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Cambodia’s Experience: Increase Citizen Access to Information and Engagement for Responsive Decisions and Services

By Jan Sophal Chhorr, Decentralisation and Governance Director, Pact Cambodia

Mar 29, 2018

The National Academy of Governance (NAOG), Mongolia in collaboration with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, World Bank and LOGIN Asia organized an international academic conference on Social Accountability in South and East Asia: Experiences, Lessons and Challenges in September, 2017.

LOGIN members from India, Cambodia, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh shared their practical experience and practices about good governance and social accountability at the conference. The presentations made at the conference have since been reproduced as a set of papers by NAOG. This blog features the paper presented by Jan Sophal Chorr, LOGIN member, on measures taken to improve citizen engagement and social accountability in Cambodia.

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A school girl voices youth issues/priority at a council public hearing in Cambodia

 

Overview of Governance Structure in Cambodia

Cambodia’s first elections of local Commune and Sangkat (CS) councils took place in 2002. The CS council is the legal entity that has the power to govern local affairs within its territory. Building on commitment to the decentralization (or democratic development) reform process at the CS level, the government adopted the Law on Administrative Management of the Capital, Province, Municipality, District and Khan in 2008 that guided the subnational level reform process.

The eight reform principles are: public representation, local autonomy, consultation and participation, responsiveness and accountability, promotion of quality of life, promotion of equity, transparency and integrity, and measures to fight corruption. The Ten-Year National Program on Sub-National Democratic Development (SNDD) was formulated in 2010 along with the three-year implementation plans (IP3s), putting the reform program into action at grassroots level – with the vision that “Sub National Administrations (SNAs) provide more and improved services to citizens”. The current implementation of IP3 Phase II will end in 2017, while the next IP3-III (2018-2020) is being formulated.

The key reform achievements so far are the establishment of SNA level structures, and systems and procedures along with several level instruments that are in place (e.g. planning/budgeting systems, adoption of sub-decrees on permissive functions, and clarifying roles/responsibilities or authorities of different tiers of the administrative systems).

The transfer of functions to SNA levels, one of the core reform actions, has been slower than anticipated during IP3 Phase II. The national coordination body, the National Committee for Subnational Democratic Development (NCDD), and its Secretariat continue to remain committed to ensuring downward accountability - service deliveries are being brought closer to the people through ongoing dialogues with several key ministries on functional transfers. One of the focus areas of SNDD’s IP3-II is to increase ‘democratic accountability’, where the elected councils and their administrations are accountable to citizens and need to ensure that the views of citizens are taken into account in decision-making.

IP3-II acknowledges the need for: a) greater participation of civil society to empower citizens to advocate, engage, monitor progress, and participate in decision-making; b) citizens, civil society and SNAs to play a crucial role in increasing social accountability for “transparent and accountable” services; and c) an innovative approach to capacity development and that there is a strong unmet demand for simple, easyto-understand, public information from SNAs.

To contribute to democratic accountability, the government’s NCDD formulated a strategic plan for Implementation of Social Accountability (ISAF) with the collaboration of civil society organizations (CSOs). ISAF was rolled out in 50 districts in 2016 and further expanded in 2017 to 120 districts across the country. A joint government-civil society Partnership Steering Committee (PSC) has been formally established to promote open dialogue on the implementation plan and budget and policy guideline for ISAF. 

Rationale

While it is unclear whether the national government will move towards or away from democracy in the coming years, democratic development at sub-national level allows citizens a more accessible entry point to engage with their elected officials, and to expect and demand accountable councils and administrations.

Moreover, the Cambodian government, through the NCDD, has demonstrated a relatively high commitment to reform and decentralized governance. NCDD recognizes ‘democratic accountability’ as part of IP3-II’s key focus areas and as the primary condition for the realization of democracy at the sub-national level. By building an understanding of citizen rights, government responsibilities, standards for good governance, advocating needs to officials and scoring government performance, sub-national citizen engagement and government accountability can help present democratic practices and leadership as a model for the rest of the country. At the grassroots level, service delivery is still poor in many areas, most citizens are not familiar with the service standards, and the council budget is not widely known to the public.

