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03.26.22

How Local-Level Transparency Can Restore Citizens’ Trust

Mounir Mahmalat,
Sami Atallah,
Wassim Maktabi,
Sami Zoughaib

Lebanon’s current decentralization system offers important opportunities for local governments to take over a leadership role for the improvement of services, infrastructure, and people’s welfare. Indeed, with central governmental institutions being unable to provide even basic services for the time to come, the crisis may provide opportunities for municipalities and municipal unions to take a more active role in economic recovery.

Reform of local governance is a prerequisite for the restoration of citizens’ trust in state institutions. Improvements in municipal governance would have an immediate effect on citizens’ lives, since they are the direct points of contact of citizens with the state. As the reform of Lebanon’s decentralization framework ceased being the authorities’ priority in light of current events, the IMPACT platform, an initiative by the Central Inspection in collaboration with ministries, municipalities, and the private sector, transformed municipal governance via a digitized mechanism to collect and disseminate data from government institutions. And if there is one keyword for this endeavor, it’s transparency.

Improvements in municipal governance would have an immediate effect on citizens’ lives

The IMPACT platform: A driver of transparency

The IMPACT team has created an online platform that centralizes information sharing among governmental institutions and has been used for coordination of policy responses such as the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and applications for the new social assistance programs like the Emergency Social Safety Net and the Daem program. On a local level, the tool allows municipalities to share information on governance issues with peers, the central government, and the public. Sponsored and requested by the Civil Inspection, the information collected cover a variety of fields and include the status of local development, the publication of municipal decisions, or the administration of surveys. That way, the platform offers opportunities for municipalities to learn from peers and to improve coordination, and, more importantly, for citizens to monitor what issues their municipalities pay attention to, such as the registration of vulnerable households or the tracking of COVID-19 cases.1

Increasing transparency can be a key for the improvement of governance at both the local and the central level. An increase in transparency is a well-known prerequisite for effective oversight over government branches by the civil society and the judiciary. The success in facilitating policy outcomes, such as the coordination of an effective and largely equitable vaccination campaign, speaks for the importance of such interventions. With scarce resources and funds needed to be used as efficiently as possible in light of the financial crisis, citizens therefore can make use of such transparency initiatives to increase accountability and, ultimately, facilitate reform.

Municipal budgets, for example, are often still not published digitally and are not available for scrutiny by the taxpayers that fund them

There is one central reason for why increased transparency has the potential for change: Political elites derive a substantial part of their power and legitimacy from local governance. Indeed, it serves as a linchpin for the appropriation of public resources by elites while a municipality’s access to state funding requires accepting some level of favoritism to the benefit of elites. It is such practices—intertwining the fate of local governments with those of party elites—that blocked many initiatives in the past to increase transparency and accountability of local governments. Municipal budgets, for example, are often still not published digitally and are not available for scrutiny by the taxpayers that fund them. Such transparency, however, would be crucial to identify instances of corruption and collusion and for citizens to hold local politicians and elites accountable.

As Lebanon's first e-government platform, IMPACT holds a plethora of data points on public administrations that could offer an early glimpse of digitized and transparent local governments. To that end, we have developed an index measuring the degree of transparency of municipalities, the Institutional Transparency Index (ITI). The ITI reflects the extent to which municipalities provide information on governance issues on the IMPACT platform and ranks them by order of transparency. The index captures transparency in three dimensions—comprehensiveness of data, frequency of interaction, and distribution of attention—and provides important insights into the way municipalities leverage the platform to handle, provide, and disseminate information on a broad range of issues.

There does not seem to be a significant bias about providing information to the public by any party

In our analyses on what drives municipal transparency, we found that, for once, political affiliations play only a minor role. Municipalities run by political parties are, with a few exceptions, as likely to be transparent than others. There does not seem to be a significant bias about providing information to the public by any party. Although still insufficiently applied across public administrations, the Access to Information law passed by parliament in 2017, and its implementation decree issued by government in 2020, suggest that political leaders appear to generally agree that citizens cannot be withheld basic information on governance indefinitely.

Transparency can ultimately become a means of independence from elite-level influence, for improvement of governance, and for the restoration of citizens’ trust into the state. With open access to municipalities' activity, decisions, and potentially budgets, citizens will find it easier to follow up on cases of negligence, favoritism, and corruption. With more informed citizens, local governments will eventually have to decrease fraudulent involvement of party elites to avoid electoral backlashes.


1- Maktabi, W., S. Zoughaib, S. Atallah, and M. Mahmalat. 2021. “Local Governments and Open-Data: How Have Municipalities Interacted with the IMPACT Platform?” The Policy Initiative; and Maktabi, W., S. Zoughaib, M. Mahmalat, and S. Atallah. 2021. “Reenergizing Clientelist Channels: Which Municipalities Abused Aid Forms?” The Policy Initiative.

 

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