Decentralization is the process of distributing or dispersing functions, powers, people or things away from a central location or authority. While centralization, especially in the governmental sphere, is widely studied and practiced, there is no common definition or understanding of decentralization. The meaning of decentralization may vary in part because of the different ways it is applied. Concepts of decentralization have been applied to group dynamics and management science in private businesses and organizations, political science, law and public administration, economics and technology.
The word "centralization" came into use in France in 1794 as the post-French RevolutionFrench Directory leadership created a new government structure. The word "decentralization" came into usage in the 1820s. "Centralization" entered written English in the first third of the 1800s; mentions of decentralization also first appear during those years. In the mid-1800s Tocqueville would write that the French Revolution began with "a push towards decentralization...[but became,] in the end, an extension of centralization." In 1863 retired French bureaucrat Maurice Block wrote an article called “Decentralization” for a French journal which reviewed the dynamics of government and bureaucratic centralization and recent French efforts at decentralization of government functions.
Ideas of liberty and decentralization were carried to their logical conclusions during the 19th and 20th centuries by anti-state political activists calling themselves "anarchists", "libertarians," and even decentralists. Tocqueville was an advocate, writing: "Decentralization has, not only an administrative value, but also a civic dimension, since it increases the opportunities for citizens to take interest in public affairs; it makes them get accustomed to using freedom. And from the accumulation of these local, active, persnickety freedoms, is born the most efficient counterweight against the claims of the central government, even if it were supported by an impersonal, collective will."Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865), influential anarchist theorist wrote: "All my economic ideas as developed over twenty-five years can be summed up in the words: agricultural-industrial federation. All my political ideas boil down to a similar formula: political federation or decentralization."
In early twentieth century America a response to the centralization of economic wealth and political power was a decentralist movement. It blamed large-scale industrial production for destroying middle class shop keepers and small manufacturers and promoted increased property ownership and a return to small scale living. The decentralist movement attracted Southern Agrarians like Robert Penn Warren, as well as journalist Herbert Agar.New Left and libertarian individuals who identified with social, economic, and often political decentralism through the ensuing years included Ralph Borsodi, Wendell Berry, Paul Goodman, Carl Oglesby, Karl Hess, Donald Livingston, Kirkpatrick Sale (author of Human Scale),Murray Bookchin,Dorothy Day, Senator Mark O. Hatfield, Mildred J. Loomis and Bill Kauffman.
Leopold Kohr, author of the 1957 book The Breakdown of Nations – known for its statement “Whenever something is wrong, something is too big” – was a major influence on E.F. Schumacher, author of the 1973 bestseller Small is Beautiful:Economics As If People Mattered . In the next few years a number of best-selling books promoted decentralization. Daniel Bell's The Coming of Post-Industrial Society discussed the need for decentralization and a “comprehensive overhaul of government structure to find the appropriate size and scope of units”, as well as the need to detach functions from current state boundaries, creating regions based on functions like water, transport, education and economics which might have “different ‘overlays’ on the map.”Alvin Toffler published Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980). Discussing the books in a later interview, Toffler said that industrial-style, centralized, top-down bureaucratic planning would be replaced by a more open, democratic, decentralized style which he called “anticipatory democracy.”FuturistJohn Naisbitt's 1982 book “Megatrends” was on The New York Times Best Seller list for more than two years and sold 14 million copies. Naisbitt’s book outlines 10 “megatrends”, the fifth of which is from centralization to decentralization. In 1996 David Osborne and Ted Gaebler had a best selling book Reinventing Government proposing decentralist public administration theories which became labeled the "New Public Management".
Stephen Cummings wrote that decentralization became a "revolutionary megatrend" in the 1980s. In 1983 Diana Conyers asked if decentralization was the "latest fashion" in development administration.Cornell University's project on Restructuring Local Government states that decentralization refers to the "global trend" of devolving responsibilities to regional or local governments. Robert J. Bennett's Decentralization, Intergovernmental Relations and Markets: Towards a Post-Welfare Agenda describes how after World War II governments pursued a centralized "welfarist" policy of entitlements which now has become a "post-welfare" policy of intergovernmental and market-based decentralization.
In 1983, "Decentralization" was identified as one of the "Ten Key Values" of the Green Movement in the United States.
