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Op-Ed | Local Governance Reform Can Strengthen Georgian Democracy from the Ground Up

By Peter Wiebler, USAID/Georgia Mission Director

Last year’s local elections were held under difficult circumstances, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic and a tense environment before and during election day. Despite these factors, voter turnout was 52%, significantly higher than in the previous local elections. This reinforced the message that the Georgian people desire more responsive democratic governance at all levels, from national institutions to municipal governments. With no elections scheduled until 2024, Georgia’s government has the opportunity to focus on reforms that will improve life for the country’s citizens, including at the local level. Steps to empower local governments – and local citizens – create conditions for a more participatory, citizen-centered democracy and allow government officials to earn the trust of the people they serve.

As the U.S. government enters the 30th year of our partnership with Georgia, USAID remains committed to empowering the Georgian people to build a more resilient, democratic, and prosperous society. When I travel the country and meet with teachers, entrepreneurs, farmers, young activists, and others, I often hear about the need to address urgent policy issues. Those include increasing COVID-19 vaccination rates, slowing rising inflation, and reducing unemployment, especially for young people. According to a recent public opinion poll conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, Georgians identified poverty, inflation, and jobs as the three most important national issues. This was consistent across the party spectrum, with supporters of the ruling party, opposition-minded voters, and the politically unaffiliated all expressing similar sentiments.

When meeting with Georgia’s citizens, I also hear about longer-term goals: integration with the European Union and NATO; clean energy development; and building a truly modern economy. Just as important are discussions about how to turn these things into reality. Without exception, folks point to how the country is governed.

Data show that confidence in government is low. According to the poll referenced above, only 39% of voters felt that they lived in a democracy, compared to 50% who did not. This stems from low confidence in Georgia’s elected officials, both at the national and local levels. While only 12% of Georgians assessed the performance of Parliament as “good,” local government hasn’t fared much better. According to a July 2021 poll from the same organization, only 17% of Tbilisi residents gave their local sakrebulo a positive assessment. The figure was just 26% for people living outside of Tbilisi.

Working at the Local Level to Earn the Trust of Citizens

This lack of confidence can be addressed through citizen-centered governance – where citizens have a real voice in how their society is governed and public officials earn the trust of constituents. Most citizens interact with state institutions such as schools, law enforcement and the judiciary, healthcare services, and public infrastructure at the local level. Greater governmental responsiveness should start in Georgia’s communities.

The Government of Georgia currently has an opportunity to put more financial resources and decision-making power in the hands of local leaders. Directing more financial resources locally can result in public services better tailored to each community: the needs of people in Lagodekhi vary from those in Senaki, for example. It also gives each member of Georgian society more opportunities to engage in democratic processes.

To help advance the local governance reforms that Georgia still needs, USAID is working closely with the Ministry of Regional Development and Infrastructure, the Ministry of Finance, and municipal governments around the country. Specifically, we are helping Georgia implement its Decentralization Strategy for 2020-2025, which includes a range of steps to empower local governments and, ultimately, the people who vote them into office.

Putting the Money Where the Governance Is

The Decentralization Strategy puts significant emphasis on ensuring that local governments have the financial resources they need to deliver for their citizens. Fiscal decentralization is a big part of that. Put simply, this means collecting more revenue at the local level and giving local governments more authority to make decisions on spending.

In 2019, welcome reforms were passed, allowing each municipality to receive a portion of the country’s value-added tax. The relatively stable nature of this income allows local governments to undertake long-term budget planning for public projects. Even more importantly, local governments now have an incentive to collect their own revenues, meaning that decisions about public funding are made in closer proximity to the people who are affected, and projects are funded in part with money raised directly from local residents.

Georgia has an opportunity to build on that success. About 80% of municipal budgets still come from the central government’s coffers, so there is room for growth. Part of our partnership with the Government of Georgia is devoted to creating new local revenue streams, including fees that can be collected and put directly into the local budget.

Transparency, Accountability, Effectiveness: Incentives for Engagement and Growth

Strong public financial management at the local level is an essential building block for any well-functioning democracy. When governments manage money in a transparent and accountable way, taxpayers can be confident they will receive the public services they deserve. Research shows that, globally, strong public finance management tends to allow governments to provide increased services during emergencies like COVID-19 – responding to the needs of citizens in real time. All of this increases public trust in democratic processes and incentivizes greater civic participation, things that increase community ownership of democratic development.

What’s more, when business owners and investors know they are dealing with a transparent and accountable government, they are more likely to make investments, especially in public-private-partnerships, that drive inclusive economic growth and long-term job expansion. Research from several countries has shown that decentralized, localized systems for collecting and spending revenue have a positive impact on economic growth – an insight that is reflected in the Government of Georgia’s Decentralization Strategy for 2020-2025.

To give a tangible example of how USAID supports these goals, USAID has recently worked with municipal governments to help them improve their budgeting processes. In 2020 and 2021, we supported budget development in ten municipalities – Akhaltsikhe, Dedoplistskaro, Dusheti, Gori, Kobuleti, Kutaisi, Ozurgeti, Rustavi, Telavi, and Zugdidi. As a result, all ten municipalities qualified for incentive grants from the Ministry of Finance of Georgia. Those grants are now funding projects planned with input from local communities, including new heating systems in kindergartens, new public sports facilities for youth, and other infrastructure projects.

Governing, Not Politicizing

Just like at the national level, those working in Georgia’s municipalities need the freedom to do their jobs. As non-political civil servants, they should be insulated from political decision-making and from partisan concerns that arise during the election cycle. When Georgia’s governing bodies can ensure that public services are provided in a non-political manner, it builds citizens’ trust that the authorities are acting in the public interest.

Civil service reform has been a priority for us at the national level for several years. Now, we are increasing our efforts at the local level. USAID is currently sponsoring a study on the impact of political influence on local governance, including the hiring, firing, and promotion of public servants. In addition to funding research in this area, we will build the capacity of local watchdogs to monitor these activities and call out violations in the future.

Empowering Georgia’s civil servants also means helping them build the skills they need to deliver public services that are on par with the international standards to which Georgia aspires. In addition to our long-standing partnership with the Civil Service Bureau on civil service reform, we started a joint initiative with the Zurab Zhvania School of Public Administration to train ethnic minority public servants in eight municipalities across Kakheti, Kvemo Kartli, and Samtskhe-Javakheti.

This effort to empower ethnic minority civil servants can strengthen Georgia’s democracy in multiple ways: by creating opportunities for talented professionals from Georgia’s diverse communities; by ensuring that more of Georgia’s citizens, especially those from underrepresented areas, benefit from local governance reforms; and by closing the gap in trust between minority communities and the government, a gap that can be exploited by malign actors to undermine Georgia’s social cohesion and democratic development.

In Georgian Politics, We Always Come Back to Local Governance

Local governance reform presents the Government of Georgia with an opportunity to strengthen the links between citizens and elected officials that can help drive democratic development from the ground-up. It will also help achieve the international aspirations the Georgian people have consistently expressed. Now that the country has concluded election cycles in both 2020 and 2021, USAID stands ready to deepen our support to the people and Government of Georgia to advance local governance reform.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)


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