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Why capacity self-assessments are essential to support federalism in Nepal

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Capacity development at the local level is one of the most discussed topics among governance experts in Nepal

Autonomy is central to federalism. In theory, the main difference between federalism and decentralisation refers to how much independence the Constitution grants to the provinces or states in policymaking and implementation. In a decentralised system, the centre of government devolves power and responsibilities to the local level. In a federalism system, in contrast, autonomy and responsibility are divided between federating regions, each fulfilling different functions guaranteed by the constitution. The promises of federalism in Nepal rest in this autonomy, which was seen by many as the acceptable solution to a governance system that includes such a diverse geography, demography, and society.

In the past two years, as part of the efforts to operationalise federalism, capacity development at the local level has been one of the most discussed topics among governance experts in Nepal. Exercising autonomy effectively is difficult and requires individual and organisational capacity. The capacity to operationalise federalism can be missing or not fully considered at the time of the (political) decision to federalise. Therefore, it urgently needs to be developed.

But who determines the need? Capacity needs assessments are the standard point of departure to determine the capacity need or gap. The challenge is to understand who leads on these capacity assessments and what their point of view is. At the local level there may be an overestimation of capacity, while central entities may feel there is insufficient capacity. Finding a balance in this process and ensuring the data collected can be used to identify needs, while accounting for multiple perspectives is critical.

Robust self-assessments of capacity can play an important role in this process. Prioritising self-assessments of capacity at the local level in Nepal is in line with the autonomy required by the new federal constitution. The argument in favour of self-assessments refers to the needed legitimacy and ownership from the local level. Done correctly, these can focus the attention on the problems that the local governments care about and are willing and able to take forward.

There is a growing consensus that development partners should focus on capacity development on the counterparts’ agenda, not their own. Even more so when supporting a transition to federalism, where the success of the process depends on the degree of autonomy of such diverse provincial and local governments. Self-assessment helps to enable this local autonomy. This approach is a step in the desired direction as local governments will have to be able to articulate their needs and the resources required as soon as they are moving beyond the embryonic stages of the transition process. These needs assessments will help the provincial and the central government to identify and prioritise the areas already accepted as vital for their well-functioning.

Many may argue that self-assessments are not reliable data sources because not all representatives know what their roles entail. This is a valid concern in some palikas in Nepal where more clarity would be needed regarding roles and responsibilities. However, there are ways to address this risk. First, self-assessments may be triangulated with other data sources and still remain at the centre of the capacity-related engagements at the local level. Second, for this level of the change process, self-assessments may be administered through workshops facilitated by experienced local governance professionals who can help explain the roles and what they entail and facilitate a discussion with the local government representatives. In piloting self-assessments through workshops in Nepal and elsewhere, we found the data collected more reliable when the self-assessments were precedented by a presentation and a discussion about responsibilities and competencies.

Facilitating workshops for self-assessments in Nepal were useful reflection practices. The workshops we facilitated on this topic were also used as an opportunity for the participants – local government employees – to reflect what each role implies and how they need to work together. Some were more able to articulate their positions and to make concrete suggestions about what resources and support they needed, which is a good indication of taking ownership of their development to conduct their duties.

Local capacity self-assessment is one of the first steps in a much more complex story. The balance between objectivity and ownership is rarely straightforward, and finding the ‘adequate’ measures for each, will require a corroboration of data sources. This balance is an essential ingredient to ensuring that the story does go on, driven by the country stakeholders, rather than gradually freezing in technicalities. The self-assessment should be seen as an opportunity to enable local governments to reflect and prioritise their needs. It is critical to align these with the federal policy and approaches and to use them to inform federal and provincial governments in designing, implementing, and coordinating different capacity development frameworks and programmes.

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Alexandra Nastase is a senior public sector governance specialist with OPM. She has almost ten years of experience of working with governments in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, South Asia, and East Africa to deliver better policy outcomes for their citizens. She advises on improving government performance, building state capability, and anticorruption. In the past years, Alexandra has been working in Nepal on subnational governance, federalism, building state capacity, and political economy analysis. She also worked on developing and piloting tools for assessing capacity at the local level in Nepal.