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Administrative Decentralization


Administrative decentralization seeks to redistribute authority, responsibility and financial resources for providing public services among different levels of government. It is the transfer of responsibility for the planning, financing and management of certain public functions from the central government and its agencies to field units of government agencies, subordinate units or levels of government, semi-autonomous public authorities or corporations, or area-wide, regional or functional authorities.

The three major forms of administrative decentralization -- deconcentration, delegation, and devolution -- each have different characteristics.

Deconcentration. Deconcentration --which is often considered to be the weakest form of decentralization and is used most frequently in unitary states-- redistributes decision making authority and financial and management responsibilities among different levels of the central government. It can merely shift responsibilities from central government officials in the capital city to those working in regions, provinces or districts, or it can create strong field administration or local administrative capacity under the supervision of central government ministries.

Delegation. Delegation is a more extensive form of decentralization. Through delegation central governments transfer responsibility for decision-making and administration of public functions to semi-autonomous organizations not wholly controlled by the central government, but ultimately accountable to it. Governments delegate responsibilities when they create public enterprises or corporations, housing authorities, transportation authorities, special service districts, semi-autonomous school districts, regional development corporations, or special project implementation units. Usually these organizations have a great deal of discretion in decision-making. They may be exempt from constraints on regular civil service personnel and may be able to charge users directly for services.

Devolution. A third type of administrative decentralization is devolution. When governments devolve functions, they transfer authority for decision-making, finance, and management to quasi-autonomous units of local government with corporate status. Devolution usually transfers responsibilities for services to municipalities that elect their own mayors and councils, raise their own revenues, and have independent authority to make investment decisions. In a devolved system, local governments have clear and legally recognized geographical boundaries over which they exercise authority and within which they perform public functions. It is this type of administrative decentralization that underlies most political decentralization.

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Civil Service Reform and Decentralization

Civil service reform is usually a supporting strategy for more general decentralization in government operations or service delivery. One does not decentralize the civil service as an end in itself -- one does so in order to provide services better, manage resources more efficiently, or support other general outcome goals. The civil service as a whole can be seen as one of the main instruments with which the government fulfills its obligations. In the context of decentralization, this tool must often be reshaped in order to perform a new set of duties efficiently, equitably, and effectively. Reform of the civil service, therefore, is the process of modifying rules and incentives to obtain a more efficient, dedicated and performing government labor-force in newly decentralized environment.

This note will first discuss the various civil service issues that sectoral or general decentralization strategies raise. It will then focus on various reform priorities to cope with the changes decentralization can bring.

How does Decentralization affect the Civil Service?

Civil services at all levels of government need a capable, motivated, and efficient staff in order to deliver quality services to its citizens. When civil service functions and structures are decentralized, existing bureaucratic patterns must be reorganized as roles and accountability are shifted. Decentralization thus intensifies the need for capable staff and increases the importance of capacity-building programs.

The process of decentralization:

Disperses power, both geographically and institutionally: Decentralization inevitably changes the location of power and jobs. Movement geographically or across tiers of government is often impeded by issues related to statute, prestige and poor labor mobility. In the Eastern European transition economies, for example, de-legitimation of the central state and the emergence of representative government at local and intermediate levels of government has complicated human resource allocation. Incentive programs and mechanisms for inter-post mobility, which compound the costs of decentralization, may be required in order to introduce flexibility.

Creates new responsibilities for inexperienced actors: Decentralization creates more opportunities for local autonomy and responsiveness to more specialized constituencies, but it also gives subnational governments more room to fail if specific steps are not taken to build local technical and managerial capacity.

Can disperse scale economies/expertise groups: The need for specialized personnel is related in part to the size of the territory covered by the entity. Below a certain size, it might be counterproductive or cost inefficient to have specialists or technical personnel. There are methods which can be used to address this issue, one of which is to allow in the context of the decentralization schemes the possibility of empowering local self-governments units to form associations and pool their resources in order to cover activities requiring specialized personnel.

Introduces more levels into the state: Decentralization, especially political decentralization creates a class of government workers which, based on the specific information which they receive (feedback from their constituencies) may have different preferences than workers at the next higher level. This divergence in views and convictions can create conflict within the civil service that will require mechanisms to manage effectively.