According to a 1999 United Nations Development Programme report:
" large number of developing and transitional countries have embarked on some form of decentralization programmes. This trend is coupled with a growing interest in the role of civil society and the private sector as partners to governments in seeking new ways of service delivery...Decentralization of governance and the strengthening of local governing capacity is in part also a function of broader societal trends. These include, for example, the growing distrust of government generally, the spectacular demise of some of the most centralized regimes in the world (especially the Soviet Union) and the emerging separatist demands that seem to routinely pop up in one or another part of the world. The movement toward local accountability and greater control over one's destiny is, however, not solely the result of the negative attitude towards central government. Rather, these developments, as we have already noted, are principally being driven by a strong desire for greater participation of citizens and private sector organizations in governance.”
Those studying the goals and processes of implementing decentralization often use a systems theory approach. The United Nations Development Programme report applies to the topic of decentralization "a whole systems perspective, including levels, spheres, sectors and functions and seeing the community level as the entry point at which holistic definitions of development goals are most likely to emerge from the people themselves and where it is most practical to support them. It involves seeing multi-level frameworks and continuous, synergistic processes of interaction and iteration of cycles as critical for achieving wholeness in a decentralized system and for sustaining its development.”
However, decentralization itself has been seen as part of a systems approach. Norman Johnson of Los Alamos National Laboratory wrote in a 1999 paper: "A decentralized system is where some decisions by the agents are made without centralized control or processing. An important property of agent systems is the degree of connectivity or connectedness between the agents, a measure global flow of information or influence. If each agent is connected (exchange states or influence) to all other agents, then the system is highly connected."
University of California, Irvine's Institute for Software Research's "PACE" project is creating an "architectural style for trust management in decentralized applications." It adopted Rohit Khare's definition of decentralization: "A decentralized system is one which requires multiple parties to make their own independent decisions" and applies it to Peer-to-peer software creation, writing:
...In such a decentralized system, there is no single centralized authority that makes decisions on behalf of all the parties. Instead each party, also called a peer, makes local autonomous decisions towards its individual goals which may possibly conflict with those of other peers. Peers directly interact with each other and share information or provide service to other peers. An open decentralized system is one in which the entry of peers is not regulated. Any peer can enter or leave the system at any time...
Decentralization in any area is a response to the problems of centralized systems. Decentralization in government, the topic most studied, has been seen as a solution to problems like economic decline, government inability to fund services and their general decline in performance of overloaded services, the demands of minorities for a greater say in local governance, the general weakening legitimacy of the public sector and global and international pressure on countries with inefficient, undemocratic, overly centralized systems. The following four goals or objectives are frequently stated in various analyses of decentralization.
In decentralization the principle of subsidiarity is often invoked. It holds that the lowest or least centralized authority which is capable of addressing an issue effectively should do so. According to one definition: "Decentralization, or decentralizing governance, refers to the restructuring or reorganization of authority so that there is a system of co-responsibility between institutions of governance at the central, regional and local levels according to the principle of subsidiarity, thus increasing the overall quality and effectiveness of the system of governance, while increasing the authority and capacities of sub-national levels."
Decentralization is often linked to concepts of participation in decision-making, democracy, equality and liberty from higher authority. Decentralization enhances the democratic voice. Theorists believe that local representative authorities with actual discretionary powers are the basis of decentralization that can lead to local efficiency, equity and development.”Columbia University's Earth Institute identified one of three major trends relating to decentralization as: "increased involvement of local jurisdictions and civil society in the management of their affairs, with new forms of participation, consultation, and partnerships."
Decentralization has been described as a "counterpoint to globalization" which removes decisions from the local and national stage to the global sphere of multi-national or non-national interests. Decentralization brings decision-making back to the sub-national levels. Decentralization strategies must account for the interrelations of global, regional, national, sub-national, and local levels.
Norman L. Johnson writes that diversity plays an important role in decentralized systems like ecosystems, social groups, large organizations, political systems. "Diversity is defined to be unique properties of entities, agents, or individuals that are not shared by the larger group, population, structure. Decentralized is defined as a property of a system where the agents have some ability to operate "locally.” Both decentralization and diversity are necessary attributes to achieve the self-organizing properties of interest."
Advocates of political decentralization hold that greater participation by better informed diverse interests in society will lead to more relevant decisions than those made only by authorities on the national level. Decentralization has been described as a response to demands for diversity.
