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Tanzania in the middle of the reform process

For ten years, Tanzania has been striving after decentralisation. Yet, progress has been slow, as public administration is reluctant to change and local communities are mostly excluded from the process. Those skeptical of the reforms feel vindicated. [ By Frank Holtmeier ]

In Tanzania, municipal autonomy in such matters as personnel, finances and planning is low. Human resources decisions are taken by the central government, so public officers feel beholden to it. More than 90 % of municipal revenues come from centrally organised allocations, most of which are earmarked for specific purposes. Accordingly, there is little incentive for accountability toward local communities. Local priorities are also undermined by top-down directives.

Decentralisation is generally endorsed, but there is no consensus on what it entails. Municipalities are often regarded as merely executive institutions with no policy-making authority. Their responsibilities are vaguely defined, even if matters are to be dealt with autonomously according to the subsidiarity principle. However, some progress has been made: local adminstraions have become more efficient and they now have considerable financial means for infrastructural measures for the first time, thanks to a new system of vertical payments.

The logic of failure

The Tanzanian decentralisation policy is ambitious. Political, administrative and fiscal responsibilities are to be shifted from the central government to the local level. However, the „Local Government Reform Programme” (LGRP) is only one out of five core reforms in the public sector (the other four concern public-finance management, the legal sector, the civil service and corruption). Moreover, some other sector reforms relate to decentralisation. So far, these matters have not been sufficiently coordinated – and that it true of donors too. Inter-related and competing objectives may lead to organised irresponsibility.

Reallocating decision-making powers and access to resources is a time-consuming and highly political agenda. Public-sector reform always requires a lot of stamina, not only in developing countries. The German Civil Service, for example, has been in a constant process of reform for years. By the time new technologies are finally implemented, they are often already outdated.

Problems of implementation

There are elaborate concepts and various resolutions for the reform’s implementation – but little changes in the end. Some have asked whether the stagnation is due to a lack of willpower or a lack of ability. The reality is more complex – it’s not only about political willpower or capacity.

Determination is not lacking at the top. Both the President and the Prime Minister support the reform. It is the ministerial bureaucracy that is impeding the process.

In practice, Weber’s Bureaucracy Theory – accurate implementation of political programmes by the administration – is illusionary. Weber himself knew this: it would be naïve to think, one could implement programmes in a verbatim manner. Administrative actions are not completely controllable; reforms are not an act of administration. Every administrative body is composed of different individuals with contrasting interests. Even those in high political positions are dependent on others. Despite political will and the technical excellence of some of the programmes, reforms may develop differently than originally intended. Acceptance and capacity are important, but not sufficient.

Even in highly developed countries like Germany, reforms can derail in the course of the administrative process. This can be due to the programmes (e.g. ill-defined objectives), the structures (organisation, human resources, control procedures, insufficient financing) or conflicts with other programmes. If there are no political resolutions to such conflicts, they are postponed to the stage of implementation – and if the worst comes to the worst, projects are cancelled. What is actually done is a result of what is enfoceable. Even if there are no conflicting objectives, various programmes are bound to compete for scant resources. That is particularly whenever the available means will not do to implement all projects.

Besides, there is resistance from the ministerial administration too. Tanzania is not the only country with structurally conservative administration. Senior officials, in particular, identify with the existing system – and they benefit from it. The comparatively well-off government officials do not feel the pressure to modernise, and consequently, change is often integrated selectively into existing thinking patterns or exploited for self-serving purposes. Those who feel disadvantaged by the reform – with or without good reason – are trying to defend their rights and privileges acquired over the decades.

The more reforms endanger established interests, the more difficult they become. Administration is capable of obstructing reforms, and politics,equally so. Therefore, the only way to overcome the obstruction of political-administrative systems is by means of external pressure – i.e. local communities, other interest groups or financial donors. The process of decentralisation questions a state’s sovereign and hierarchical character and changes the organisation of public services. This affects the administration’s traditional role with regard to state and authority, as it prefers to regard itself as serving the state rather than society.

Bureaucrats’ opposition grows with the extent of adaptation demanded. Therefore, the implementation of reforms with implications for political power – like decentralisation – is barely predictable, conceivable or systematically controllable. The euphoria prevailing in development circles is reminiscent of the concept of political planning in Germany of the 1970s, which failed due to its own high demands. Yet, development efforts are obviously under particular pressure of justification.

Changing incentive systems

In Tanzania, it is often said that the mindset of the parties involved in reform has to change. Yet attitudes do not simply change overnight; incentives could speed the way to success. Until now, existing incentive systems have not been sufficiently analysed. How can a municipal official be motivated to do this and stop doing that? Why are instructions being ignored and apparently well-functioning working procedures disregarded? Is outstanding performance rewarded? What are the vested interests of decision-making individuals in local administrations? What do they understand by decentralisation, and what are the political constraints they are facing? Moreover, what are the hidden processes of informal politics behind the façade of the inherited modern and Western bureaucracy?

Politics results from the interaction of several individuals with restricted capacities for action. Tanzania has to start changing while still trapped in a system that is skeptical about such changes. The various protagonists can be influenced by a combination of three instruments, each concerned with specific problems:
- law (monitoring, resistance),
- incentives (windfall effects) and
- information (knowledge is not equal to action).

