In the Spotlight

Gandaki Province Training Academy’s Vision for Stronger Federal Governance: A Talk with Rishi Ram Pandey

December 21, 2023

Right after conducting three-tier elections in 2017 Nepal practically adopted federalism. Local, provincial and federal governments are now exercising their rights as an independent government as envisioned in 2015’s Constitution.

In the course of adopting new federal structures these governments are facing some difficulties in the bureaucratic, legal and administrative fronts. Some have faced inter-governmental differences as they exercised their authority independently. Among the several institutions that were created to make federalism actually deliver its promises to the people, one stands out. The Gandaki Province Training Academy (GPTA), an autonomous knowledge center of Gandaki province, is considered by many as one of the most successful institutions that is making some tangible differences in improving governance and connecting local governments with the rest of the federal structures. 

In an interview with UNDP’s Kamal Raj Sigdel, the executive director of GPTA Rishi Ram Pandey shared insights on how the academy has set precedents in enhancing knowledge management system and balancing inter-governmental relations. Below are the excerpts from the interview:

Anyone interested to know how federalism is functioning in Nepal, would hardly miss coming across this provincial training academy. Could you please tell us how the Academy is functioning?

It seems the Gandaki province government was fully aware about ways of strengthening federalism right after the country went into federal set up. The province envisioned a separate entity to enhance the capacity of elected people’s representatives and their employees. An act was promulgated in 2019 to establish this academy.

As mandated in the law, we perform five major tasks: performance-based training, problem centric research that supports policy making, issue-based dialogue, demand-based consultancy and knowledge management for public institutions.

In Nepal, knowledge management is weak. So is institutional memory. Without strengthening knowledge management it’s impossible to strengthen sub-national or federal governance. This academy has been trying to address this problem for the last three and half years.  

What are some of the accomplishments you feel proud about in the academy?

Let's begin with training. We prioritize improving traditional practices, incorporating crucial learning principles. Our commitment to impactful training involves thorough evaluation, addressing concerns, and connecting training to work performance through processes like Training Need Assessment (TNA) and instructional design principles.

Notably, our systematic TNA shapes our annual budgets and programs. Additionally, our strategic plan (BS 2077/78-2081/82) guides Provincial and Local Governance Support Programme (PLGSP), and all other programms aligning with our strategy and determining budget allocation. This approach ensures our achievements are grounded in standardized processes.
Could you give us some specific details about the scale of these interventions? 

 Institutionalization of a novel approach to training is one of our key achivements. The academy has so far trained over 16,000 elected people’s representatives and employees in 42 months through 400 long and short-term sessions. We were the first province to organize in-service training for officers and non-officer-level employes based on our own curriculum at the province level after the country went into a new federal set up.

Earlier, those trainings used to be organized by the Nepal Adminstrative Staff College (NASC) Local Development Training Academy (LDTA) of the federal government. For this, we took consent from the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Genderal Administration, developed a training curriculum based on the needs of Gandaki province and organized in-service training for assistant and officer-level staff. Then, we began in-service training for government employees. Later, the ministry issued a circular to all seven provinces to follow our model.

Our training approach is different. While we currently prioritize improvised training, our long-term strategy aims to move beyond it. In-person training at district or provincial headquarters is costly and impractical. Keeping employees away from office for several days is not a good idea. We're, therefore, developing standard operating procedures (SOPs), manuals, and job aids. The goal is to have a single SOP capable of organizing training for thousands of officials in one go.

A mere two-hour investment by a supervisor in reading the manuals and SOP can yield lifelong benefits. We've curated essential materials, subject to revision as needed. However, our strategic approach emphasizes the training as an alternative or only when necessary.

We've published SOPs for nine different office assistant positions, including security guards and drivers. The initial 500 copies have been distributed, and due to high demand, we are producing a second edition this year.

In our recent study of provincial and federal governments, we found out that there’s no practice of issuing terms of reference (TOR) for those employees (office assistants). We addressed this gap by issuing an SOP that outlines the responsibilities, required materials, documentation procedures, and methods of supervision and evaluation for office assistants.

