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The concept is a democratic dream: committees of “ordinary” citizens empowered to manage scarce public resources, equitably distributing funds for everything from water wells to road repair. Nepal attempted to make it a reality with its Decentralization Act of 1982, based on the belief that public money would be spent most effectively if beneficiaries are project owners as well. This was the birth of the country’s “user committees.”
But like many good intentions, reality has fallen far short of the ideal. Journalists report that membership in the user committees too often is captured by members of the local upper caste and political elites, resulting in corruption and waste.
Independent oversight is clearly needed. Nearly every country has what is known as a “supreme audit institution” (SAI)—an independent body charged with monitoring government spending, enabled by access to official records. But SAIs often find it difficult to get governments to act on the audit recommendations and their reports frequently have poor visibility among the general public. That’s where civil society organizations (CSOs) can help. To be effective, the two need to work together.
In the case of Nepal, the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) has engaged citizens in its oversight efforts since 2013 (training around 300 people from different CSOs in the process) and publishes all of its reports on an open website. It found a particularly valuable civil society partner in Freedom Forum.
The nonprofit was formed in 2005, a few weeks after King Gyanendra declared himself absolute ruler. Its mission: to institutionalize democracy, human rights, press freedom, freedom of expression and the right to information in Nepal. Early on, Freedom Forum engaged with the OAG both to advance citizens’ right to information in Nepal and to educate the staff about the country’s performance on the global Open Budget Survey (OBS), which assesses transparency, public engagement and oversight of government budgets.
“Our relationship with the OAG deepened significantly after we took one of its senior officials to the regional launch of the 2012 OBS results in New Delhi,” comments Krishna Sapkota, policy advisor for Freedom Forum, which implements the OBS study for Nepal. “The discussions and exposure he had there inspired him to collaborate more closely with civil society.”
In fact, Freedom Forum’s chief executive, Taranath Dahal, joined the OAG’s civil society steering committee, suggesting best practices for engaging members of the public so they can understand its annual reports, participate in the audit process and press for implementation of the OAG’s suggested reforms.
Collaborating to bring about reform
In its 2018 audit, the OAG flagged widespread problems among user committees and proposed policy changes such as a unified guideline to reform their work. A unified guideline is necessary, since Nepal has 761 different units of government, 753 of which are local, and each of them currently have different standards governing the user committees.
Although the responsible government agency, the Public Procurement Monitoring Office (PPMO), had begun work on a unified guideline in response to the audit, it was doing so without any external input. Both the OAG and Freedom Forum believe broad public engagement in the guidelines is necessary to address the concerns of the people most impacted by the work of the user committees. Freedom Forum served as facilitator, organizing follow-up meetings with the various government ministries involved and collaborating with the OAG to bring the major players together, along with the media.
“This event sensitized the public procurement monitoring officers to our concerns, allowing the OAG for the first time to provide direct input into how its recommendation was implemented,” explains Sapkota. “The PPMO had never before consulted the OAG and others, so this was an important milestone.”
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Deputy Auditor General Ramu Prasadh Dotel agrees: “After [the event], we saw positive impact—the guideline was sent to us for review. We have given many suggestions to them and they have included them.”
Later, after the meeting, one of the key PPMO officers transferred to the Ministry of General Administration and Federal Affairs (MOFAGA), which manages the money and ultimately oversees the user committees—assuring an important champion inside that agency as well.
That progress didn’t come immediately, however. Although Freedom Forum and the OAG were pleased with the initial progress achieved by meeting with the PPMO staff, they knew it was not sufficient to simply engage with the government’s executive agencies. They were keen to include other actors, especially parliamentarians and the media, to ensure broad oversight during implementation of the guidelines.
Then COVID-19 struck—making it impossible to engage in face-to-face communication.
“We have not been able to hold a joint meeting with parliamentarians and the OAG,” notes Sapkota. “So, we are approaching people individually as well as online.”
Despite the COVID-19 challenges, Freedom Forum and the OAG convened an awareness-building and training session with the Society of Economic Journalists-NEPAL (SEJON), at which reporters learned how to read and understand performance-audit reports, including the recommendations for reforming user committees. Freedom Forum anticipates more media coverage of local development projects by user committees and is documenting the results. Another public education tactic the two partners are experimenting with is a regular podcast with interviews on the subject.
The draft of the 47-page, unified guideline for user committees—which calls for creation of a logbook to record all of their activities—has been reviewed by Freedom Forum. Sapkota provided input in writing and is pleased with what he’s seen so far.
After additional review by the national anti-corruption agency and the prime minister’s office, the guideline will go into effect next fiscal year. Freedom Forum plans to monitor the implementation and enforcement stage.
In addition, Deputy Auditor General Dotel reports that the OAG’s office is designing a mobile application that will allow any civil society group or citizen to submit videos or photos documenting flaws in government implementation. “We’ll then follow up on the evidence,” he says.
Oversight must never end.