Shabih Mohib, Soren Davidsen and Robert Boothe
Successful development is about making a reality of aspirations and ambitious ideas through effective implementation – Myanmar can achieve just that for its people by instilling the values of transparency, accountability and public participation in its public sector.
Ideas and policies matter. They have the power to be transformative. A strong and efficient, transparent and accountable public sector is crucial for translating inspiring ideas and policies into real development outcomes. If we liken Myanmar to a car, then the public sector – a collection of institutions, processes and people which together function as the machinery of government – has an important role to play. The people of Myanmar sit in the driver’s seat, the private sector is the engine which moves the economy forward – and the public sector acts as the car’s transmission and gearbox. If it’s running well, the car moves forward smoothly – but if it’s poorly maintained, people may be in for a bumpy ride.
There are many examples of governments whose ideas inspired, but only a few manage to achieve their aspirations. In post-apartheid South Africa, the African National Congress, led by Nelson Mandela, inspired the hopes and dreams of a nation with their vision for peace and prosperity. However, it took many years of challenging public sector reform to help achieve the success we see in South Africa today. At this critical juncture, how can Myanmar’s government ensure that its vision for growth and development is translated into real outcomes?
An important place to start is with public participation. In the past, lack of transparency and participation in the public sector had fueled inefficiencies in Myanmar, and compounded loss of public trust in government. Global experience suggests that citizen participation, especially from the poor, is a critical ingredient for good service delivery – as is accountability for results, where effective provision of services is rewarded, especially provision to those people with the greatest need. Both public participation and accountability for results are most effective in an environment of openness and transparency.
Myanmar has taken some important first steps towards a more accountable public sector, and better use of public resources to support growth and service delivery. Transparency has increased, with televised Union Budget debates, and published versions of both the enacted budget as well as a new, simplified Citizen’s Budget. This has had a major impact on spending, with large increases for services like health and education. The tax system has become more equitable and transparent, with the introduction of a new self-assessment system of taxation by the Large Taxpayer’s Office. In addition to building trust, this new system will likely increase revenues – when Vietnam undertook a similar phased approach introducing self-assessment in the late 1990s, compliance costs for taxpayers dropped significantly, and government revenues as a share of GDP grew by more than 50 percent by 2011. Myanmar has also moved towards greater transparency in the use of natural resource revenues, successfully becoming a candidate of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) with the first report published in early 2016. Together, these reforms have helped revenues grow by almost double 2009 levels, providing crucial resources for services and public investment.
How can Myanmar build on the momentum of these different reforms? There are many opportunities to strengthen participation, transparency and accountability, but five options in particular seem promising.
First, continuing to promote a fair and transparent tax system will build public trust while also securing much-needed revenues. Authorities can achieve these objectives by continuing to roll out the self-assessment system to medium taxpayers, by continuing to strengthen taxpayer services and outreach, and by publishing and disseminating annual EITI reports, with the medium-term goal of expanding coverage to the jade and gems sectors.
Second, authorities can build trust and participation by enhancing transparency of public finances. This could include timely publication of key documents such as a Citizen’s Budget, a Medium-Term Fiscal Policy statement with views on both availabilities and key commitments in the medium term, and the Union Budget proposal when it is submitted to the Hluttaw. A further step would be to publish existing fiscal data on the Ministry of Planning and Finance website for use by academia and civil society, building trust and confidence in government.
Third, Myanmar can empower local governments to meet the needs of their people by considering an appropriate balance of Union-State/Regions government relations. Decentralization is a complex and often political process – and by establishing a technical secretariat within government to provide advice on key policy questions such as roles and responsibilities, spending and revenue raising powers, Myanmar can make informed decisions about the best path forward. Such a secretariat was established in Thailand in the early 2000s under the Office of the Prime Minister to support the decentralization program, and it proved very important in coordinating the decentralization program.
Fourth, authorities can seek more active public engagement and feedback on policy reforms. Conducting public consultations on key legislation, especially related to public finances, would help build trust and partnership with the people of Myanmar while also giving valuable feedback and ideas to government. A medium-term goal could include developing a general legal framework to govern the issuance, consultation and publication of legislation in order to entrench the principles of transparency and disclosure.
Finally, Myanmar can commit to the principles of accountability by measuring and publishing performance figures for key public services like waste management, sanitation, and the provision of utilities like power and water. Moving forward, various government departments could adopt minimum standards which the people of Myanmar should expect for these and other key services – and establish channels for the people of Myanmar to report any issues and have them speedily resolved. Such standards not only strengthen trust and accountability – they provide crucial information which government managers can use to help in their work.
When a government has great ideas, the difference between success and failure hinges on the ability of the public sector to translate policies into outcomes. The people of Myanmar stand to benefit from a public sector which is transparent, participatory and accountable. The World Bank Group looks forward to continuing working with Myanmar on improving service delivery countrywide.
Shabih Mohib is a program leader and lead governance economist, Soren Davidsen is senior public sector specialist and Robert Boothe is a public sector specialist at the World Bank. This op-ed is based on the World Bank Group’s policy note “Participating in Change: Promoting Public Sector Accountability to all,” prepared by Shabih Mohib, Robert Boothe, May Thet Zin, Soren Davidsen with inputs from Elizabeth Moorsmith and Corey Pattison.