In business, decentralization leads to a management by results philosophy which focuses on definite objectives to be achieved by unit results. Decentralization of government programs is said to increase efficiency – and effectiveness – due to reduction of congestion in communications, quicker reaction to unanticipated problems, improved ability to deliver services, improved information about local conditions, and more support from beneficiaries of programs.
Firms may prefer decentralization because it ensures efficiency by making sure that managers closest to the local information make decisions and in a more timely fashion; that their taking responsibility frees upper management for long term strategics rather than day-to-day decision-making; that managers have hands on training to prepare them to move up the management hierarchy; that managers are motivated by having the freedom to exercise their own initiative and creativity; that managers and divisions are encouraged to prove that they are profitable, instead of allowing their failures to be masked by the overall profitability of the company.
The same principles can be applied to government. Decentralization promises to enhance efficiency through both inter-governmental competition with market features and fiscal discipline which assigns tax and expenditure authority to the lowest level of government possible. It works best where members of subnational government have strong traditions of democracy, accountability and professionalism.
Economic and/or political decentralization can help prevent or reduce conflict because they reduce actual or perceived inequities between various regions or between a region and the central government. Dawn Brancati finds that political decentralization reduces intrastate conflict unless politicians create political parties that mobilize minority and even extremist groups to demand more resources and power within national governments. However, the likelihood this will be done depends on factors like how democratic transitions happen and features like a regional party's proportion of legislative seats, a country's number of regional legislatures, elector procedures, and the order in which national and regional elections occur. Brancati holds that decentralization can promote peace if it encourages statewide parties to incorporate regional demands and limit the power of regional parties.
The processes of decentralization redefines structures, procedures and practices of governance to be closer to the citizenry and to make them more aware of the costs and benefits; it is not merely a movement of power from the central to the local government. According to the United Nations Development Programme, it is "more than a process, it is a way of life and a state of mind." The report provides a chart-formatted framework for defining the application of the concept ‘decentralization’ describing and elaborating on the "who, what, when, where, why and how" factors in any process of decentralization.
The processes by which entities move from a more to a less centralized state vary. They can be initiated from the centers of authority ("top-down") or from individuals, localities or regions ("bottom-up"), or from a "mutually desired" combination of authorities and localities working together. Bottom-up decentralization usually stresses political values like local responsiveness and increased participation and tends to increase political stability. Top-down decentralization may be motivated by the desire to “shift deficits downwards” and find more resources to pay for services or pay off government debt. Some hold that decentralization should not be imposed, but done in a respectful manner.
Analysis of operations
Project and program planners must assess the lowest organizational level at which functions can be carried out efficiently and effectively. Governments deciding to privatize functions must decide which are best privatized. Existing types of decentralization must be studied. The appropriate balance of centralization and decentralization should be studied. Training for both national and local managers and officials is necessary, as well as technical assistance in the planning, financing, and management of decentralized functions.
Gauging the appropriate size or scale of decentralized units has been studied in relation to the size of sub-units of hospitals and schools, road networks, administrative units in business and public administration, and especially town and city governmental areas and decision making bodies.
In creating planned communities ("new towns"), it is important to determine the appropriate population and geographical size. While in earlier years small towns were considered appropriate, by the 1960s, 60,000 inhabitants was considered the size necessary to support a diversified job market and an adequate shopping center and array of services and entertainment. Appropriate size of governmental units for revenue raising also is a consideration.
Even in bioregionalism, which seeks to reorder many functions and even the boundaries of governments according to physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries and soil and terrain characteristics, appropriate size must be considered. The unit may be larger than many decentralist bioregionalists prefer.
- Inadvertent or silent
Decentralization ideally happens as a careful, rational, and orderly process, but it often takes place during times of economic and political crisis, the fall of a regime and the resultant power struggles. Even when it happens slowly, there is a need for experimentation, testing, adjusting, and replicating successful experiments in other contexts. There is no one blueprint for decentralization since it depends on the initial state of a country and the power and views of political interests and whether they support or oppose decentralization.
Decentralization usually is conscious process based on explicit policies. However, it may occur as "silent decentralization" in the absence of reforms as changes in networks, policy emphasize and resource availability lead inevitably to a more decentralized system. A variation on this is "inadvertent decentralization", when other policy innovations produce an unintended decentralization of power and resources. In both China and Russia, lower level authorities attained greater powers than intended by central authorities.
