There are many definitions of governance. The UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific or ESCAP for one defines governance as a process of decision-making and the process by which decisions are implemented or alternatively not implemented. ESCAP’s definition focuses on the associated formal and informal structures as well as the actors involved in arriving at and implementing a decision. It is a definition that can be applied at several different levels such as international governance, national governance, local governance and corporate governance. Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad states that “when we talk of governance, we speak of the exercise of political, economic and administrative authority to manage a nation’s affairs.”. It is a very practical definition and we need to understand that while there is a tendency to view the definition of governance in its generic form, in its operational dimension, the process of governance depends to a large extent upon the prevailing values of a society.
Definition of Urban Governance
Governance at the Local Level
In the Malaysian context, the driver for governance at the local level continues to be local government. Malaysia adopts a nominative representation system at local government and not an elective one. Council members are appointed from the ruling party that holds power in the locality, namely the State Government. Given this form of representation Malaysia, therefore, takes the exception stand in relation to the Habitat II Declaration on the issue of local elections. Malaysia’s response has been to strengthen local government representation by the inclusion of individuals with specific expertise or experience in areas such as the environment and consumerism and representatives of other relevant interest groups to sit as local government councillors.
The Local Government Act 1976 – Act 171
This framework for local governance is provided through the Local Government Act 1976. The Act empowers local governments to take the lead role for local governance in Malaysia. Act 171 applies only to Peninsular Malaysia. The states of Sabah and Sarawak have similar legislation to cover local governments in the two states which is The Local Government Ordinance 1961 (Sabah) and The Local Authorities Ordinance 1996 (Sarawak).Various provisions within the Act clearly support the local governance process. Let me cite a few to illustrate this:
a. Although local government is nominative and not elective, Act 171 does provide the local community a link to the elected representative albeit at the higher state authority level. Section 9 of the Act empowers the State Authority to issue directions of a general character to the local authority on the policy to be followed by the local authority in exercising its powers. This is particularly true for matters that appear to the State Authority to affect the interests of the local authority. At the same time the same section of the Act stipulates that the local authority is to furnish all relevant accounts, returns and other information on its property and activities to the State Authority.
This provision provides a safety valve for the local community where intervention by the State Authority can avert any undesirable impact of local government action upon the local community. In addition, the requirement for local government to keep the State Authority informed of its activities and commitments acts as a control against abuse and deviation of the powers and jurisdiction of the local authority. Essentially both these stipulations operate on the accountability dimension of governance. This accountability factor will also cover situations where the local authority carries out activities in partnership with other groups or assigns a third party to undertake services.
b. Section 10 of the Act provides for the State Authority to appoint councillors, the majority of whom shall be persons resident in the local authority area. They must have wide experience in local government affairs or have achieved high standing within a particular profession or the commercial sector who in the view of the State Authority are capable of representing the interests of the local community. This provision again serves to strengthen the interest of the local community by ensuring that their representatives serving in the local authorities are from local residents who understand the needs of the local community. The stipulation on the suitability and qualifications of councillors ensures that the needs and requirements of the local community are well articulated. This provision addresses the participatory dimension of governance even though by proxy.
c. Section 23 of the Act provides for meetings of local authorities to be open to the public as well as representatives of the mass media. This is a governance-friendly provision on the transparency dimension. Public meetings of the local authority allow local residents to know what plans and activities are being designed and implemented for the relevant local government area. At the very least they will be able to obtain such information through media reports. Access to such information will enable local residents to provide feedback and make representations on possible areas of concern to sections of the community that are affected by a particular action of the local authority or its agents. In addition Section 27 of the Act provides for the minutes of the proceedings of the local authority to be kept and be open for inspection by any rate-payer in the local authority area. Again this strengthens the transparency component of governance.
d. Section 26 of the Act provides that all decisions of the local authority at its meetings are decided by majority vote. In this regard Section 24 sets the necessary quorum for the transaction of council business at its meetings to ensure sufficient representation of members before decisions are made. Majority decisions by councillors acting on behalf of the local community would at least contribute towards the most preferred option or course of action. This hopefully also translates into the choice of the majority of residents in the local community. It seems an imperfect alternative to the direct participation requirement of governance but it provides a minimum safeguard in that whatever decisions arrived at by the local authority are at least based on the views of the majority.
These provisions of the Local Government Act 1976 highlight the fact that where local governments continue to play the central role in local governance as in the case of Malaysia, they do so in a manner that supports the core dimensions of governance. In this regard the Government is currently amending the existing local government legislation to include provisions that will address issues of consultation and participation in a significant way. This development obviously arises from the recognition that the local resident community, the local business community and voluntary groups that operate within the local government area are ready for a more active role in plans and decisions that affect them.
The first will be in terms of the role of local authorities as they are perceived today. As stated earlier, currently local governance is seen to fall almost entirely within the domain of local government authorities. The legal and administrative mandates as expressed through the Local Government Act 1976 and also the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 puts the local authority firmly in the driving seat in governing matters affecting the local community. Today, partnerships and collaboration with the local community depend wholly upon the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the local government leadership. The challenge for local government in promoting local governance is to make partnership, consultation and participation its mainstay and modus operandi. This is not to say that local authorities are not partnering or consulting in carrying out their operations currently. Local governance calls for a different type and far higher level of partnership and consultation.
This will be a major departure for local governments because it will mean an entirely new way of doing business for them. If such a partnership and participatory framework becomes mandated in the future, then local government authorities will have to refocus and reorganize their activities to support such a framework. The local government authority as an administrative entity will have to transform by designing its activities around the participatory process, monitoring decision-making, evaluating implementation of decisions, identifying funding for activities and generally facilitating community projects and initiatives. This calls for both mindset and organizational change within the local government entity itself where management of internally-driven programmes and projects will give way to the management of external mechanisms that involve stakeholders, partners and customers. These role players will bring to bear their own multi-cultural perspectives in pursuing their agendas.
From the information and knowledge empowerment point of view, the knowledge and information stock within local authorities must be able to aid the participatory process by developing datasets that can be accessed by the community to enable informed decision-making by all related parties. As we can see, if local governance takes full flight, then the current perception of local authorities as being primarily involved in providing or delivering urban services will undergo a sea change.