Creates a tension between local autonomy and national standards: Decentralization relaxes national control and creates the potential for more regional variation in civil service conditions. Some room for variation allows regions the flexibility to hire a civil service that matches a community’s needs and budget constraints. National salary, eligibility, and performance standards can ensure consistent quality, but they can also lead to personnel expenditures (especially for locally administered education and health sectors) beyond some local capacities; grant transfer systems will need to take different financing capacities into account in these and other types of mandated expenditures. The Philippines, Indonesia, and Pakistan are examples of decentralized states with essentially uniform terms and conditions of service for government employees in different regions.

Can increase administrative costs: Creating additional layers of government is an expensive proposition, and while the central government - in the best of cases- might reduce its role and shed personnel in the context of decentralization, empirical evidence suggests that these workers are often reabsorbed by local governments. There is thus no net change in public sector employment. In the worst of cases, central government employment remains unchanged, while local government employment grows.

Civil Service Reform to Support Decentralization

The main questions in assessing the civil service reform priorities parallel those in more general decentralization policies: Under what conditions does one deconcentrate or devolve human resource management or organizational responsibilities to lower tiers of government? What requisite capacity does one need at various levels to make a system work?

The twin tasks of building local capacity and adjusting to the changes in intergovernmental coordination needs can be daunting even when budgets allow comprehensive training and all stake-holders support the reforms. The more frequent realities of budget constraints and mixed support, however, practically ensure that large-scale civil service reform will be a long drawn-out, expensive process that does not keep up with the pace of service or sector decentralization.

Building Local Capacity

Local (or at least sub-national) capacity is one of the most important factors creating a well-functioning decentralized civil service. In countries where local institutions already exist, the challenge will be to reinforce them institutionally and legally as well as to strengthen their personnel management capacities. In places where local government institutions are embryonic or exist only at an informal level, the institutional and legal framework will have to be created before any type of reform of the administration is undertaken.

The degree of local capacity determines the kind of human-resource management strategies that will be feasible and desirable. Decentralization of human resource management is more likely to succeed in cases where lower-level authorities have the financial and managerial ability to set competitive compensation packages and salary levels that will attract local talent. In these cases, the flexibility advantages of allowing local governments the to set hiring levels might outweigh the risk of increasing inter-regional inequalities. Where talent and skills are lacking at the local level, a unitary hiring system might be preferred to ensure that the necessary skills are present locally in all regions. In these cases where the center retains more control over human resources, caution should be paid to ensure that the management options of local stake-holders are not curtailed.

Adjusting to Decentralization: General Guidelines for Country-Specific Strategies

The legal framework should clearly define responsibilities and standards. The creation of a strong legal framework- to address issues related to financing and reporting, to determine the type of control mechanisms (especially financial) that are necessary and who is accountable for them, to evaluate hiring practices and compensation schemes as well as address issues related to the procurement of public works - must be a priority in any reform effort to ensure sound utilization of public resources and minimize corruption.

Consistency and transparency gain support. On matters of staffing, compensation or oversight of local administration, and most importantly in the delivery of services, it is very important to ensure that there is transparency and that changes in the administration (and therefore the civil service) are not seen as an instrument to disenfranchise some groups or favor another.

Reporting mechanisms need to be clear and precise. Clear reporting procedures will need to be put in place vis-à-vis higher levels of government (central government, in the case of regional administrations, for example) and horizontally, vis-à-vis other government agencies at the same level. In the medium and longer-term, audit courts can be a useful regulatory mechanism. Transitions from the existing system to new systems have to be carefully planned to avoid conflict between new reporting arrangements and enduring mechanisms.

Channels for citizen-civil servant communication need to be created. By including more citizens in the process of monitoring civil service performance, decentralization creates more opportunities for friction between civil servants and citizens. Harassment by private interest groups can prevent honest and dedicated civil servants from performing their duties, while civil servants can use their positions to threaten citizens. These tensions can be avoided by relatively quick and inexpensive methods and structures for redressing grievances, whether these come from civil servants or from the citizens.

Training should contribute to the formation of new working relationships. In addition to building local capacity, training can be a tool for creating personal networks among various levels of government, regions, or types of government workers. One recommendation, for example, might be to train career civil servants and local politicians together to insure that they better understand what is expected of them and what they can expect from each other.

