How can the design of decentralisation programmes be improved? This study published by the Australian National University argues that good decentralisation design processes that address fundamental questions and are fully aware of political realities can lead to developmental gains. Although the initial design is very important, it is only the first step in the process of decentralisation and the promotion of good governance at the local level.
Decentralisation is a development strategy that has gained universal popularity in recent years. In principle, it allows democratisation and enhanced participation of citizens in making decisions that affect their lives. Decentralisation can be equated with human rights. It can also be useful for creating and maintaining political stability. Decentralisation is promoted on technical efficiency grounds. Local government is seen to possess managerial and economic advantages in providing the services people need and want in an efficient and responsive manner. Decentralisation is often linked to the notion of good governance involving efficient public sector management, an effective system of accountability, the rule of law, and improved availability of information and transparency in decision-making.
The specific benefits of decentralisation include the following:
- It is easier for locally based officials to identify local resources, both human and physical, and then mobilise them in the pursuit of locally determined developmental purposes.
- Officials are better placed to respond rapidly to local needs, as they are resident in the territory and fully aware of local conditions.
- Due to officials’ local knowledge they are well placed to make decisions and allocate resources that fit with the specific conditions prevailing in a particular territory.
- Local functionaries are more motivated to perform well when they have greater responsibility for programmes they manage.
- Coordination between offices dealing with different tasks is more easily achieved at the local level where officials are physically close together and are often familiar with each other.
- The decentralisation of service functions relieves central agencies of routine tasks. They can then focus on improving the quality of policy.
Despite the benefits of decentralisation, results have often been disappointing in practice. However, while it is impossible to eliminate negative experiences from decentralisation initiatives, it is possible to reduce them. In order to design effective decentralisation programmes, the following issues should be considered:
- The functions that are to be decentralised should be decided. There is no point decentralising functions for which there is inadequate capacity either in terms of human resources or physical assets.
- Changes in central-local relations can be determined and implemented according to different timeframes. There are many risks associated with doing everything at once.
- Participation is viewed as a key objective of decentralisation, but if it is managed badly it can lead to conflict or decision-making gridlock.
- If decentralisation entrenches existing patterns of unequal resource allocation it can increase inequality between and within sub-national territories. Central government must ensure that disadvantaged regions get special assistance.
- Central government should play a monitoring role and ensure compliance in particular activities, such as finance. Central government should also be a facilitator, providing both policy and technical assistance.
- Organisation capacity can be improved through training, but training needs to be directed to addressing identified problems in administration and the policy process. Curricula need constant review and updating.