Most investments at the local level are still focused on infrastructures rather than prioritizing social services. Despite the notable accomplishments by the government, democratic participation and ‘voice’ of citizens in decisionmaking remains weak. An active and aware citizenry (access to information, understanding of rights, and confidence to speak) is essential for the Cambodian reform process. 

Key Interventions

Promoting Citizen Engagement in Democratic Development (PROCEED) project, funded by Sweden (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency), implemented by Pact Cambodia and its partners, seeks not only to strengthen the power of citizens to influence their sub-national government, but also to support them in increasing their responsiveness to citizen demands. The project builds citizens’ understanding on their right and ability to hold elected officials and administrations accountable for their decisions and actions, including: giving responsive answers or taking action to address citizens’ issues; using their power to manage resources transparently (e.g. increase public knowledge of council budget); ensuring improved quality service delivery that meets the service standards and needs of communities; and acting in accordance with good governance principles, including transparency.

Theory of Change: Increased engagement between supply and demand side sub-national actors, supported by an enabling policy environment, will lead to responsive action that directly addresses citizen demands. The strategy and principles that guide/contribute to the theory of change: 1) real diversity in citizen participation is critical for credibility, 2) focus investment in champions, 3) networked actors learn from each other, grow their shared success, and build confidence, 4) supply and demand side actors must be willing and open to engage in new initiatives around the reform principles. The theory of change carries an important assumption – that the elected councils and their administrations have adequate resources and functional authority to properly fulfil their designated role.

The project emphasizes participation and accountability to diverse citizens, in addition to continued promotion of equal gender participation, and participation of youth and marginalized populations. It promotes effective leadership and democratic practices which can be replicated across the country.

Pact works in partnership with six local partner non-government organizations (NGOs), civil society networks and citizen groups in 12 districts across four provinces in Cambodia to influence policies to improve the enabling environment for accountability. The project is increasing local stakeholder capacity, supporting them to develop creative solutions to promote citizen engagement and SNA accountability in their area.

Key Objectives and Approaches

Objective One focuses on the demand side where “diverse citizen groups can more effectively voice their needs and feedback to influence sub-national administration decisions”, using the following approaches and activities:

• Increase knowledge of diverse citizens of their rights, roles and how to participate and have their ‘voice’ in decisions

• Access to information, exploring innovative means e.g. mobile loudspeakers, media partnership, notice boards, and outreach

• Promote open governance e.g. disclosure of public budget, council decisions, meeting schedules and service fees

• Strengthen citizen networking through advocacy and collective voice, sharing experiences and success stories, and motivating each other

• Investment in project champions and role models

Objective Two focuses on the supply side where ‘sub-national administrations are able to address more citizen issues’, using the following approaches and activities: 

• Focus on the district level but maintain support at the commune level

• Work to complement the government’s and civil society’s initiative, ISAF.

Government’s Social Accountability Framework (SAF) 

SAF aims at enhancing citizens’ participation in local-level decision-making, including creation of awareness and developing their understanding of the importance and interpretation of performance information, which enables them to monitor public budget spending and service delivery, and engage in an open dialogue with providers of those services.

Previous Cambodian experience, and experience elsewhere, has shown that social accountability tools (like community scorecards) help to foster mutual respect and constructive engagement between citizens and state actors.

SAF’s strategies include:

1. Information – Improve transparency and access to and use of information on standards, budgets and performance

2. Monitoring – Introduce facilitated citizen-led monitoring and reporting of local performance and service delivery

3. Budget – Improve citizens’ budget literacy and strengthen their understanding and knowledge of budgets

4. Engagement – Engage with state and non-state actors and build skills to facilitate the engagement and social accountability process

5. Learning – Learn lessons from local interventions and translate into government policy and improved CSO practice


Organizational Structure 

A Partnership Steering Committee consisting of government representatives, NGOs and development partners has been established to act as a governing body for the implementation of the SAF. A working group ensures coordination of implementation between the supply and demand side as well as the development of social accountability instruments. Through their Joint Accountability Action Plans, communes should allocate funds to address issues raised during engagement with citizens (interface meetings). Community Accountability Facilitators have been recruited to support the engagement process. 60 percent of the Facilitators are women and 40 percent are under the age of 35, in order to promote the participation of these disadvantaged groups and ensure that their perspectives and ambitions are addressed.

