Transparent Budget and Service Charters in Provincial Papua New Guinea*

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By Shane Cave[2]

Synopsis

Papua New Guinea’s citizens are largely unaware of the detail of the public services they are entitled to receive and are almost entirely unaware of the resources allocated to support those services through central and provincial government budgets.  In the absence of effective central government oversight of the budget process, citizens’ ignorance is exploited as funds are regularly reallocated in breach of financial laws and regulations, stolen, or simply left unspent.  The end result is the prolonged and consistent deterioration of essential services intended for citizens through Village Courts, provincial health facilities and schools. This deterioration in public service delivery and budget leakages became clear during the research phase of the project outlined below.

Beginning in 2014, an Australian government funded project began to address this deterioration by publicly identifying, at village level:

  • what services citizens are entitled to,
  • what citizens expect from these services,
  • what recipients of the service and service providers see as wrong,
  • what funds are allocated to support those services, and
  • who is responsible for ensuring that the budgeted resources are used as intended.

This information was used to develop a Charter displaying:

  • service entitlements,
  • the obligations of all stakeholders – both service providers and users
  • the budget for the relevant service – data which was mostly available at village level, and
  • the officials responsible for ensuring that the resources needed to deliver the service were used as intended.

The Charters were printed as highly durable posters and flyers and widely distributed in the vicinity of where the service was delivered.

The project also included regular engagement with citizens to help them understand the information they were being given and how to begin to find and use this information themselves.

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Papua New Guinea (PNG) occupies half of the world’s second biggest island, and has a population of over seven million people.  It does not however have a national road network, so with many rivers, a mountainous, heavily-forested landscape, and 820 separate indigenous languages (12% of the world’s languages[3]), it is physically, socially and administratively disparate.  Travel from the capital city, Port Morebsy, to most of the country is possible only by air, while travel between most provinces is limited and confined to a few neighbouring provinces.  While PNG has a reasonably comprehensive and growing electronic communications system this is not always reliable, nor is the electricity supply needed for such communication.

Delivery of public services is heavily devolved from central to provincial and, increasingly, district governments. However, provinces are largely dependent on central government for their resources, although some provinces have independent revenue streams, largely based on income from extractive industries – minerals, including hydrocarbons, and forestry.

The Public Finance Management and the Public Service Management Acts, and associated manuals and codes of practice, provide a comprehensive framework to manage this resource flow.  However, for central government agencies such as the Departments of Finance, Justice, Health and Education, and constitutional office holders such as the Auditor General, the cost of internal air travel, limited budgets and growing devolution to sub-national government, poses major problems for effective oversight of resource allocation and use – from budget formulation to budget execution and accounting for expenditure.

In this environment citizens in the nation’s provincial towns and village also have little if any knowledge of the services they should receive and even less knowledge or understanding of the resources budgeted to support those services. Without this knowledge, it is all but impossible for citizens themselves to exercise any effective oversight of resource allocation and use.  They are however acutely aware of the prolonged deterioration of their Village Courts, hospitals and health centres, and schools.

To address this lack of oversight the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian government agency responsible for delivering foreign aid, funded a project in 2014-15 to make it clear to citizens what resources they were entitled to, and what resources were allocated by central and provincial governments to support those services.

The project was similar to those undertaken elsewhere in the world, particularly in the network of civil society organisations connected through the International Budget Partnership.  The project in PNG was very like budget transparency work previously undertaken in Kenya which is following PNG down the same route of devolution of service provision to sub-national government.

 

Project Goal

The project aimed to develop transparent service and budget Charters for PNG’s Village Courts, health and education services so that all service stakeholders know their entitlements, obligations, the resources intended to support those services and the officials responsible for delivering the resources needed to support each service.

The project began in the second half of 2014 in Northern Province (often referred to as Oro Province). It focused on services that citizens considered the most important in their day-to-day lives, Village Courts, health services delivered through health centres and provincial hospitals, and schools.

Village Courts, the first service with which the project engaged, are created by an act of parliament which codified traditional informal practices and created a set of positions with designated functions filled by villagers elected by their peers.  A central government secretariat maintains a register of officials – of which there are many thousands – and provides training, a small stipend, uniforms and stationery.  All the resources to support the courts were, at the time, routed through provincial governments.

Villagers decide where court sessions will be held, often just under a tree, but always in public and always on the same day each week.  As PNG has high levels of violence, and many more villages than police stations, these courts are highly valued institutions. The courts have the power to fine those convicted, or impose appropriate sentences, often to compensate victims.  If they want to imprison someone, which is rare, court officials have to seek assistance from the police. Because they are run by local people who are widely known and respected, and sit regularly, the courts are a normal part of day-to-day life for many villagers.

