but who knows? As a novice in politics, she should instead take a step back and support, while learning, a more experienced, capable and very important honest Maoist leader who has a good track record in terms of delivery.

This person could fit the requirements of a so-called “Chief of Staff”, a position that could also be taken informally if the regulations have not been created yet for such a position.

We could even call it “Chief Advisor.” The substance does not change.

Then of course each minister must be up to the job and if she or he does not know the subject that supposedly should master within its new responsibilities, then delivery and good governance is going to be harder though it is not impossible as long as the person in question is a quick learner and is well committed to do so.

A lot will also depend on the minimum program that the new coalition has come up with.

Yet while agreeing on priorities is essential, the vast issues affecting the governance of the nation are well known and the many potential solutions at disposal are hardly controversial or political, making them the ideal bipartisan issues that should find consensus also across the political spectrum.

Think about fixing the public education and public health systems and regulating the roles of private operators in these sectors. The diagnostics are well known and the remedies are well.

What we need is the political will and a sense of responsibility that comes with the urgency of solving people’s problems. Apparently, this time around Dahal feels the pressure to deliver and while many are skeptical, he might be truly and genuinely interested in his own legacy.

Setting aside personal political inclinations and preferences, this can, all in all, be a good thing for the nation. Now more practically, what can the new PM do to ensure better accountability?

Mandate to ministers

One way that PM Dahal and his team could do to enhance the performance of the whole government is by issuing “mandate” letters for each ministry and state minister. Through these letters, each of them personalized based on the responsibilities and priorities of the sector or area of policy making that a minister is responsible for, the PM would set the goals that each of his colleagues in the Council of Ministers will have to meet and fulfill.

It is a system that the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, have been using and it is now a practice.

These letters are made public so that everyone knows about what to expect from each member of the cabinet. The same system could be used by each ministry with their senior “management”–the secretaries, joint-secretaries and under-secretaries.

This “downward” approach could be also built from the bottom where the lower ranking officials propose ideas and plans of actions, a way that could even enhance more ownership across the ministries and other public bodies.

Consequentially action plans would be developed for the implementation of each “mandate” and their monitoring could even, in a sign of total transparency, be made public. These are practical tools that, while not rocket science, can ensure transparency and can effectively measure the level of delivery within each ministry.

The Deputy Prime Ministers could also be made even more responsible in facilitating the daunting job of the Prime Minister by assuming further responsibilities in terms of coordination across different areas that are, by default, responsibility of separate ministries.

For example, one deputy prime minister could be in charge of all the ministries delivering human development related services and direct provisions to the people, respectively, education, health, poverty reduction and special services for women and disadvantaged groups like persons living with disabilities or Dalits.

Another deputy prime minister could take the overall responsibility to coordinate and follow up on all the matters related to economy and development while another could be responsible to tackle particularly complex issues like fixing for better the way federalism works or hot “potatoes” like citizenship law.

Exercising accountability is a matter of personal commitment that each member of the government should show with deeds, starting from even the smallest ones like ensuring punctuality and respect for internal deadlines or working beyond the official hours.

Accountability can be a real multiplier in terms of activities implemented and outcomes achieved.

But it cannot happen if those in charge fake it or have no ideas on why they have been put in a position to exercise power or simply they do not embrace the right values. They are there to serve the people and they have to do whatever it takes to bring in results.

Good governance is a complex thing.

New planning tools and frames are certainly useful but, let’s not forget that progress can also materialize through small steps and simple tools and go in a crescendo. In order to have fully accountable ministries and top bureaucrats, we do not need new regulations or laws for now.

We need to leverage the system already in place and make it work to the best of its capabilities, starting from ensuring that each new ministry is committed to do her job, praised for her delivery and constructively criticized for her shortcomings and mistakes.

Good luck to the government of Pushpa Kamal Dahal!

Views are personal.