Complementary to Government’s Initiative

Key initiatives that are complementary between the PROCEED project and the government’s initiatives on ISAF are listed in the following table.

Complementary to Government’s Initiative

Government’s Implementation of Social Accountability Framework, ISAF

Pact’s Promote Citizen Engagement in Democratic Development, PROCEED

Component 1.  Access to info/open budget

A: Performance Information

B: Open Budgets

C: Systems, Regulations and Compliance

D: Awareness Raising and Capacity Building

 

- Council disclosure of information

- Council outreach to citizen groups

- Citizen-citizen awareness raising

- Citizen-led forums

Component 2. Citizen monitoring  

A: Citizen-led Monitoring  

B: Interface Meetings and Joint Action Planning

C: Regulatory Environment to Support Citizen Monitoring and Councilor Oversight

- Public hearing/forums/meetings

- District council assessment

- Commune multi-sector scoring (SAF)

- Integrate citizen priorities in investment plans

- Tracking promises using web-application

- Budget tracking

Component 3. Facilitation and capacity building

A: Facilitation

B: Training, Mentoring, and Capacity Building

- Capacity development: training, coaching, consultation

- Citizen networking: share lessons/experience

- Open to demand driven mentoring, coaching and new learning initiatives

Component 4: Learning and monitoring

 A: Lessons Learning and Feedback

 B: Monitoring and Results

- Share success stories, engage role models to as advisors for policy change

- Citizen and NGO networking for collective voice at policy level

Across the PROCEED target areas, most local councils have been quite open to try out innovative civic engagement initiatives including different approaches to disseminate information and outreach to citizens, such as public hearings, district level performance.

Key Results

The project developed the capacity of local/provincial partner NGOs with a series of short trainings and ongoing coaching support to ensure that supply and demand side actors have the skills and knowledge required to be able to contribute to the governance and social accountability practices in their respective areas. The project supports district and commune administrations to maintain dialogue with communities on actions taken to address citizen issues, using different citizen engagement approaches complementing the government’s social accountability initiatives. The objective is to move the reforms forward to achieve the vision that “SNAs provide more and improved services to citizens”.
 
Key Activities

Supply side (governments): On the supply side, the SNAs’ ‘district and commune administration councilors and officials’ are not only open to hear feedback from different citizens but also to try out different social accountability or citizen engagement initiatives (such as public hearing, outreach, roundtable discussion and information dissemination means) to reach out to women, youth and marginalized groups and learn their issues and priorities to inform decisions.

In PROCEED project areas in 2016, SNAs addressed up to 20 percent of community issues (via forums, scorecards, and meetings).

Most officials continue to improve their attitude in terms of hearing complaints and receiving feedback from citizens, while trying to report back to community, explaining their limitations.

Demand side (citizens): Citizens are more knowledgeable, with increased confidence to raise their prioritized issues across engagement initiatives supported by the project. They are increasingly understanding their rights to demand responsive actions, with signs of women, youth and marginalized groups voicing their concerns via engagement initiatives that are taking place at the right time and locations at the village level. In some target areas, citizen leaders (or networks) are collaborating effectively with SNA officials to disseminate information to communities.

At the national level, the CSO/ NGO network is gaining increasing recognition and is engaged in policy dialogues. The capacity of SNA authorities to address citizen issues and priorities continues to be questioned by some citizens. We have learned that working with and supporting both supply and demand sides of the governance to maintain dialogue as well as to encourage them to try out different initiatives is the right approach and can contribute to more responsive results at the grassroots level.