Reaseach is another major area where we have focused. We conducted reaserach on “Inter-governmental Relations in Federal Nepal” which is the first research on intergovernmental relations carried out by the government institution. It focuses on whether the constitutional provisions in references to inter-governmental relations are implemented. The constitution stresses on coordination, coexistence, and cooperation. It has already been published.

We conducted third party work performance impact assessment to assess impact of capacity building training organized by GPTA to government employees and elected officials. This has helped to get the sense of value for money.  

We also concluded a study on local economic development. This study is about how 85 local governments in Gandaki province spent the budget allotted by the federal government for economic development policy. Its findings are interesting. Seven more publications are in the pipeline.

Similarly, we are also doing issue-based dialogues. We virtually trained officials by connecting federal and inter-government relation experts from Australia, Spain and South Africa. In May 2022, we invited the chief minister, ministers and all provincial members to discuss intergovernmental relations and sub-national governance. So far, we have organized five of such dialogues.

Notably, we also become one of the first ISO certified state-owned training academy (ISO 9001.. 2015). Despite covid-19 pandemic we achieved the target within two years. 

In Gandaki province, our academy currently covers around 10-12 percent of the capacity development market. Besides us, numerous NGOs and ministries are active in this sector, but the quality of their training often goes unchecked. To ensure high-quality training standards, we convened a five-day training session involving all 14 government training centers, including those from the police. This collaboration aims to uplift the overall training quality in the entire Gandaki province.

We are also expanding our efforts by onboarding academia. Our ultimate vision is to transform into an international-level training academy, generating income through organized training programs once staff recruitment begins next year.

Do you believe institutions like this Academy can contribute to strengthening federalism by promoting enhanced inter-governmental relations? What is your experience so far?

I do believe that we are definitely contributing. We've fostered stronger ties between local and provincial governments. Initially, local governments were hesitant to engage with provinces in the new federal setup. Despite the federal government's limited recognition of provincial governments, our active involvement has garnered support for provinces from local governments. Our contributions to local governance include developing periodic development plans, documentation, and capacity building for local officials and elected representatives. These efforts have created a sense of provincial support among local governments, bridging connections between provinces and local governments, fostering collaboration among all three tiers of government.

You've highlighted government programs like PLGSP. How are you leveraging these programs and other available resources?

What is special about Gandaki is, we modified and adopted PLGSP’s documentation and working modalities in our own context and implemented them in our own way. We have worked differently than what the federal government instructed us. For example, we don’t work with consultants while supporting the local governments in developing their periodic plans. Because we have all realized that consultants, particularly outsiders, have driven local development towards dependency. Local governments do not take ownership of programs unless they design their plans themselves and act on the frontline. The consultants plans remain in paper.

I strongly believe that there has to be some space for onboarding local governments in PLGSP, which is not there currently. We didn’t believe the system of preparing plans and other documents using exernal consultants and handing them over to the local government. It does not work and has not worked. We prefer ensuring local government ownership. Generally, we sign a MoU between local governments and us, under which local governments allocate some resources and we provide a match fund. Aligned with their own vision and promises made during their election campaign, the elected people’s representatives decide their plans on their own.

How does that help enhance the local government capacity? Could you elaborate? 
If you want to strengthen the government, strengthening the institutional development of government is important. I have also worked in local development sectors for more than two decades. We have several document plans prepared by donor agencies and other organizations. But those documents are never utilized.

To make the project workable it should be owned by the government, the government itself should invest and engage in implementation. If you see, other provinces have allocated Rs 500,000 to prepare a capacity development plan. We reduced the budget to Rs 300,000 with the intent of forcing the local governments to make some contribution, whatever small. Local governments will own up the program once they invest.

Under training and research policy, we don’t bear all expenses. We work in a collaborative manner. We don’t promote daily allowance and travel expenses. That's the business of the local government willing to get the training. The academy shouldn’t interfere in their internal affairs. We only focus on ensuring the best resource person, quality training, better program design and better participation. We follow a partnership approach, a unique approach in Gandaki province, while working with local governments. 