 

Methodology

Using a survey methodology developed for the PNG Corrections (prisons) Service, the project sought and obtained the enthusiastic endorsement from the relevant central government agency, in this case the Village Courts Secretariat, and the two most senior provincial office holders, the Governor and Provincial Administrator. The same process was subsequently used for the development of the Health and Education Charters.  In all cases the final Charters were approved by the head of the Village Courts Secretariat and the secretaries of the Departments of Health and Education who also launched each Charter at a ceremonial function in the respective provinces (“Secretary” is the title of the public servant in charge of a government department in PNG).

 

Stakeholder survey

After establishing the legislative functions of the courts, and the respective roles of court officials, the Secretariat, the provincial government, and the routes by which the courts were funded, a stakeholder survey was conducted.

The survey included court officials themselves, villagers who had appeared in the court as either a plaintiff, a witness or a respondent; provincial and local government leaders and provincial government officials responsible for delivering day-to-day support and funding to the courts.  Stakeholders were asked what they liked, didn’t like, wanted and didn’t want from the service.  The survey was conducted in two urban settings and two rural settings using both quantitative and qualitative survey methods.  The survey results were used to develop the service component of the Charter.

The process sequence was vital to the development of a document that was relevant to all stakeholders.  It was soon clear in all three sectors that stakeholders knew little of their service rights and obligations, while the budgets were almost entirely unknown, even for example to schools’ principals and boards of governors.

It was important to engage with all stakeholders before the surveys to explain the process and to make it clear that the process was endorsed by the relevant central and provincial government officials.

  1. On a first visit by the project team stakeholders were told what would be produced – the Charters – and in the case of the health and education sectors, shown Village Courts Charters which had already been produced. Seeing a Charter was particularly helpful.  Stakeholders were also told that they would be asked for their views in a subsequent survey.
  2. After approximately a month the survey team would return on a second visit and conduct the survey using questionnaires and focus group discussions.
  3. This would be followed by a third project team visit to each stakeholder group to show the results of the survey and the draft service Charter. Stakeholders were invited to comment and propose changes and comments lead to amendments to the drafts for all three Charters.

 

Budget data

In addition to stakeholder surveys the relevant budget data would be obtained from provincial officials during the stakeholder survey process.  During village visits the project team did not discover a single person who had ever seen the budget for the service under discussion.  This was despite requests to provincial government officials for copies of the budget from a few active citizens, and affected parties such as senior medical centre nurses and school principals.

For the project team central government budget data was easily obtained because the team included a former public official with considerable experience in the whole budget process at both central and provincial government.  In contrast, it became progressively more difficult obtaining the provincial government budget data with local breakdown of allocations to individual courts, health centres and schools, despite Section 51.1 of PNG’s Constitution guaranteeing citizens access to this kind of information.

The growing reluctance of provincial officials to provide the budget data was not surprising as citizens became focused and animated when presented with the draft Charter, which included budget data, during the third stakeholder visit. While numeracy and literacy is patchy in PNG there were always sufficient numerate and literate people, especially at the schools and health centres, to understand the most important budget item, the total sum allocated to their court, health centre or school.  When presented with the budget data there was always a degree of indignation, in part at having been denied the same information in the past, but primarily because most stakeholders felt that only a small proportion of the total budget for the court, health centre or school, ever reached its intended destination.

During the development of the first Charter – for Village Courts – budget and expenditure information was obtained relatively easily. But, as the Charter process extended to health and education, officials started receiving indignant complaints from stakeholders angered by seeing the budget, and in the case of Village Courts, expenditure records. Despite the release of the relevant budget data having been approved by the Provincial Administrator, there was reluctance to comply.  Eventually, however all the relevant budgets were obtained and published. Second edition Charters for Village Courts and health centres, published in the latter part of 2015, included data from the subsequent year’s budget.

The limited expenditure data obtained and distributed to citizens – for Village Courts only – revealed that significant sums were transferred across budget lines for unrelated purposes in clear breach of the virement provisions of Public Finance (Management) Act.  Village Court Officials also reported that they had not received a single payment of their monthly stipend throughout 2014, despite the funds for this purpose having been transferred to the provincial government from the central government.

In other cases there was expenditure against the budget for purposes that seemed entirely inappropriate, for example to relatives of provincial government officials not connected with the sector concerned.  In addition, throughout PNG, provincial staff responsible for supporting services are often absent and budget allocations frequently remain unspent at the end of the financial year, despite a deeply disturbing deterioration in public services, particularly in health centres.

This Charter development process was extended to a second province, Morobe, in late 2015.

