Sri Lanka’s Democracy Strengthened Through Responsive Local Governance

  • Steve Cima

In February, I relocated to Sri Lanka from Burma to become the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Resident Program Director. Since 2015, Sri Lanka has been in the midst of a democratic transition that has created opportunities for political reform and reconciliation following decades of civil war.  While still in its early stages, Sri Lanka’s transition has the potential to further strengthen and establish the country as a stable democracy in a geopolitically important region of Asia.

I originally anticipated that I would be working with newly elected municipal councilors following local elections. Unfortunately, the municipal elections have been delayed indefinitely.  Until elections are held, municipal councils that were vacated in 2015 are currently operating under the supervision of civil servants led by an appointed commissioner from the civil service. While these civil servants have experience implementing and delivering services they now have the added responsibility of being accountable to the people as the highest municipal authority.

Meanwhile, as the caretakers of local government, these commissioners and civil servants must fulfill two fundamental functions: ensure that citizens receive basic services and fill the gap that has been left by the lack of elected local representatives. To be responsive and help address this challenge, IRI adapted its program to focus on equipping municipal councils with knowledge and tools to enable them to conduct constituent outreach and include citizen feedback in local government planning. 

Last month I had the opportunity to travel with a digital communication strategy expert to Hambantota, Akkaraipattu and Jaffna municipalities. In the three municipal councils, we worked with government officials to assess current external communications strategies and to identify communication techniques, including the use of social media, that can increase citizen awareness and participation in the councils’ work. During the seminars, the councils were able to develop action plans that outlined how they could build upon their communications strategies to enhance citizen engagement.

In addition to the skills-building seminars, IRI supported an inter-local government study tour, bringing Hambantota Municipal Council members to the Nuwara Eliya Municipal Council to identify approaches to improve revenue generation.  Nuwara Eliya municipality was selected as a case study because of its success in raising additional revenue from tourism. The study tour was also an opportunity for local government officials to exchange ideas and best practices that can help them to more effectively develop and implement services. The Commissioner of Hambantota and municipality staff will use their new skills to develop a plan to improve existing revenue generating systems.

This type of responsive programing and ability to adapt to the situation on the ground is one of IRI’s greatest strengths, and helps us build strong partnerships. In the coming months, IRI will continue to encourage responsive, citizen-centered governance through additional skills-building seminars and utilize the findings of the Institute’s May 2017 national public opinion survey to further assist municipal councils to improve services, inform planning and engage constituents. IRI’s support will lay important foundations to help its partners improve local governance – a crucial pillar to strengthen Sri Lanka’s democracy.

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