Decentralization may be uneven and "asymmetric" given any one country's population, political, ethnic and other forms of diversity. In many countries, political, economic and administrative responsibilities may be decentralized to the larger urban areas, while rural areas are administered by the central government. Decentralization of responsibilities to provinces may be limited only to those provinces or states which want or are capable of handling responsibility. Some privatization may be more appropriate to an urban than a rural area; some types of privatization may be more appropriate for some states and provinces but not others.
Measuring the amount of decentralization, especially politically, is difficult because different studies of it use different definitions and measurements. An OECD study quotes Chanchal Kumar Sharma as stating: "a true assessment of the degree of decentralization in a country can be made only if a comprehensive approach is adopted and rather than trying to simplify the syndrome of characteristics into the single dimension of autonomy, interrelationships of various dimensions of decentralization are taken into account."
Determinants of decentralization
The academic literature frequently mentions the following factors as determinants of decentralization:
- "The number of major ethnic groups"
- "The degree of territorial concentration of those groups"
- "The existence of ethnic networks and communities across the border of the state"
- "The country’s dependence on natural resources and the degree to which those resources are concentrated in the region’s territory"
- "The country’s per capita income relative to that in other regions"
- The presence of self-determination movements
Historians have described the history of governments and empires in terms of centralization and decentralization. In his 1910 The History of NationsHenry Cabot Lodge wrote that Persian king Darius I (550-486 BC) was a master of organization and “for the first time in history centralization becomes a political fact.” He also noted that this contrasted with the decentralization of Ancient Greece. Since the 1980s a number of scholars have written about cycles of centralization and decentralizations. Stephen K. Sanderson wrote that over the last 4000 years chiefdoms and actual states have gone through sequences of centralization and decentralization of economic, political and social power. Yildiz Atasoy writes this process has been going on “since the Stone Age” through not just chiefdoms and states, but empires and today’s “hegemonic core states”. Christopher K. Chase-Dunn and Thomas D. Hall review other works that detail these cycles, including works which analyze the concept of core elites which compete with state accumulation of wealth and how their "intra-ruling-class competition accounts for the rise and fall of states" and of their phases of centralization and decentralization.
Rising government expenditures, poor economic performance and the rise of free market-influenced ideas have convinced governments to decentralize their operations, to induce competition within their services, to contract out to private firms operating in the market, and to privatize some functions and services entirely.
Government decentralization has both political and administrative aspects. Its decentralization may be territorial, moving power from a central city to other localities, and it may be functional, moving decision-making from the top administrator of any branch of government to lower level officials, or divesting of the function entirely through privatization. It has been called the "new public management" which has been described as decentralization, management by objectives, contracting out, competition within government and consumer orientation.
Political decentralization aims to give citizens or their elected representatives more power. It may be associated with pluralistic politics and representative government, but it also means giving citizens, or their representatives, more influence in the formulation and implementation of laws and policies. Depending on the country, this may require constitutional or statutory reforms, the development of new political parties, increased power for legislatures, the creation of local political units, and encouragement of advocacy groups.
The European Union follows the principle of subsidiarity, which holds that decision-making should be made by the most local competent authority. The EU should decide only on enumerated issues that a local or member state authority cannot address themselves. Furthermore, enforcement is exclusively the domain of member states.
In Finland, the Centre Party explicitly supports decentralization. For example, government departments have been moved from the capital Helsinki to the provinces. The Centre supports substantial subsidies that limit potential economic and political centralization to Helsinki .
Four major forms of administrative decentralization have been described.
- Deconcentration, the weakest form of decentralization, shifts responsibility for decision-making, finance and implementation of certain public functions from officials of central governments to those in existing districts or, if necessary, new ones under direct control of the central government.
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Centralization, deconcentration, and decentralization are concepts that describe different forms of administrative organization. Administrative deconcentration is the transfer of competences, or administrative powers, within the same institution; administrative decentralization is the transfer of competences between institutions with political and administrative autonomy. While centralization, or the concentration of power within the central government, answers the need of national unity, deconcentration and decentralization are two different ways to address sociogeographical diversity inside the country.
Most state structures include one or more subnational levels of administration, but states differ from each other in the way administrative powers are organized and in the degree of centralization of decision making. In recent decades, in most parts of the world, the move from traditional hierarchical forms of administration to forms of administration through the networks of alternative public and private organizations has reinforced previous trends towards deconcentration and decentralization.