 

The Charters

The Charters were designed so that they would fit on two sides of an A4 laminated flyer or on two halves of a laminated A3 poster.  Durability was important to ensure longevity and therefore maximise the number of people able to be informed about the services and their associated budgets.  The service rights and obligations were kept to a minimum with clear short bullet pointed text spelling out opening hours of institutions, the services to be delivered and the key entitlements of staff delivering the service, while the budget data was presented in simple, brief tables using colourful large fonts.  The original budget codes and the brief line-item descriptions was always sufficiently clear to be retained in their original forms and be readily understood by enough members of the community to spread understanding of how their services were supposed to be funded. Each Charter also identified the people whose responsibility it was to ensure that the funds budgeted to support the service were used as intended.

 

Programme Delivery

The programme was funded by the Australian Government, a fact made clear to all stakeholders, and managed by an Australian company.  But an increasing amount of the work done in formulating the Charters was done by a Papua New Guinean organisation – the Consultative Implementation and Monitoring Council (CIMC). The CIMC was established by PNG’s National Executive Council (Cabinet) in1998 but is administered under a contract with the PNG Government by the Institute of National Affairs, a private non-profit research institute.  The CIMC functions with considerable independence from the Government. By the end of the project the Charter process was still funded by Australian funds but largely implemented by the CIMC.

 

Lessons learnt

The Transparent Service and Budget Charters project formed part of a wider aid programme which concluded at the end of 2015, by which time it had only been underway for just over a year in Northern Province and only a few months in Morobe Province. While there are plans for the programme to continue it is too soon to draw any firm conclusions.

However there were many things that became obvious during the 18 months of the project, particularly during the regular meetings between the project team and stakeholders prior to and immediately after the distribution of the Charter posters and flyers. Most obviously was the problem of budgeted funds not being used as intended by the National Parliament and provincial assemblies.  While that was a widely perceived problem before the project it was none-the-less alarming to see health centres with pipes and taps but no running water or electricity, where women came to give birth in wheel barrows because the ambulance was used as a private vehicle, and lighting was by cell phone because there was no money to pay for electricity or for fuel for a generator; to hear from village court officials who kept their courts operating but who had not received their monthly stipend for a year, despite it having been sent from the capital, and teachers, many of them from isolated schools, whose travel allowances hadn’t been paid despite having been budgeted for.

But the project itself revealed what was new, in PNG at least. The most significant lesson was the impact of linking key public services, with which citizens were familiar, with government budgets, with which citizens were entirely unfamiliar.  Making this linkage visible saw citizens become animatedly engaged as they could more clearly see a cause of the problems they had almost become numb to in their local courts, schools and health services.

During the three-stage stakeholder-survey regarding services, citizens clearly outlined what they wanted and their frustrations about their deteriorating services.  However when presented with the budget for that service, most particularly just one number, the total sum allocated for the particular service, citizens attention, indignation and engagement stepped up significantly, to the alarm of some officials who came under citizen pressure to improve service delivery although these officials were often not the cause of the problem.

However, it also became clear that access to budget data alone was insufficient to ensure that expenditure, and corresponding work practices, such as attendance, would better comply with budgets and so improve service delivery. This is consistent with international research, for example by Jonathan Fox [4], which indicates that information alone is insufficient to effectively equip and motivate citizens to effectively fight for their budget and service rights.

During the project citizens would regularly ask the project team for help in rectifying their service and budgetary problems as they did not know how to set about exerting pressure within the codified system of government that was often mysterious to them.  Over the short period of the project it appeared as if some of the energy and engagement that arose during the project, especially when citizens were exposed to the budget, appears to dissipate. However the new levels of energy and enthusiasm for change, evident throughout the project, especially at the beginning, represent a major opportunity to motivate and assist citizens to begin to redress PNG’s evident deterioration in service delivery and compliant budget execution.

 

 

[*] The project on which this case study is based was funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia (DFAT). The conclusions reached, and the views and opinions expressed in this case study, are those of the author, who devised and implemented the project, and do not necessarily reflect the views of DFAT or the Australian Government. The Commonwealth of Australia accepts no responsibility for any loss, damage or injury resulting from reliance on any of the information or views contained in this case study.

[2] Shane Cave is an anti-corruption practitioner with experience developing national and institutional anti-corruption strategies – including the Service and Budget Charters referred to in this article – establishing anti-corruption institutions and devising innovative and practicable strategies to mobilise citizen action against corruption. He has worked in Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Bhutan, Trinidad and Tobago, Indonesia, the Philippines and extensively throughout the Pacific.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papua_New_Guinea#Languages

[4] Pg 35 SOCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY: WHAT DOES THE EVIDENCE REALLY SAY? Jonathan Fox School of International Service, American University  fox@american.edu GPSA Working Paper No. 1, September 2014 Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA), a global partnership program within The World Bank Group.