Until now, Tanzania has been concentrating on normative mechanisms: directives were conveyed via general decrees, implementation of new procedures by manuals. However, this brings about little more than rational-ethical wishful thinking: everything would work out fine with the right attitude. Without oversight, such efforts mostly serve no purpose whatsoever. Additionally, many regulations are formulated ambiguously, and as a result, those affected are free to proceed according to their interests. Ambiguity is conducive either to non-action – no matter what I do, it is wrong – or to freedom of interpretation – no matter what I do, it is right.

The current incentives are not changing officialdom’s behaviour. Some systems are even counterproductive. They impede decentralisation and lead to a lack of accountability and intransparency. This holds true for the existing allowance system, which financially rewards work absenteeism. It also holds true for inadequate municipal authority over personnel decisions, which results in limited loyalty of staff.

For real change to come about, dysfunctional incentives have to be abandoned in favour of a carrot-and-stick policy. As a matter of fact, one of the successful strategies of the LGRP is the introduction of a vertical transfer system. Once a year, local authorities are reviewed to determine whether they meet the requirements for budget management and their public funds result directly from that assessment. In 2000, 65 % of the local authorities still did not bear close examination by the Tanzanian Board of Auditors; in 2007, every single local authority passed.

So how can the individual officers be motivated to change well-established procedures – even if they cannot foresee to what extent they will be affected personally? In principle, this is a simple task: change either has to benefit them, or it must allow them to avert damage. In terms of game theory the question is: how can the rules of the new game replace routine? Innovations are fiercely contested precisely because they redefine the rules – and hence the opportunity of profit or loss. Existing arrangements are the result of negotiations between the protagonists in consideration of existing structures. Incentive structures can influence these negotiations by changing the participants’ interests.

Adaptive capacities

In policy circles, concepts tend to be discussed a lot, but they rarely become implemented reality. Especially in Tanzania, it would sometimes be preferable to have less elaborated strategy papers, provided provided they were eventually put into practice. Technocratic planning tends to neglect power-political factors as well as human-resources issues.

Political outcomes are not only determined by the interaction between content matters (policy) and institutional structures (polity), but by politics too. Often, the phase of policy formulation is less decisive than the actual implementation. The whole trick is to adapt optimal policy design to institutions, yet this hardly ever runs smoothly. Institutions are not static – they constantly adapt to ever changing circumstances.

Implementation can only be effective if the adaptability of institutions is not overstrained. This is a balancing act: institutional capacities have to be challenged, but not excessively. If there are too few requirements, the implementation might prove effective – but problems are likely to remain unresolved. However, if institutional capacities are overstrained, even the most rational objectives are of no help if they cannot be implemented in a practical way.

External pressure

Organisations hardly ever implement structural change without external pressure. Donors could perhaps support coalitions of “change champions”. Individuals can play a pivotal role in modernisation processes. By means of political counselling, sponsoring organisations can have a medium or long-term impact on change with regard to basic problematic positions. Certainly, pressure from the sponsoring side does not suffice. The success of the Tanzanian decentralisation process will essentially depend on the hitherto minor pressure that has been exerted by other parties. So far, local government reform has been monitored top-down by the central government. Cities and municipalities still have little self-confidence, and the predominant feeling is one of “being subject to reform.”

Besides, the people have little “demand for change”. The LGRP has been concentrating on consolidation of the supply side, on internal modernisation. As opposed to the hardly differentiated governmental and economical functions, there are only few organised non-governmental interest groups in Tanzania, especially outside of Dar es Salaam. It would be helpful if there were more access to relevant information, media support and invigorating capacity measures for the local communities. Local self-confidence and a “civil society” can probably only be hoped for in connection with an emerging and urbanised middle class.

Hierarchical thinking is deeply rooted in the socio-cultural and socio-historical attitudes of the central government and local administrations. Change is discernible, but it will take time. Many of the active parties were socialised in an extremely conservative, authoritarian socialist idea of unity, unacquainted with constructive competition of diverse positions. Adequate incentives and competitive performance-enhancing elements could also encourage more civic engagement. It would make sense to have service performance evaluated from a customer’s point of view, using quality awards, “citizen charts” or target agreements between councils and officialdom.

Pragmatic modesty

With its reforms, Tanzania intends to score a great success. The risk of encountering resistance by doing “too much at a time” is greater than that of steady change. Perhaps it would be wiser to proceed with pragmatic modesty. Reform has to be perceived as a process, as persistent normality. Policies are constantly being formulated, implemented, evaluated and changed. They are not implemented by a governmental control centre, but negotiated with the protagonists of the respective policy-subsystems. Tanzania is still in a state of democratic transition, bearing the traits of a weak state where authoritarian control is strongly esteemed.

Democratic change is hardly ever achieved in a simple and straightforward way – it brings about interior power struggles and resistance, which cannot be dealt with only by means of democratic procedures. After decades of authoritarian and centralised Tanzanian governance, swift achievements cannot be expected from new procedures. Donor policy, wich is often subject to fast changing trends, has to be persistent. Even setbacks in the short-term leave hope for positive long-term effects. Eventually, the current process will allow for a stable democratisation.