Commune councilors in Cambodia conduct outreach (or informal) session with village women group to hear their issues/ priorities to inform council planning decision


Implementation Challenges

The initiative faces a number of challenges, including: 

• Many SNAs did not take timely actions to address the issues raised by citizens after the public hearings, community scorecards/interfaces or outreach meetings. Some of the concerns shared in the forums such as land, forestry or key environmental issues were beyond the authority of the SNAs.

• The delay in transferring (or delegating) key functions (authorities, human and budget resources) from national to sub-national level impacts the ability of SNAs, sector offices and departments to address citizen priorities. Also, the ingrained work ethics and hierarchical systems within the government tend to slow down decisionmaking. Coordination between government ministries and different levels of government is generally weak, and performance management and quality control of service delivery are not given due importance at SNA levels.

• Citizens are unaccustomed to holding officials to account, and often fear reprisals if they do so openly. Officials, on their part, are not used to being held to account, which often leads to defensiveness and evasiveness.

• Although, on some fronts, there are increasing signs of participation of women and youth in grassroots/ village level events, there are challenges in having their ‘voice’ heard in formal council events or events at higher level.


Risks

A number of risks have emerged during the implementation period of the project, including:

• The current tense political climate at the national level in Cambodia makes people wary of trying out new, innovative ideas and breeds continued misunderstanding and distrust between local government officials and local NGOs. In addition, mixed signals from the higher levels – as a consequence of the changing political climate, after commune elections in June 2017 – confuse the local government officials, leading to inaction.

• Council and sector officials in new project areas are resistant to citizen participation and criticism, and are not open to new social accountability initiatives, if there is no official notice from the national level.

• Citizens lose interest or become angry if they do not see quick successes – or when the local governments do not really have much to offer in terms of improved services because of their meagre funds (as a consequence of the delay in the delegation of functions or transfer of funds/resources to the local level).

• With citizens’ increasing knowledge of their rights/roles, their expectations of council performance and services also increase.


Way Ahead

Given the current challenges and risks facing the implementation of the initiative, the appropriate approach for the project team and CSOs would be to continue working in collaboration with the government at national and sub-national levels, building on local successes and role models, including the expansion of good practices to new areas.

The focus should be on trying out different approaches and new initiatives to reward or incentivize role models and champions on both the demand and supply side, encourage them in sharing successes with others, and to engage them at the policy level.

It is best to work to maintain political balance and engage closely with councilors from different political parties to serve community interests, guided by the democratic development principles. It is critical to continue building trust and a working partnership between demand and supply sides (demonstrating successes and results), as guided by the project’s citizen participation principles ‘to want, to dare and to be able to participate’ for better governance and improved services. Most importantly, there is a need to focus on promoting local ownership and a demand-driven approach as well as incentive building for both sides of governance.

The initiative needs to work toward a gradual handover from implementation NGOs to local NGOs, and from local NGOs to grassroots citizen leaders and sub-national council administrations.

References

1) Cambodia’s Organic Law on Administrative Management of the Capital, Province, Municipality, District and Khan, 2008 2)  Cambodia’s ten-year national program for sub-national democratic development (NP-SNDD) by Cambodia’s government/NCDD 3) Three-year implementation plan phase II (IP3-II) by Cambodia’s government/NCDD 4) The Social Accountability Strategic Plan for Subnational Democratic Development (I-SAF) by Cambodia’s government/NCDD 5) Promote Citizen Engagement in Democratic Development (PROCEED) project by Pact Cambodia 6) Decentralization/professional development reading pack by Paul Smoke (Professor and Director of International Development Programmes at New York University/March 2015.

 

 

 


TAGS: Accountability Citizen Engagement Civic Engagement Community Mobilisation Governance Information LOGIN Member Local Governance Public Service Delivery Service Delivery Social Accountability

Comments

 Ratha Sek |  May 25, 2018

It is a good story that Cambodia want to share about the governance and reform. We do hope that we will learn more from the rest country which experience similar context to Cambodia.


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