As rural Mongolians continue to move to the capital, Ulaanbaatar, in record numbers, the city has struggled to provide needed services, especially in the rapidly growing ger areas. The Municipality of Ulaanbaatar, under new leadership since 2016, has sought to improve public-service delivery and better target available development funds by increasing public participation in local spending decisions.
Mongolia’s Integrated Budget Law, which came into effect in January 2013, was the first law to prescribe public consultation in government decision-making. The law was arguably the country’s first attempt to decentralize development planning to local government. A major outcome of the law was the creation of the Local Development Fund (LDF), which provides the only forum for citizens to directly voice their opinion on local expenditures.
Although budget management remains highly centralized in Mongolia, the percentage of the national budget dedicated to the LDF is significant—five percent in 2014. LDF projects are prioritized by citizens through an annual, paper-based survey and selected through a process of community consultations. Historically, LDF projects have included sidewalks, playgrounds, citizen halls, street lighting, waste collection points, and water wells.
The LDF presents Mongolian citizens with an important opportunity for participatory democracy, but its impact has been blunted by widespread unfamiliarity with the law and its provisions. In a 2015 baseline survey conducted by The Asia Foundation’s Urban Governance Project (UGP) in 33 khoroos, the lowest administrative unit of the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar, a disheartening 82 percent of respondents were unaware of the LDF.
The LDF also has a worrisome design limitation. Khoroos administer the community consultations that are the central mechanism of the LDF, collecting opinions and submitting this information to district administrators. But the districts, which make the final decisions on LDF allocations, have the authority to select projects based on their own development policies and priorities, creating a loophole that can potentially thwart the LDF’s public-participation provisions.
Since 2015, the UGP, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, has been working with the Municipality of Ulaanbaatar to improve the LDF project cycle, streamline the management of Citizen Input
, and increase the transparency of LDF decision-making. Among the practical measures has been the development of LDF community maps, which pinpoint the location, budget, and contractor of LDF-funded projects.
|Figure 1. The Citizen Input mobile app allows the Mongolian public to vote for development projects and monitor the government’s performance on existing projects. Photo/The Asia Foundation|
To put these maps to use and improve public participation in the LDF process, the UGP has developed the LDF Citizen Input Application
. Using their mobile phones, citizens can fill out their district’s LDF questionnaire directly in the app. They can also use the app to view the LDF community maps, giving them a comprehensive overview, by community, of previous LDF projects (figure 1), and allowing them to easily see when their districts make LDF project allocations that diverge from the public’s recommendations.
In collaboration with the municipality, the mobile app was piloted in March and April this year in all nine districts of Ulaanbaatar. The pilot, supported by training events and a comprehensive social media campaign, drew 13,000 citizen responses (figure 2).
|Figure 2. LDF Citizen Input Application pilot results. In Baganur, the application collected over 6,000 citizen votes, compared to just 2,333 for the paper-based questionnaire.|
Baganuur district, where all five khoroos participated in the pilot, used both the paper-based LDF questionnaire and the mobile app to collect citizen input. “Although the paper-based questionnaire received 2,333 responses this year, the application collected 6,019 responses,” said Ms. L. Ariunjargal, Baganuur’s planning and LDF specialist.
“The mobile application improves citizen participation in the LDF,” says Ulaanbaatar’s policy and planning officer, Ms. G. Erdenechimeg. “It’s easy to use and gives us real-time responses from citizens throughout Ulaanbaatar.”
The encouraging pilot results suggest that the political and fiscal accountability of the LDF process in Mongolia can be substantially improved. If effectively used, the Citizen Input Application can streamline the LDF process and improve its transparency, with the promise of tangible benefits for government, civil society, and, most importantly, the urban residents of Ulaanbaatar.
Philippe Long is a program manager in The Asia Foundation’s Urban Governance Program in Mongolia. He can be reached [email protected] The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.