Keeping the vibe local

Keeping the vibe local

Leaders look ahead to next poll as decentralisation push falters

EC staff in Nonthaburi attend to the election of the Tambon Administrative Organisation chief in Bang Phli Yai on Nov 28 last year.
EC staff in Nonthaburi attend to the election of the Tambon Administrative Organisation chief in Bang Phli Yai on Nov 28 last year.

Local governing bodies say government efforts to promote decentralisation have made little headway as certain inflexible and outdated rules as well as funding shortfalls are blamed for hindering progress.

They are pinning their hopes on a new government after the next election stepping in to address the problem and reinvigorate the push for devolution.

Following the 2014 coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) issued orders to suspend elections of local bodies which had completed their tenures, leaving a total of 7,850 local agencies nationwide in limbo for years.

The NCPO cited concerns that poll campaigning would spark clashes between political groups, which could fuel political unrest.

After a six-year wait, the first elections of chairmen and members of Provincial Administration Organisations in the 76 provinces outside Bangkok were eventually held on Dec 20, 2020.

Other types of local elections -- tambon administration organisations, municipalities and special administration areas, such as Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and Pattaya City -- followed gradually.

"I have high expectations of the upcoming general election next year. I believe it will bring change,'' Pongsak Yingchoncharoen, mayor of Yala municipality, told the Bangkok Post.

Lack of continuity

Mr Pongsak said many problems are besetting local agencies that need to be addressed.

One major problem is that many new recruits do not work for the same local agency long enough as they tend to request transfer elsewhere before they make any substantial contributions to local development.

"We lack personnel who are truly devoted to serving the needs of local people,'' he said.

The problem stems from NCPO's Order No 8/2560 which was intended to tackle a patronage system deeply entrenched in the recruitment, promotion and transfer of local officers.

Under the order, a committee under the supervision of the Interior Ministry was set up to ensure the exams, the recruitment process and transfers are based on merit.

Though well-intentioned, the order has created an unintended and unwanted consequence.

"We've often had personnel who requested transfer after only a few months into the job here. Some came from other provinces and could not adjust to the surroundings,'' Mr Pongsak said.

Some officers transferred from other agencies are nearing retirement and they are just content to go through the motions without any real engagement at work, he said.

Somnuek Thanadechakul, mayor of Nonthaburi municipality, echoed that view, saying the NCPO's order, which is still in force, has failed to conform to the principle of decentralised management.

Under the criteria for the recruitment exam, top scorers are given the right to choose their preferred local agencies they want to work with.

"There are those from other provinces such as Pattani and Chiang Mai who choose to work in major local agencies such as the Nonthaburi municipality, hoping to gain working experience from large local organisations.

"Before long, they request transfer to wherever they feel more comfortable working,'' Mr Somnuek said.

He said large local agencies need personnel who can make uninterrupted contributions to local government, but what is happening now has caused a big headache.

"We have people who don't feel connected to our organisation. They are ready to go if they have a chance so how can a continuity of work and service be maintained?'' he said.

Funding shortfalls

Insufficient funding has also crippled local undertakings. Under the decentralisation plan effective in 2000, tax revenues and grants-in-aid and other income from state coffers will be allocated to local agencies in line with the scope of their tasks and authority.

From the 2007 fiscal year onward, all types of revenue gained by local agencies are supposed to amount to at least 25% of the government's net revenue, according to the plan.

The amount will be increased to at least 35% when local bodies assume more responsibility running public services on their own.

Sources of revenue for local bodies include local tax collections, government grants-in-aid and allocations from state coffers, such as value-added tax and excise tax levied on alcoholic beverages.

However, Mr Pongsak said this year's grants-in-aid have fallen to 297 million baht from 320 million baht last year.

"The grants-in-aid allocations have stood at 29.5% [of the government's net revenue] for many years now,'' Mr Pongsak said.

The outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020 added to the tribulations of local bodies as the government attempted to ease the impact of the pandemic by lowering the land and building tax payment to 10%, he said.

That means local bodies lost 90% of the main source of their tax revenue while they had to struggle with an increased workload during the pandemic, he said.

"Local agencies understand residents better than the central government. So, residents always expect us to respond to their needs and solve their problems before other agencies,'' he said.

Rigid rules

Mr Pongsak said some bureaucratic rules and regulations are too rigid to accommodate change, hindering local bodies' efforts to seek new sources of revenue.

"Some rules have been around 50-60 years without any revision and fail to keep up with changing circumstances. Some don't allow local agencies to seek new sources of revenue. Will local bodies have to keep relying only on local tax collections?'' he asked.

"The central government should accept the fact that if local problems cannot be solved, people will migrate to major cities, causing overcrowding and a myriad of problems in urban areas.

"But effective devolution of power and funding to boost local development will help draw them back to their home provinces,'' Mr Pongsak said.

Mr Somnuek said the Nonthaburi municipality once asked the Highways Department to consider a company's proposal to build roadside rest areas.

Under the proposal, the department would collect fees for billboard advertising at the facilities. But the department rejected the idea anyway, saying the law did not permit it, Mr Somnuek said.

He added Nonthaburi is home to several historic sites many of which are in need of restoration. While the municipality has enough funding for restoration, it is powerless to carry out the work because this is the job of the Fine Arts Department, he said. "But the department's personnel and funds for restoration are limited.

"So, there is nothing we can do except watch helplessly as the ancient sites fall into disrepair,'' he said.

Mr Somnuek said he initiated a project to rearrange house numbers based on a model in Japan so house numbers in the municipality are easier to find.

"It took a long time for the project to gain acceptance from the Interior Ministry," Mr Somnuek said, adding he received verbal abuse over the phone from a resident who was upset that his unique house number "222'' was altered under the project.

But he said this did not deter him because the project has drawn praise from some agencies, particularly police who can quickly locate and reach a house they need in a short time, Mr Somnuek said.

He also pointed out that whenever local elections are held, some 70% of incumbent officers are unlikely to get re-elected.

"This goes to show that residents have always wanted a change for the better and they can decide which poll candidates will be able to work in the best interests of people,'' Mr Somnuek said.

Public engagement

Wisoot Tantinan, a specialist at the United Nations Development Programme Thailand, said the agency has set up a website providing the public with details regarding local development projects in various countries, such as South Korea, as well as regular updates on their progress.

He also said that an online platform "Decide Madrid'' was introduced in Spain to engage the public in decision-making on local development, he said.

"In Thailand, the public are allowed to engage only when a hearing is held before a project starts. Afterwards, there is no channel for people to have a say,'' Mr Wisoot said.

He stressed the need to open channels for people to express opinions and follow up on what they have proposed. This will encourage people to take part more in local affairs and local bodies can use their feedback to respond to their needs, he said.

Mr Wisoot also commended the Traffy Fondue application for its role in promoting citizen engagement.

Developed by the National Electronics and Computer Technology Center (Nectec) of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), the app uses artificial intelligence technology to manage complaints sent to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

People can report problems about city facilities via the app and follow up on their complaints. "Of more than 200,000 of problems reported, some 90,000 have been fixed,'' he said.

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