Deconcentration is the transfer of competences or administrative powers between organizations inside the same entity, such as the state or municipalities. Taking the example of the state, deconcentration is the transfer of competences from central government entities or departments—those that have a jurisdiction over the entire national territory—to peripheral government entities, which have jurisdiction only over a part of the national territory. The central level retains the most important keys in the decision-making process, but its organs in the lower tiers may make decisions on less important issues. This is the case, for example, of central government departments in charge of the road network. They are responsible for the overall strategy and main decisions concerning planning and construction, while its regional departments are only in charge of road maintenance and implementation of decisions taken by the central department. Deconcentration only concerns entities inside the state. The state’s aim with deconcentration is to bring public services closer to citizens without losing control of the decisions and resources applied by regional or local state departments.
In some cases, deconcentration can be used as a first step in a decentralization process, for example, when the state creates a regional tier where it didn’t exist before. In such a case, the strategy can be to gradually deconcentrate those powers and resources—intended for transfer to the future regional self-government—to the regional departments of central government. In a second step, the new administrative tier is created and elections are held for its boards. In addition, other central government departments may also deconcentrate to peripheral regional departments; their competences will not be decentralized to the newly created regional government, for example, but will have advantages in being geographically organized according to the same area and boundaries. Any central government department can be in this situation. Part of their competences will be transferred to the newly created form of regional government and part of the remaining competences can be deconcentrated to its regional offices.
Decentralization is the transference of competences between different entities. It connotes the transfer of responsibilities, powers, and resources, from higher to lower level units of self-government and the direct management of local affairs by local populations through their elected local or regional representatives. The reasons to decentralize, the degree of decentralization, the number of administrative competences, and the amount of public resources assigned to local and regional governments vary from country to country. In most countries, administrative decentralization is done for a combination of political, economic, and social reasons—different from case to case. In some cases, the need to recognize and to respect political and cultural differences can lead to adopting forms of administrative or political decentralization (e.g., the creation of autonomous regions in Spain). In other cases, the specific geographical situation may require adopting these forms of decentralization (e.g., the case of islands or metropolitan areas).
Decentralization increases the opportunities for citizens to participate in local or regional public affairs, offering new conditions for participation and for public-private partnership, therefore reinforcing the involvement of local civil society in the management of its own affairs. With increased participation and with direct election of local or regional representatives, decentralization improves political accountability and increases transparency in public-policy decision making. Decentralization tends to increase institutional capacity and local empowerment, making local governments and local communities more competent to deal with their own affairs. As a consequence, administrative decentralization is thought to increase public service efficiency and responsiveness, and to achieve a better adjustment between citizens’ preferences and public services. However, the number of administrative units or institutional fragmentation affect efficiency and responsiveness, since, for example, an excessive number of small units can be detrimental for the achievement of scale economies. On the other hand, large units may affect the relation between citizens and administrators and therefore the responsiveness of the regional government. Finally, decentralization may also allow local communities to counterweight decisions taken by the central government on issues likely to affect their local or regional well-being.
Decentralization processes may also have negative consequences. For example, decentralization can be responsible, in specific contexts, for macroeconomic instability, since the efforts made by the central government to reduce public sector expenditures or to increase public revenues may not be followed by similar efforts at the regional and local levels of self-government. Decentralization can also produce inequity in the amount and quality of public services delivered, according to the area of residence, in comparison with a situation in which the same services are delivered by central government based on common standards independent from the geographical location.
Centralization and decentralization have alternated as political and administrative models for the vertical organization of the state throughout the history of public administration. In the three decades after the end of World War II (1939–1945), administrative deconcentration prevailed in most industrialized countries as the preferred mechanism for the vertical organization of the state. In that period, there was strong state intervention with little or no delegation of powers and resources to entities outside the direct control of central government departments. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the renewal and the dominance of the free market ideology on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as political demands for more public participation in decision making, led to reforms in the vertical organization of the state, which in part explains the general move toward political and administrative decentralization. Political changes from the 1990s onward consolidated political and administrative decentralization as the model for the organization of democratic states. Decentralization was seen, at the same time, as the best way for public administration to deal with the emerging forms of multilevel and multifactor governance, as the example of several member states of the European Union illustrates well.
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