The Process of Federalism: an Interview with Mike Fleet of the Institute of Governance

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In December, we spoke to Mike Fleet, who has been working in Iraq with the Canadian organisation Institute of Governance (IOG) which works in multiple countries and sectors broadly helping governments and organisations to improve their governance.

IEI: Tell us a bit about yourself and your work at the IOG:

MF: I work as a senior researcher on the Iraq Team in the IOG located in Ottawa, Canada. My position with the IOG is to support the Iraq project that began in 2015 called the “Fiscal Federalism and Decentralization” project, funded by Global Affairs Canada.

In this position, I assist in the implementation of the project and help develop internal research for the team, among other things. I’m currently involved in a baseline assessment process, involving extensive interviews with government officials in the federal government and in Qadisiyah and Maysan, as those two governorates are where we are putting forward our pilot projects for decentralization and training for the implementation of Law 21.

IEI: In development, there is an often discussed disconnect between what the donor wants and what the local stakeholders need. You have taken a very sustained interest in Iraq and the details of local politics. How important is building that local knowledge when it comes to bridging that potential disconnect and adapting approaches?

MF: I think it’s essential for anyone working in Iraq to have a solid understanding of the country and the politics. There often is a disconnect between donor wants and local stakeholder needs, and this knowledge is one of the key ways of bridging that gap. With my role, I keep up to date on the current state of play of politics in Iraq to help translate the technical expertise we have here in Ottawa to be more useful and relevant to stakeholders in Iraq.

Additionally, we have an office in Baghdad attached to the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council (PMAC) that has five Iraqi staff and another Iraqi-Kurd staff member in Erbil. Having staff members that are local is very important; I as a foreigner will never have quite the level of in-depth nuanced knowledge that a local will (and that is perfectly fine).

When developing a plan for programming, I think it’s a big mistake if NGOs or different organizations do not perform a needs assessment and network analysis to see who is doing what around them, as well as looking through previous projects similar to what you plan on doing. It’s sometimes said that programming is tailor-made to donors and that the issues they’re trying to address are ones that the state is either ignoring, or can’t fix due to lack of knowledge or capacity, or problems that the state simply doesn’t know are problems (or that donors are just forcing certain foreign policy for domestic political reasons).

This model is a very flawed way of looking at the issues, and can result in programming that simply can’t get off the ground because of poor planning or approaching an issue in the wrong way. For example, in a previous project attempting to implement the Financial Management Information System (FMIS) in Iraq, the idea behind the project was rock solid but the context was simply not appropriate to the FMIS being installed. One high level Iraqi official was reported saying “what you are selling me has nothing to do with the problems I face.” By taking the time to work through problems with stakeholders and develop relationships and build trust with them, the process of developing programming that effectively bridges the demands of donors and stakeholders is much easier, and the programming will be more likely to succeed. Basically, do your homework and work with those locally. Don’t provide pre-made modelled solutions but rather solutions tailored to the context (which almost everyone recognizes as a must but few accomplish).

IEI: Recently, IOG President Toby Fyfe was in Iraq talking about fiscal federalism and decentralisation, which is a major part of your work. The IOG describes the goal of “fostering understanding of the benefits of a federal system.” Since there are different variations of federalism, is there a particular philosophy IOG has when it comes to working in Iraq?

MF: The IOG’s approach to federalism in Iraq is one where the organization distinctly recognizes that Iraqi federalism is its own unique structure from other federal models. To help realize this structure established in the 2005 Constitution and Law 21, we are working through the pilot projects in Qadisiyah and Maysan, where we help build budgetary and executive leadership capacity.

Additionally, we have established technical committees and a steering committee to work through issues of authorities between the federal ministries and the governorate level directorates – legal, administrative, and fiscal. With this process we facilitate meetings between decentralized directorates and their counterparts with the federal government in Baghdad, helping to improve intergovernmental interlocutors within which a federal system can operate while instilling an ongoing dialogue between the governorates themselves and with the governorate and Baghdad.

We also provide training with lessons learned of the Canadian federal process and experience, with a distinct focus that federalism is a process of ongoing negotiations of power and authority between the federal and provincial governments that move ahead with agreed upon authorities for good governance. We believe that a decentralized model of fiscal federalism can assist in promoting closer, more accountable governance in Iraq while improving service delivery in both time and quality. Additionally, it can lessen the burden of services that the federal government is in charge of, assisting in easing the budgetary burdens placed on the centre while encouraging the governorates to develop alternative revenue streams. This is not partitioning the State as some have fears of, but rather placing clear lines of authority of service delivery and political representation for citizens to benefit.

Legally, the 2005 Constitution is very clear on the matter that the governorates not incorporated in a region have,

“broad administrative and financial authorities to enable them to manage their affairs in accordance with the principle of decentralized administration, and this shall be regulated by law” (article 122, second section), along with article 115 which states that,

“all powers not stipulated in the exclusive powers of the federal government belong to the authorities of the regions and governorates that are not organized in a region. With regard to other powers shared between the federal government and the regional government, priority shall be given to the law of the regions and governorates not organized in a region in case of dispute.”

This places the governorates in a position of power where authorities fall unto them to administer services not expressly under the jurisdiction of the federal government unless they negotiate with Baghdad otherwise (article 123). With this legal framework and Law 21, we have the legal reasoning to back our approach.

