The Revolving Door of Local Leadership

At a conference last week which focussed on disaster relief and disaster risk reduction in Asia, I had asked a question about the need to focus on local government for DRR implementation, and the reality of that happening anytime soon given that the global framework for DRR was, in fact, global. The speaker pointed to that fact that local leadership was the critical factor in DRR and other issues being properly implemented at the local level. Indeed, this is true. Leadership is the deciding factor in any development success story.

However, another participant in the conference raised the issue of changes in leadership – which are frequent at the local level – not just among elected officials but also public servant managers. ‘How can we sustain good policies and practices in DRR when management is always changing?’ she asked. Quite rightly, this is the other side of the coin on bringing policy and practice from the global/national arena to the local level.

The revolving door of local leadership has always been a challenge for development organizations. So much of local politics in developing countries is patronage based – with changes in elected officials seeing changes in public and civil servant management as well, as newly elected officials repay loyalty favours. I’ve seen some pretty horrifying cases in my time as a development practitioner, including entirely new staff in local government departments following local elections. This was particularly challenging as none of the new staff could tell us where the old staff had gone, and we had to basically start over with our programme. It was the height of frustration to the point of considering abandoning the initiative.

It’s a reality for development organizations that we have only relatively recently started categorizing as a programme or project ‘risk.’ Changes in political leadership are expected but we often fail to plan for (overwhelming) changes in civil and public servant personnel. Capacity building work is often the hardest hit, making it difficult to stick to project plans and expected deliverables and results. It may very well be one of the primary reasons so much development work remains static at the central government level, and why development finance rarely makes its way en mass to local government. And it’s entirely understandable when viewed through a project approach.

But the problem is thus: in order for development to actually work, for communities to become more resilient and for people to live sustainably on this planet, we need local government to work. We need those good policies and we need them implemented in a timely manner. We need quality public and civil service managers at the local level that are autonomous from political change.

Yes, yes. I am wishing on a star. What to do.

Based on my experience of the hiccups and turbulence a project goes through when political leadership changes at the local level (I won’t get into national level politics just yet), and significant time reflecting on this problem, I’ve deduced that there are a couple of fairly solid ways to manage these risks, keep your project on track and make a gesture – if nothing else – towards sustainable development at the local level.

First, shy away from capacity building as being individual focussed. Certainly, civil and public servants at the local level in developing countries benefit from as much training and coaching as they can get, however, putting a majoroty of your eggs in one basket means fewer returns on investment once personnel changes (inevitably) take place. Put equal or even more emphasis on building good institutions (ie: human resource, finance and planning practices with tools and manuals for use by anyone who comes alomg) and on adopting good policies and regulations (these can’t be changed quite as easily as personnnel, thank god). Even if you are faced with an entirely new set of faces following a local election, at least you can pick up where you left off with policy and regulation implementation (more or less. That’s where the back tracking on individual capacoty building comes in. See manuals, above).

Second, build awareness in the community about those good policies that have been developed and are being implememted. DRR is a great example. Climate change adaptation is another. These are policy areas where the community has a personal stake – as in, their survival is at stake. Build partnerships with community-based groups and civil society organizations (and faith leaders and whoever is an ‘influencer’ in the community) to lobby for continuity in policy financing and implementation. It may not be a fluid process but when re-election is at stake and it’s an issue that the community is taking to heart, the odds of policy continuity are certainly higher than they would be without it.

Third, let’s start focussing more on those HR policies and practicies. If it’s expected that changes in public sector leadership come on the coattails of politcal leadership changes, no one really puts up a fuss. But if there are regulations in place requiring merit-based promotion through external review when it comes to personnel changes, we need those regulations to be well known and applied across the board. We need local government (and communities) to understand the difference between public/civil servant and political appointee. We need public and civil servants to know their rights. We need politicians to understand that frequent changes in leadership and management severely damage local development and local growth and, at this point in our common human history, the survival of local communities. The better we can help local governments to apply human resource policies, the more stable local government will become.

The development community needs stable and functioning local governments. They don’t need to have stellar performances – that’s why development programmes exist – but they do need to be present and there needs to be an element of predictability in terms of who will fulfill a particular role from one day to the next, be it accounting or liscensing or collecting fees.

While we may very well continue to face a revolving door of local (political) leadership, let us at least have some tools and approaches at hand to help us minimize the risks to our local developmemt projects and the actual developmemt which may (or not quite yet) be happening on the ground.

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