A local authority citizens’ charter for Colombo

By Dr. M Fahmy Ismail

Local government is the government closest to the people. Citizens come into direct contact with the local authority for their needs. Yet the partnership between the local authority and the people in general has been far from satisfactory - more so after the abolition of the ward system. There may be many reasons but the majority will attribute it to the non-responsive, inefficient and corrupt attitudes of these local authorities.

In the past, ad hoc measures had been taken (usually after the elections where many promises are made) but they have never been sustained. Half way through their term, or even earlier, the mayor and his team will become so obsessed with their own politics and power struggles that they lose interest in any governance.

As a result, the practice of using personal and political influence to get what they want is encouraged. This has led to a number of problems - haphazard decision making, frustration among the officials and citizens, discrimination and irregularities.

Good governance and Citizens' Charter

It has been recognized the world over, that good governance is essential for sustainable development, both economic and social. The three essential aspects emphasized in good governance are - transparency, accountability and responsiveness (sadly lacking in the local authorities). A Citizens' Charter is a response to the quest for solving many of the problems which a citizen encounters day in and day out.

Colombo Municipal Council: Politicisation has ruined good governance

The concept, first articulated and implemented in Britain in 1991 (it was rechristened as "Service First" in 1998) aroused worldwide interest and several countries implemented similar programmes.

The main objective of the exercise to issue the Citizens' Charter of an organisation is to improve the quality of the public service. This is done by letting people know the mandate of the concerned organisation, how one can get in touch with its officials, what to expect by way of services and how to seek remedy if something goes wrong. The Citizens' Charter does not by itself create new legal rights, but it surely helps in enforcing existing rights.

Principles of a Citizens' Charter

Developing and adopting a Citizens' Charter will help local authorities towards the provision of better quality service to their citizens. Such a charter should:

  • Set out the commitment of a local authority (LA) to its citizens
  • Ensure that citizens are aware of their rights to the services
  • Ensure civic consciousness by making citizens aware of their obligations and civic responsibilities
  • Maximize the contribution of the community in the LA decision making process.
  • Promote transparency through effective interaction and communication between LA and the public
  • Provide a mechanism for redress of citizens grievances
  • Encourage collective effort to deliver quality services in line with priorities of citizens and taxpayers and the availability of local resources and technology

To Make the Citizen's Charter a success the following are needed:

  • Ownership of the Charter by the Head of the Department and the entire staff;
  • An effective system should be constituted to oversee the implementation and progress of the Citizen's Charter (perhaps headed by an Ombudsman)
  • Constant interaction with the stakeholders;
  • Taking corrective measures

Benefits of a charter

The first benefit that the common citizen would get is the belief that he/she would be heard by the "man/woman behind the counter" - a situation which is sadly lacking in many places.

  • The common citizen would know that he/she can expect and demand courteous and efficient service with minimum standards, as a matter of right.
  • If things go wrong, the citizen would know what to do and whom to approach, for redress. He/she will no longer be pushed from pillar to post and made to feel frustrated.
  • Importantly, the citizen will shed his/her apathy, passivity and fear and be able to voice his/her opinion and become a force to be reckoned with.

Above all he/she will realize and feel that there is a local authority which stands for the people of which he/she can be justly proud of.

Information centre

An integral aspect of changes both in the short term and in the longer perspective is related to the speedy and easy access of information to the public on the services and activities of the organisation. There are considerable delays in redressing grievances and securing access to information, since the departments with a public service interface do not have a mechanism to provide information to the citizens over the counter or to deal with their queries and complaints at a single point.

All departments in the council must have a system, aimed at dissemination of information to the public for a fee or free of charge.

Salient Features

  • Provide information regarding services, schemes and procedures.
  • Provide information on names and contact details of LA officials and how to get in touch with them.
  • Forms which are to be utilised for various procedures should be available at the information centre.
  • Receive complaints, issue acknowledgment slips indicating the section dealing with the complaints.
  • Most importantly a sufficiently senior officer, computer literate and fluent in all three languages, should man the information centre with appropriate orientation, for handling customers.
    In many cases, it has been observed that the information centre is more a show case rather than being of any assistance. The staff is neither competent nor willing to give the information required.

