Table of Contents

  • Resource Guide on Decentralisation and Local Government is the third title in the Commonwealth Secretariat Local Government Reform Series. Books in the series offer guidance on various aspects of local government reform to public sector policymakers, senior managers at central and sub-national levels, as well as students and researchers in public administration with an interest in local government issues. Each volume distils contemporary thinking and international good practices from around the Commonwealth.

  • Decentralisation is a broad term, which is frequently used to refer to very different forms of government. Decentralisation can be described as the transfer of power from central government to lower levels of government. This can include responsibility for planning and management of various government functions, as well as resource-raising and resource allocation.

  • Throughout the twentieth century, the role of the state has undergone significant changes. In the West, the demands for social and economic reconstruction after the Second World War led to the emergence of welfare states that assumed responsibility for protecting the relatively poor, equalising opportunities to health and education services, creating state-owned enterprises and managing macro-economic cycles. For the developing countries that became independent in the 1950s and 1960s, this was the model of the state they aimed to follow. During the 1970s there was growing concern over the capabilities of the state and public administrations in developing countries to undertake these responsibilities. The rise of neoliberal thinking and the development of New Public Management approaches in countries like the UK and New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s led to an emphasis on the role of the market and a bias against public provision and state expansion.

  • The specific design of decentralisation and local government (LG) differs in every country. Structure and organisation are affected by the historical, social and political context. In some countries there are a mixture of types of decentralisation and different institutional arrangements within a single country.

  • In order for local governments to be able to embrace the potential of decentralisation in terms of poverty reduction, enhanced participation and improved local service delivery, they have to be adequately resourced. Fiscal decentralisation therefore involves important decisions about the assignment of central and local responsibilities as well as how these expenditure responsibilities should be financed. It is not solely about the transference of financial resources from one layer of government to another, it is also about the extent to which local authorities are able to make decisions themselves over the management and use of devolved resources and local revenues, and about how they account for those resources.

  • One of the key arguments in favour of decentralisation is that it can improve participation; as government is ‘closer to the people’ citizens are more likely, able and empowered to participate in political life and government is therefore held to better account. The resources below consider the impact of decentralisation on political participation and outline key mechanisms to improve participation and accountability at a local level. Several resources focus on the participation of groups who are often excluded from local political processes, in particular women.

  • Building strong monitoring and evaluation (M and E) mechanisms within the context of decentralisation and local government is critical for ensuring accountability, efficiency and effectiveness. Donors, researchers and development practitioners are increasingly focusing on the development of tools that can be used at a local level to strengthen M and E capacity. The creation of participatory M and E tools is key to engage local citizens in M and E, thereby improving local accountability processes. The resources below include tools, operational guidance and case studies.

  • Decentralisation is generally pursued because of the positive impacts proponents argue that it can make on local and national development, including poverty reduction and the achievement of the MDGs, rather as a goal in itself…

  • Theorists argue that decentralisation can bring benefits for service delivery via improved decision making and allocative efficiency (as local government are more sensitive to local priorities), increased revenue collection (as local government will be able to collect new local taxes and improve the collection of user charges) and generally improved administrative efficiency. However, recent studies show that these expected benefits have not always been realised and that elite capture, weak administrative capacity, poor participation, inadequate accountability mechanisms and low levels of revenue collection, coupled with under-financing from central government, have all meant that significant gains in service provision have not yet been seen. Given that service delivery is a primary vehicle for local development, the importance of improvements in developing countries cannot be underestimated.

  • The study of local government and decentralisation in conflict or fragile situations is a new, relatively small area of research. Much of the general conflict literature focuses on governance at a central level, although a small body of literature is now emerging that considers local level dynamics. Most of this research focuses on the question of whether and how decentralisation and local government impact on conflict or state fragility, primarily addressing the question of whether decentralisation exacerbates or mitigates conflict. Very little has been published that offers practical advice or technical approaches to local government in conflict/fragile environments. Most authors recommend a cautious approach, and some express concern that decentralisation in conflict, fragile or ethnically divided societies may risk intensifying conflict if it is not designed an appropriate way.

  • The Commonwealth Secretariat executes plans agreed by Commonwealth Heads of Government through technical assistance, advice and policy development. The Governance and Institutional Development Division (GIDD) has responsibility for the Commonwealth Secretariat’s mandate on public sector development. GIDD’s work covers the full spectrum of public policy, management, and administration, as well as issues relating to civil society and private sector institutions with public responsibilities. GIDD’s in-house advisers provide strategic advice and technical assistance in capacity building and institutional development towards poverty alleviation and sustainable development to meet the specific needs of Commonwealth developing countries.

  • Below are longer summaries of the texts included in the resource guide above, organised alphabetically by first author name.