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  • Ashwin Mahesh

The publicly managed city

Even a cursory look at some of the problems in urban governance will reveal that the current structure of public administration and governance is inadequate to tackle them. Different levels of government rarely cooperate. Worse still, even at the same level of government, silos in administration are everywhere, with each department blissfully unaware of what others are doing. Financial powers are still by and large held by national and state politicians. Surely we can do better than this. But how? Whenever I put this question to those who live in urban areas, the answer I get is invariably,"the city government, of course".

One of the big changes of the last few decades in particular around the world is that urban dwellers now understand that city councils and municipal administrations are different from provincial and national governments. The city, and the metropolitan regions that contain clusters of cities, are emerging in their own right. But that still leaves a lot of ground to be covered beyond. Cities are evidently different from states and nations. In many cases, urban settlements are small enough that we can ask ourselves, "could the citizens themselves manage a lot of things in the city?" Managing states and countries is clearly well beyond the scale at which day-to-day citizen management makes practical sense, but surely this is possible in civic administration.

Could we not re-imagine government in a way that formally includes citizens, and gives them control over budgets in local areas to attain goals set by them?

Is this not happening already, one may ask. There is some evidence that urban government is being re-imagined. From London to Manila to Cape Town to Porto Allegre, there are numerous examples of new urban arrangements in planning, budgeting, infrastructure development, and the delivery of services, each seeking to throw off old shackles and find new ways of powering the economies of cities. But these changes, significant as they are, do not go far enough.

The re-imagination of governance in cities has thus far remained strongly anchored in institutions of government, not withstanding the changes that are evident. It is certainly good that we are moving beyond national leadership and provincial dominance to city leadership and metropolitan governance. But a lot of this is merely a re-arrangement of powers and responsibilities among existing layers of government. We can do much more than that.

How much of 'public' administration can be carried out by the public itself? After all, democratic government is not only for the citizens, but also by them.

Since 2000, citizens in my city (Bangalore) have proposed and obtained a Self Assessment System for property tax payments, helped to digitize the work of the traffic police, revised the bus transport route system in the city, revived more than 25 lakes, and reduced landfill volumes through waste recycling in many communities.

All of this, without formal authority or financial empowerment. Imagine what more could be done if those too were added If governments choose to, such new models can be made far more effective quite swiftly.

  • In South Africa and Canada, city governments have begun to show that such progress can be institutionalized, through formally empowered, self-managing City Improvement Districts.

  • In India recently, Loksatta Party is advocating the direct transfer of tax funds to all local communities, at the rate of Rs.1000 per resident per year.

And most encouragingly, whereas initially it was felt that only richer neighborhoods would demand rights of self-management, more recently it has been observed that even poorer citizens, such as those in the townships of South Africa, believe their areas would be better off being managed by them, rather than city officials. That should tell us, unambiguously, what the way forward is.

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