Finding the right system

Focus, Normal

The National, Wednesday June 24th, 2015

 IN 2009, while abroad, I had a dental condition that had to be attended to.  While checking my teeth, the dentist remarked: “… the filling is holding up pretty well …”.  

In all honesty, I had to think long and hard to recall where and when I had my teeth fixed.  

Soon after I remembered that it was done at a rural Catholic-run health centre at the Napapar No.2 village near Kerevat – just before independence.  

Oh how time has changed!  

Today there is little hope that one will find such services, let alone any basic health services, in many rural communities. 

Many people today still remember the type of ‘at-your-doorsteps’ services that was seen and experienced during the Australian colonial days.  

In the critical health sector, doctors and other health workers were posted in places where they were needed the most.  

If we were to go by one headline from the newspapers in recent weeks, three million of the country’s seven-plus million people do not have accessibility to doctors.  

Why have we found ourselves in such predicaments the country over?  

The O’Neill-Dion government has sanctioned the present review of the Organic Law on Provincial Governments and Local-level Governments (OLPG&LLGs) as one of the ways to identify the challenges and problems that affect processes of service delivery.  

A fundamental reason why basic services under the Australian colonial arrangement were readily accessible by the people – and especially in rural communities – was the highly centralised government and administrative structures that were in place at that time.  

Direct control was exerted from Canberra through Konedobu (the old administration centre), and right through to districts (now provinces) and sub-districts.  

Senior public servants in districts were pseudo-politicians too as they were able to perform limited political roles.  

Australia then was able to channel its resources (personnel and finances) – while being committed to its government agenda – and that was to develop the territories of Papua and New Guinea.  

In hindsight, the centralised structures were perhaps the only logical option given the renowned characteristics of the country: a highly diverse population within the vastly different geographical conditions.  

Furthermore, Papua New Guinea during the 1960s and early 1970s had only limited qualified manpower to stand alongside the Australians to man the governing and administrative structures.  

Centralised governing and administrative systems meant that there was minimum hindrance in terms of how individuals carried out their responsibilities.  

There were clear demarcations of responsibilities; thus, political leaders made the decisions and public servants did the administration and implementation.  

These systems were the blueprints to which Australia was working towards as it prepared PNG for independence.  

The idea was to have a strong centralised government with delegated roles to the districts.  

Centralisation vs Decentralisation 

A centralised system was workable and more suitable for Papua New Guinea mainly for practical reasons.  

Politically, however, the system was considered aberrant or abnormal.  

While it could be considered along one angle that a centralised system was required to hold the country together given the weak sense of nationalism, some of our early leaders – and particularly those who participated in the Constitutional Planning Committee – saw it from another angle where power had to be decentralised for the sake of a future united PNG.  

Even some outside scholars, after coming to terms with the compressed history of the State and nation building processes, could only say that there was a sense of inevitability to decentralisation itself.  

As one scholar lamented, “… if decentralisation were unknown anywhere else in the world, Papua New Guinea would have had to invent it”.

Whether or not a transition from an Australian to a PNG centralised system would have worked is difficult to say – and in fact exposes counter-factual scenarios.  

Consequently, it is difficult to say whether or not the type of quality and available services would have been accessible in many rural areas under a centralised system after PNG’s independence.  

Forty years on, the country has experienced decentralisation alone and people are living through the deterioration of services.  This is not an argument to debunk decentralisation, nor is it to insinuate that it has caused the poor service delivery issues.  Many compelling reasons abound that has nothing to do with decentralisation.  

However, there are keen observers who wonder as to whether the Government and administrative systems could be re-designed differently in order to allow effective and efficient service delivery, but without compromising the principles of decentralisation.  

This balancing act in fact is at the core of this review exercise.  

How can the decentralised system in whatever form it takes be (re)designed to operate efficiently and avoid cumbersomeness?  

Are other options available to provinces that would provide them incentives so that they operate efficaciously while instilling with self-reliance and good governance practices?  

And if elements of centralisation were to be introduced into the system in light of the weak manpower issues in provinces, what areas exactly are provinces willing to give up?  

As creations of an Act of Parliament, how will the District Development Authorities be fitted in and allowed to synchronise with bodies under an Organic Law on sub-national governments that embraces both the decentralised government and administrative structures? 

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers to such probing questions.  And that is why the development of a policy before a law is absolutely critical. 

It must take precedence.