Inclusive development process is one of the underlying principles of federalism. How is Academy working towards that end?

The Academy has been supporting several local governments to move towads inclusive development. To that end, we have started to mainstream GESI in all 85 local governments. GESI Audit of 69 local governments concluded. We want a GESI audit done from local people, not outsiders. From this year, we are planning to organize GESI ToT to government officials so that they can audit on their own.

After GPTA provided training, Sukla Gandaki Rural Municipality is formulating the periodic plan on its own. No consultant is hired there for that job. We have categorically told them, ‘No need to prepare a 700-page periodic plan. Please nicely articulate the vision of the municipality chief and allocate resources equitably. Do it on your own.’ That’s our working modality. Be it PLGSP or other projects we implement the project in different ways.

How long should PLGSP continue to draft periodic plans, conduct public hearings or GESI audit? 

You may have heard about public hearings organized in other provinces. We don’t organize public hearings. Instead, we train chiefs of local governments and chief executive officers to organize public hearings. That’s our different working modality. 

After we organized a dialogue in presence of the local government chief, they have now realized that public hearings were held only for formality and this shouldn’t be organized without proper working procedures. Now, they have prioritized preparing working procedures for public hearing, public audit and social audit. For this, they have sought support from GPTA to prepare samples of working procedures so that they could replicate the same in their context.

Because of GESI training, the deputy mayor of Sundar Bazar changed the annual budget before the expiry of the fiscal year. We train people about gender responsive budgeting, then an audit is conducted and we can contribute policy based on the audit report.

For institutional development we focus on three aspects: infrastructure development, human development and system development. 

Do you have any specific feedback to development partnes, with regards to PLGSP?

Firstly, the implementation modality needs reconsideration, encompassing a review of all infrastructures like NEC, PPIU, PPCG, and PCU created for PLGSP implementation, along with an evaluation of the technical staff deployed.

Secondly, a shift in the implementation modality is necessary. While it may be acceptable at the provincial level to keep the program under the Chief Minister's office, involvement of other ministries and local governments is lacking. Taxpayers’ money won’t be utilized properly unless the local governments own up programs. For effective utilization of the budget allocated to local governments, we must involve them in the program.

Thirdly, a significant portion of the funding is spent through consultants. Considering the vast budget dedicated to preparing various documents, there is a need to explore alternatives to the current model. How long should we bear the mentality that government agencies are weak? We should trust government institutions and their capacity. But change is not possible if we think all government officials are corrupt, inefficient, non-performing and competent people are outside the government. So, institutional development should be the top priority.

Furthermore, the establishment of capacity-building units within local governments is essential. With diverse priorities among local governments, a decentralized approach to budget allocation, training needs assessment, and human resource management can be more effective. GPTA can assist in curriculum design and facilitation based on the local governments' specific requirements.

Despite being more than a year since the election, ward members are still lacking training. Developing a training manual for all 85 local governments and creating a mechanism for coordinated training, with local governments leading the initiative, could bring about a significant change in capacity development.

Given the scale of PLGSP, vigilance regarding fiduciary risks is crucial. While not directly connected, any accusations of fiduciary risk in any of the seven provinces can have widespread implications. A comprehensive review of the substantial consultant budget allocation is necessary.

Last but not the least, given the Academy’s examplery accomplishments in strengthening federalism, has there been any effort to share or replicate this experience in other provinces?  

All provinces have approached us to adopt our model. For instance, we initiated MoU with local governments for helping them with periodic plans, revenue reform, and GESI strategies. Koshi Province has replicated this, and Bagmati and Sudur Paschim Provinces are starting the same practice this year.

Furthermore, our standardized curriculum procedure is being replicated across all seven provinces, with our samples being utilized as a guide. Additionally, presentation facilitation techniques and methods for creating engaging training sessions are now followed by other provinces. The practice of publishing quarterly bulletin, initiated by us, has been adopted by others. We maintain a non-projectized approach, treating project staff and government employees equally. Recently, a team from the Sudurpaschim region consulted with us as they implemented a project to strengthen federalism.