Currently, in Iraq, there are many views of what constitutes as federalism, with some viewing it as dangerous and others as a purely administrative exercise of decentralization but not fiscal. Our advantage as Canadians is that we have staff experienced in working in a structure that can help provide useful case studies for relevant counterparts in Iraq on the Canadian experience through the federal process and what worked and didn’t work for us. We then take this information and apply it in a way that is useful to the Iraq context.

For example, while the ministries of Health and Education were being decentralized by Law 21 and subsequent order of former Prime Minister Abadi, in early 2018 the ministers stopped the decentralization process. This has now created a situation where some staff are under the governorate jurisdiction and other staff are federal. Additionally, it has created reporting problems in the bureaucracy as staff are unsure of who they are supposed to report to, and issues of who has the authority to do x or y.

What we do here is work with these staffers and provide information of how Canada decentralized health and education services. For other directorates, like Agriculture, we work with the governorate directorates to get information of what is working or not working for decentralized authorities (or what needs to be decentralized) to be discussed in technical committees composed of relevant technical experts in both the federal and governorate level that builds a report of what should be done that is passed onto the Higher Commission of the Coordination of the Provinces (HCCP) which makes decisions on them. This allows us to assist in the process, but ultimately the decision on what to do and how to act rests with the Iraqis (as it should!).

IEI: In the past year, there has been a lot of talk about thinking of capacity building in terms of a “unit” (a person, or institution) and a system, and the challenge of building “system capacity.” IOG takes a “systems approach.” What does that mean to you?

MF: Building system capacity for directorates to perform more effectively is exceptionally difficult, and one that requires careful planning of just who you target and with what material is taught. Our approach targets the middle of the Iraqi public service—executives, directors and director generals, etc.—to raise their own ability to act and understand how they can effectively engage in a federal model of governance.

This is part of why we have also established the Centre of Excellence with the University of Karbala and support of the Karbala Governorate, where we are beginning a process with the idea of a nascent public service school. This is to pass on knowledge and develop the executive capacity for public-service leaders both at the federal and at the governorate level with the idea that it will grow and become institutionalized as a place to develop more training programming and pass on knowledge on how to operate in a federal system and execute projects and policy. This is important not only because it improves people’s skillsets for service delivery, but also because it helps to mix and mingle those across government sectors and jurisdictions from across the country to help normalize relations and build more connections with those in the public service. As commonly noted in other cases, sometimes more things happen in casual conversations after the classes are over.

We recognize that there is only so much we can do exogenously, as when people go back to their own workstations the overall structure of their work and the system within which they operate has its own methods, so it’s easier to fall back into those trends than to push against them. So, to counter that, we perform a systems approach that not only targets individuals in the system (system being the Iraqi government bureaucracy) but also the legal/administrative/fiscal elements that are inhibiting people’s ability to apply the change in their workplace.

IEI: In Iraq, we’ve seen slow but important developments such as Qi Card to pay pensions of some government sector workers. But others hoped for technological efficiencies, such as financial information management systems, have been far harder to implement. What potential is there for Iraq to “leapfrog” many problems developing nations have with new technology such as Qi Card? 

MF: I think there is a huge opportunity in Iraq for this tech to allow the country to leap-frog ahead. You mention the FMIS, which was hard to implement for many reasons, but companies like Qi Card, ZainCash, and others currently have fantastic ideas that can facilitate citizens access to government services while incentivizing Iraqi citizens to open bank accounts, which would continue to have cascading effects and benefits while helping both government and citizens have better opportunities for service delivery.

While of course there are issues of bureaucracy, red tape and some political issues that hinder technological growth, Iraq does not suffer the track dependency of certain programs for service delivery that exist in countries like Canada. In Canada, the infrastructure is already in place but is ageing and the mindsets for certain policy approaches rely in part on sheer inertia of the policy rather than if it’s the right one.

Because Iraq has more open space in this front, it can jump faster into these kinds of digitalization of government services that can rapidly speed up how citizens interact with the government. For example, instead of having someone has to drive back and forth between different ministries around Baghdad to have certain forms signed and approved so they can receive their passport, they can have their profile completed and biometrically attached to their identity digitally so all they need to do is work from their cellphone at home and have the passport either shipped to them or go to a one-stop-shop service centre.

This would also vastly improve the access to services for rural citizens or those who cannot get to certain cities around Iraq that have the services or goods they need. Of course, the elephant in the room is corruption, which serves as an impediment to growth and investment: as tech advances and becomes more available as a means to circumvent existing corruption patterns, this will obviously upset the status quo of those interested in maintaining corrupt practices. But I believe this way forward is one that must be seriously discussed and supported, as it can have benefits for citizens in the short, medium, and long term.

Now, I’ve attended meetings where Iraqi government officials are very supportive of these initiatives, but some are slightly wary of the look of the privatization of government services, which can admittedly backfire under certain circumstances. But this is much more of a public-private partnership where, with government support, these companies can grow across the country and assist in providing the essential services Iraqi citizens need in an accessible manner.

But there lies the issue: the companies are currently somewhat stymied by their inability to obtain new building space in certain cities or have access to ongoing reliable power to run their servers. These are broader issues that must be resolved, again with the full support of the Iraqi government, to help facilitate the growth of these companies. If that can happen, then I believe it is very possible for Iraq to leap-frog ahead in technological service delivery, which will only make other niche markets for more private sector growth and innovation.