For some time now, discussions have been centered on the Government of Liberia’s decentralization policy, the education sector being no exception.
Decentralization in education is of serious concern, and what may be more surprising is how to examine in depth how decentralization policies are implemented, how local actors in the education sector use their increased autonomy and what difficulties they experience.
Policies for decentralization are very important and among the most conspicuous features of public management reform in our country, mainly because the advantages attributed to decentralization (greater administrative efficiency, more participatory decision-making, and more relevant policies and strategies) address the concerns of different stakeholders and interest groups in education.
However, the policies in question have seldom been implemented through pressure from local interests or consultation. Surprisingly perhaps, since local actors such as regional, county and district education officers, principals or teachers should be those who gain most from them. A review of the education policies related to decentralization as enshrined in the New Education Act of 2011 over the last five years has demonstrated the limited benefits of decentralization for local interests, and identified many challenges to its successful implementation.
The challenges facing decentralization in education:
One of the challenges facing the decentralization of education is that the local education offices are unable to help lead educational development in their counties in general and the districts in particular; education officers with responsibilities for education all too rarely exercise them effectively; despite receiving some financial autonomy through the receipt of school grants from the central office of the Ministry of Education, schools have seldom used it to innovate; many principals feel overburdened and abandoned rather than empowered. But why is the local implementation of decentralization in education problematic in the first place?
Among several reasons for this, three are of special importance. First, the development of a policy for decentralization has not always been based on careful prior consideration of how to balance the responsibilities and assets of all those locally involved.
For instance, county and district education offices may be asked to perform key tasks such as monitoring policy implementation, developing strategic plans, and supporting schools. But in our country, the resources required by these local education actors are not available. Though their staffing levels may be appropriate, staff members may lack the necessary professional background and skills, while offices themselves may have little autonomy in the fields of human resources and financial management.
A second barrier to successful decentralization is the local distribution of power. Those (REOs, CEOs, and DEOs,) to whom authority is decentralized may want to use it to promote selectively local or even private interests. If they have a local monopoly of power, control mechanisms at this level are largely ineffectual.
A third restrictive factor may be the lack of a common vision regarding the nature and aims of any policy for decentralization. Central policy-makers view it as a means of improving efficiency and thus reducing their administrative workload, while local actors hope that it will facilitate their work and give them more autonomy. Failure to fulfill all such contrasting expectations leads to frustration and weakens commitment to the policy.
What are the solutions?
Certain key factors are instrumental in improving implementation of decentralization. First, it is essential to develop a common vision by involving local interests more effectively in policy-making, in terms of both consultation and hands-on participation. Secondly, any policy for decentralization means linking more carefully the central and local actors. Greater thought should be given to strengthening or mobilizing existing assets.
Take the case of principals of schools. Their many assets (sound teaching experience, closeness to teaching staff, and credibility within the local community) could enable them to supervise and support their teachers more effectively.
However, in our educational sector, they lack the status and authority to do so, instead having to perform numerous administrative tasks for which they are poorly prepared.
We need to do a real professionalization of the cadre of school principals, which is now vital for the decentralization of education. Thirdly, those who have gone unheard in society should be given their voice, not least of all to prevent decentralization from aggravating inequality, and to strengthen the social accountability of those actively involved in local and school affairs.
Finally, the effectiveness of action undertaken by local actors, their difficulties and their successes should be regularly monitored. The data collected should be used as a basis for further support or for rethinking and revising policy as necessary. Indeed, no policy should be regarded as sacrosanct.
Francis Koko Gray, Contributing Writer