The importance of participatory governance in local councils

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By Chamara Sampath

With political platforms seeing heated debates over local council elections these days, it is an opportune time to discuss community governance, a concept closely interwoven with local council administration, though it is little heard of in Sri Lanka. 

Community governance at the level of local councils – the administrative structure closest to the people — is encouraged to achieve objectives such as minimising corruption, enhancing efficiency, improving services, and ensuring better resource management.

Community governance or participatory governance is successfully implemented in many countries at local council levels. Sri Lanka’s Local Government laws emphasise community governance, but our investigation reveals the concept is not given due importance. Our investigation was based on information collected through Right-to-Information applications we filed with local councils.

There are 341 local council bodies in Sri Lanka — 24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils, and 276 Pradeshiya Sabhas. 

The concept of participatory governance

Participatory governance is visible at three levels: community attendance, community participation, and community intervention. For a more effective system of governance, not only community intervention but also community participation in the activities of the council is important.

The concept assumes greater significance as it reduces financial expenses, creates a common feeling of owning work and property in the community, provides security and maintenance, and develops community unity and citizenship duties. It also brings about efficiency and good governance.

But our investigation shows public participation in most of the council committees is either nil or woefully inadequate.

For this article, we focused on the committees of the Kuliyapitiya Urban Council.

Functioning committees of Kuliapitiya UC

The Pradeshiya Sabhas Act No. 15 of 1987 states that various committees should be established in each local council to ensure community participation. Accordingly, the appointment of the finance and policy formulation committee, the housing and community development committee, the industrial services committee, and the environment and convenience committee is mandatory. Other committees can be appointed when required. 

In addition to the four compulsory committees, the Kuliapitiya UC has set up three more committees. They are the Solid Waste Management Committee, the Library Advisory Committee, and the Procurement Committee. 

Although these committees should include community members in addition to councillors, only two committees –the Solid Waste Management Committee and the Library Advisory Committee– have this combination. 

The following table gives details of the seven functioning committees.

Functioning CommitteesCouncil membersNumber of meeting daysNon-council members
01Finance and Policy Formulation Committee1106
02Housing and Community Development Committee0805
03Solid Waste Management Committee040511
04Library Advisory Committee160110
05Health, Environment, and Public Conveniences Committee0702
06Procurement Committee1106
07Industrial Services Committee0705

Matters related to procurements are discussed by the council’s Finance and Policy Formulation Committee and proposals are submitted to the council for approval. However, there is no community representation in this crucial committee.

The Housing and Community Development Committee meets to discuss various programmes and takes decisions in the interest of the community. Had there been community participation and input in this committee, its programmes could have yielded better results, councilors admit.

The council’s Solid Waste Management Committee is a success story because of its high degree of community participation. Since residents, environmental officers, solid waste officers, agrarian service officers, and council members take part in committee meetings, often the committee makes informed decisions. The committee recently sought public views on fertiliser production in solid waste centres, improper disposal of waste on roadsides, regularisation of garbage collection, and production of liquid fertiliser. The proposals were assessed and approved by the council and are being implemented. 

However, when asked about the lack of community participation in other council committees, the Kulipyapiritya UC’s Secretary H.M.K.P. Herath, acknowledged it was a problem but said they would soon find a solution to it.

He said that although announcements were made calling for public views on certain council and committee matters, the response was poor.

Former Local Government Commissioner N.A. Dharmasiri said Local Government laws insist that all local government institutions should establish these committees and ensure community participation. 

He said community participation was important in running an honest service and through that, it would be easy to carry out the governance of the local government institutions. He also said the most successful method to eliminate corruption and fraud was participatory governance.

In local government institutions, it is at council meetings presided over by the chairman that regulations are adopted, approvals granted, and similar matters dealt with. Apart from councilors, no outsiders can comment or intervene. It is to fill this void that the committees with community members, including experts, are seen as a crucial cog in the council’s wheel. 

But if the committees comprise only councillors and have no community participation, it is doubtful whether the objectives of the Local Government laws could be achieved.

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