People's participation

Many attempts were made to involve the participation of the citizens so that they could contribute in some way towards the activities of the council. However, the attempts were never sustainable and the only process that exists today is the Public Day which is more for redressal than for decision making. Some of the initiatives were:

  • Community Development Councils (CDCs) - the CMC was probably one of the first LAs to provide an enabling framework for community participation. Considering the fact that nearly 50% of the housing stocks are under-served settlements, the council in 1979/80s targeted their participation through the Community Development Council (CDC) structure and the Community Action Planning (CAP) methodologies. It established itself as a framework to numerous pilot projects in South and South East Asia. Since that time, the impact of political environment (partisan politics) has caused a change. With change of political parties at each level of government, there was fundamental uneasiness to the political motive of the CDC structure - and thus undermined many years of what had been considered to be a sustainable and successful participatory process. The 1600-odd registered CDCs in Colombo were reduced to about 600, and it is questionable as to how many are really functional today (a recent survey stated that about 24% were in existence but not all were active). Further, there was no significant effort to organising these CDCs into possible community networks at ward and city level. Hence there was neither a strong voice nor negotiations strength for the CDCs.
  • Advisory committees - introduced to advise the mayor on professional and technical aspects of all services provided by the council. Their role was purely advisory - long term professional development of the services concerned for betterment of city, advice on 'best practices", act as consultants to heads of department as and when required etc. These committees existed for short time but disappeared with change of leadership.
  • Regular meetings with other relevant agencies - a frequent complaint by the citizens is that roads after being carpeted are dug up again by various agencies such as the Water Board, the CEB, and the SLT and not repaired for long periods. This is due to lack of communication between the agencies.
  • City consultations/ward meetings - City consultations are meetings of the key stakeholders in the city to discuss issues relevant to the city -No city (excepting Nuwara Eliya) followed this process.
  • Public-private partnerships - inviting the private sector to maintain some activities such as maintaining roundabouts, medical clinics and parks was introduced but there was no enthusiasm or interest in strengthening these partnerships. A partnership with the business sector is no longer considered an option, it is a necessity. It is believed to be the third leg of an engaging civil society.

However no sincere effort had been made to institutionalize a process that will ensure community participation.

Confrontational politics

Local Authorities were established to care for the people in the city. In fact the structure and constitution of the local authority is such that there is no provision for an "opposition" in the council. Nowhere is the term opposition member or leader of the opposition used in the statutes. The terms used are 'Mayor and the Councilors…".

However, with the development of the political system in Sri Lanka, there has been an increasing division among the members of the Council on political affiliations. Confrontational politics is the name of the game and this has been the major factor inhibiting the development, progress and delivery of services in the city.

Training of elected members

The elected members are the future leaders of the country and it is sad to note that due to lack of leadership and management skills there is constant friction and misunderstanding between the elected member and the officials and the community leading to very unpleasant situations.

Representation and leadership should be the core roles and responsibilities of the elected official. They must represent the constituents and they must provide the leadership in their representation. They must acquire the knowledge and skills in communicating, facilitating, decision making, enabling, negotiating, financing etc. Qualities of leadership should start here.

Positive outlook

It is time that local authorities take a positive outlook - shed off political differences, ensure redressal of grievances and access to information, institutionalize participatory practices and the charter if introduced should be interpreted as an instrument for building partnerships between the local authority, the citizens, civil society organizations, the local business community and other stakeholders. It should contribute to changing the attitudes in becoming more disciplined, responsible and sensitive to citizens needs.

* Dr. Fahmy Ismail was the deputy commissioner of the Colmbo Municipal Council for 30 years. He served in the board of the Urban Development Authority and in the Governing Council of the Sri Lanka Institute of Local Government. He was also the founder secretary of the National Chapter of Mayors, Sri Lanka where he now serves as an advisor. He has been working in many cities in Sri Lanka in donor-funded programmes.

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