The authority for provincial governors to hire and dismiss staff at the provincial level was stripped from a draft sub-decree on decentralisation during a tense daylong meeting yesterday, with Interior Minister Sar Kheng instead pushing forward a policy in which governors could suggest candidates but the final say on hires would belong to the ministers themselves.
In the draft presented during a meeting yesterday at the Interior Ministry, provincial governors would have been able to select candidates for department roles and to duplicate positions if the work-load required doing so. After heated debate, this was heavily revised.
“That will create chaos in the country,” Land Management Minister Chea Sophara said of the proposal. “One person will go to the house of the head of the council [to bribe him for a job] while another will go to the governor’s house and the minister.”
Staffing decisions should remain in the hands of ministers, he said, adding that apart from this he supported handing over powers from the national to provincial level.
Suy Sem, minister of mines and energy, echoed Sophara. Ministers, he said, “have the right to select the talented, good personalities qualified to take the responsibility as head of the department”.
Removing the provision from the sub-decree would undercut its intent to decentralise power, Takeo Provincial Governor Lay Vanna argued, as Sophara hung his head in frustration. Additionally, he argued, governors could identify local, motivated talent in lieu of candidates often selected by national authorities who prove difficult to work with at the provincial level.
“I didn’t bring the provincial governors together to [attack] the ministers,” Minister Kheng said, before putting forward a proposal for governors to suggest their preferred candidates and to be held accountable for their performance, while ministers would maintain the final say on hiring and firing. “This principle is proper.”
According to Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, neither the initial draft nor its revision fit the spirit of decentralisation, since provincial governors are themselves appointed by the national government, rather than voted in by civilians.
Governors are “accountable to only those that have the power over them, which is the national government”, he said. “Decentralisation means the accountability is to the people, not the national government.”
Decentralisation efforts have been years in the making and largely ineffective because they have been tailored towards strengthening the CPP’s grasp on local government, according to a paper released last year by researcher Netra Eng.
“Decentralisation is designed and implemented as part of the ruling political party’s strategy to strengthen its grip at the sub-national level rather than as an exercise for improving accountability and democracy,” she wrote. “The rerouting of existing strategies of party control through new decentralised government structures is thus a case of putting old wine in new bottles.”
Past attempts by the ruling party in 2002 and 2009 were intended to give local authorities the capacity – through both finances and autonomy – to develop their communities. But national authorities have been reluctant to relinquish power.
In August last year, Interior Minister Sar Kheng decried ministries’ slow progress towards decentralisation ahead of a 2019 internal deadline, calling ministers to speed up the process.
Ministry of Finance figures released last year show that the government allocated just 2.8 percent of national funds to the local level, or an average of $57,000 per commune, 60 percent of which went to administrative costs including wages, with the rest directed towards “development”.
Recent efforts to pursue decentralisation have been small in scale. In July, the Ministry of Social Affairs passed a community care reintegration programme for children in orphanages to provincial authorities. The following month, waste management was signed over as well.
“The whole thing is still a mess,” Virak said.