Provincial government of Papua New Guinea

The decentralisation policy

The provincial government system was initially introduced in the late 1970s after protracted discussions within government circles as to whether PNG, after gaining independence from Australia in 1975, should continue with a centralised political structure, or consider a much more complex decentralised version. The Constitutional Planning Committee (CPC), the group that comprised elected MPs and technocrats who were commissioned to oversee the drafting of PNG’s constitution, unanimously pushed for decentralisation as it was deemed a better ‘fit’ for PNG with the added novelty of being a design that was inclusive of ordinary people in contrast to a centralised system that projected exclusive control from an isolated central point. Accordingly, the decentralisation policy was introduced amidst widespread reservations. The reservations were by no means baseless. Given the truncated colonial history of the country, a modern state was superimposed on the diverse population from the 1950s, and strengthened after the first national elections in PNG in 1964. Eleven years later, independence was granted at a time when nation building and state building were profound dual challenges. Secession was expressed by Bougainville and the Papuan region as groups of people sought to protect their respective identities within the uncharted seas of political change. So when the decentralisation policy was first suggested, contrasting fears were expressed by sections of society. The policy could either work against nation building efforts – and worse still, perpetuate the disintegration of the country if groups of people were to relish this opportunity and push for a break away from PNG. Or, the decentralisation structure could accommodate the deeply diverse population by granting some degree of freedom to groups to run their own affairs while remaining under the umbrella of PNG. Either way, the challenge was always going to be colossal for a country that had just emerged from a stateless form.

On the other side of the spectrum, and away from political considerations, there were others who considered the decentralised structure unworkable. Local-level districts were slowly introduced from the 1950s and extended in the 1960s to represent the extent of the central colonial administration in peripheral areas. However, efforts were to encounter one particular challenge: the almost impenetrably rugged topography of the island of New Guinea that had challenged colonisers in the past. Furthermore, it was generally difficult to secure obedience from the local communities who were invariably recalcitrant and could not readily trust anybody from outside their immediate localities. Changing this mindset to suit a nationalised line of thinking was a hurdle in itself. It was for practical reasons therefore that the Australian colonial administration wanted to institute two levels of government: the national and local. The OLPGs brought in the second-ranked tier of government(provincial).

Public service and weak provincial leadership

For a country that in the 1970s had almost no educated elite to run the public service, the creation of provincial and local-level governments ensured that whatever manpower resources were available were spread very thinly. The situation was exacerbated by the last remnants of Australia’s colonial public servants leaving the country.

In hindsight, perhaps the biggest blunder was a decision taken by the national government soon after the adoption of the OLPGs to grant all provinces a government at the same time. Provinces that had a better pool of manpower and longer histories of contact with the colonial administration and the outside world were better prepared to handle their own affairs. But for many provinces, the provincial governments heralded new experiences in political leadership and administration. They were not equipped for such responsibilities and by the 1980s the weaknesses of the provincial governments began appearing. Capacity within weak provincial bureaucracies became obvious as poor administration became a reoccurring issue in the majority of provincial governments. Poor leadership was common as provincial leaders became embroiled in maladministrationand corruption.

The problems of provincial governments were compounded in the 1980s by a national government decision to reduce the powers of the Public Service Commission (PSC). While there were reasons for this decision, the end result was increased politicisation of the public service. This was felt principally at the national level – but with reverberating effects for provinces. By the 1990s, only a handful of provincial governments were working well while the rest struggled to make an impact.

Politicising service delivery

The decentralisation policy ensured the creation of layers of red tape as well as demarcated grounds for a political tussle between the national and provincial leaders as both sides laid claims to leadership roles in the same constituencies. To some degree this was a case of ‘dual legitimacy’ since both sets of leaders were elected by the same people and therefore saw the need to play to their wishes in a bid to maintain their support for the sake of their respective political careers.

While the OLPGs appeared clear on areas of responsibility and shared functions between the first and second levels of government, prevailing political interests charted their own course. When this included leadership at both the national and provincial levels, the end result was a four-way tussle that also involved the local level governments and the voting public. It became clear from the 1980s that there were tense relationships between the national and provincial governments. Provincial governments,for their part, were only too willing to criticise local level governments for performance-related issues. Local level leaders, for their part, were more than willing to return fire against provincial leaders, to the delight of national leaders. But in the final analogy, it was the people who held the ‘strings’ to all levels of leadership. When service delivery began declining it was easy and convenient to point to poor leadership as the primary cause. Less attention was paid to other factors, such as the manner in which the country was forced to rapidly accommodate foreign institutions and to work with them to yield acceptable results.

Meanwhile, opportunistic individuals were only too willing to place themselves at vantage positions to capitalise on the government and administrative systems. With a state system unable to command undivided support and loyalty from the people – and certainly not from most individuals situated within the state institutions– the state machinery at many points became resource outlets to serve more limited interests. Corruption, aided by weak institutions and poor enforcement of relevant laws, quickly worked its way into all levels of society.

MPs political interests and the OLPGLLGs

Undoubtedly there were issues that justified a review of the provincial government system. Bad governance,maladministration and poor service delivery were blights to the development aspirations and progress of the young country. What ultimately drove the reform agenda however was the national level MPs intention to completely eradicate political leadership at provincial level.

In March 1995, the Organic Law on Provincial Governments and Local level Governments was passed accompanied by pieces of enabling legislations. Its proponents argued that the new law better captured the precepts of decentralisation than its predecessor. Furthermore, it was supposed to improve the delivery of services, facilitate increased participation by people in government affairs, relocate public servants from urban centres to rural outstations and reduce opportunities for the mismanagement of funds. In hindsight, nothing could have been further from these objectives. For a plethora of reasons, service delivery has deteriorated over the past 18 years. While people’s participation has been enhanced through the elevated status of local level governments, this has become little more than a symbolic gesture given the direct involvement and influence of MPs in various governance aspects of the provinces. The much anticipated shift of public servants to peripheral areas from urban centres has not taken place. Poor infrastructure and the gradual disappearance of basic services in rural areas made it an unattractive proposition for public servants. Today,corruption is far more embedded than in the past.

While corruption and the poor performance of the public service generally negated the performance of the three-tier system of government, the most telling factor was the poor state of service delivery. Essential services to the people in PNG are directly linked to the strong reciprocal relationship between voters and MPs. Given the existence of weak political parties in the country where MP’s popularity is tied to the personality of the MP that heads them, voters habitually turn to MPs to deliver services to them. This responsibility traditionally, and by law, falls to the state through the public service. The weakness of the public service since the 1980s in turn has ensured that the elected leaders have gradually usurped the ‘delivery role’ – and today this is being overtly demonstrated in many ways.

Much of the inherent weaknesses of the law –including some idealistic provisions that were at odds with existing political realities – emerged partly as a result of poor implementation. What became evident with time was that the poor state of the law left it susceptible to political manoeuvring and influence. What we see today is an organic law that is struggling to make an impact as originally intended. At the same time, it has been captured and used to serve the public (especially for reasons relating service delivery), but twisted to serve individual political interests. The clearest example of this is how some MPs have been allocated K10 million annually to delivery services directly to their constituencies under what is called the District Support Improvement Program, but without proper accountability and auditing mechanisms in place.

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