All levels of government should be encouraged to define and plan for the types of workers they will need in order to carry out new responsibilities. In the short term, these sorts of rough plans substitute for the computerized establishment management capacity and human resource management staff that so many countries lack and can help eliminate duplicate workers, unnecessary hires, and other expensive mistakes. At the very least, they can be an exercise in longer-term planning and role definition.


Decentralization can be a way of improving access to services, tailoring government actions to private needs, and increasing the opportunities for state-society interactions. Subnational governments, however, will only be effective when they have access to the necessary human and financial resources to undertake the services they have been conferred.

Civil service reform --both capacity building and adjusting to decentralization-- addresses the first of these requirements. There is fairly widespread agreement that capacity-building at all government levels is an essential component of decentralization. The sequencing and priority levels of training --whether to train local or central governments first, for example-- depends on the country itself, although the subnational governments have generally been the first to be trained to accept their new responsibilities. There is less agreement over how to deliver the appropriate human resources package to the appropriate levels of government and how to coordinate human resource management across and between levels of government. The decision to decentralize or retain central control over human resource management --recruiting, hiring, salary-setting, etc.-- depends heavily on the existing degree of subnational capacity. The suggestions above outline some general coordination mechanisms, but the specific institutional arrangements for ensuring a consistent, efficient civil service must react to the kinds of institutional changes that decentralization has brought.

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Information and Monitoring

Accountability is a prerequisite for improved public sector performance, and information is the key to accountability. The systematic collection, analysis, and reporting of information are critical elements of decentralization programs because that information can be used to verify compliance with policy goals, to analyze alternative outcomes, and to guide future decisions. Information on financial flows (i.e., budgeting and expenditure reporting) as well as on other inputs, outputs and, where possible, outcomes. Such information is essential both at the local level -- to inform local constituents and to encourage public participation in the political process -- and at the central level -- to monitor and supervise local activities funded (at least partially) by central sources.

Unless the local public is aware of what public goods and services are provided, how well they are provided, who the beneficiaries are, how much the goods and services cost, and who paid for them, local constituencies will not encourage effective government. Central monitoring and evaluation of local performance, has much the same effect, except that national interests replace particular local interests. Without some central monitoring, there can be no assurance that functions of national importance are adequately performed once they have been decentralized, that the macroeconomic implications of decentralization are understood, or that the effects of proposed changes in intergovernmental fiscal or administrative relations are adequately analyzed.

Many decentralizing countries have weak or inadequate mechanisms for citizens and higher levels of government to monitor, evaluate and support decentralization – this does not prevent decentralization from achieving some of its goals, but it does limit its ability to create large efficiency gains. The task of monitoring and assessing subnational finances can be strengthened considerably through improvements in financial accounting and reporting, and the establishment of analytical capabilities for monitoring and evaluation. But the need for careful monitoring goes beyond finance. Depending on the service delivery objective, the need for monitoring will differ. For example, different aspects of decentralization may have different effects on the construction and maintenance of various types of infrastructure, or health care programs, or education. If the objective is for safety nets to reach the poor, information is required regarding who the poor are and where they are located, and how much of the benefits from the program are reaching this target group. In the vast majority of cases, countries spend significant resources on safety nets but fail to collect data and monitor who receives the benefits and how they were affected. (A notable exception to this is the valuable evaluation of the poverty targeting of an Argentina safety net program, see Ravallion, 1998).

To improve financial accounting and reporting, detailed fiscal data should be regularly collected and reported for subnational governments. Ideally these data would be derived from uniform financial and reporting systems. At a minimum, these data should be collected and processed on a regular and timely basis. The data should exhibit the following characteristics:

  • breadth of coverage: information should be broadly representative, both across units of subnational government and across financial classifications (e.g., revenues, expenditures, debt)
  • consistency: minimal reporting and classification errors
  • comparability: the same types of activities should be reflected across units of government
  • clarity: actual activities should be reported rather than budgeted activities, and ideally, data should be audited

The development and implementation of financial reporting and information systems often requires substantial technical assistance, training, time and resources. Implementation of these systems may also require that central institutions be established to develop and maintain the reporting systems, to train and support local officials, and to monitor and analyze developments in subnational finance.

Establishing a census of governments -- similar in coverage to the censuses of population, industry and employment existing in many countries -- and publishing subnational financial data would establish the foundation for a monitoring system and also provide important inputs for revenue estimating, economic research and the assessment of creditworthiness. Historically, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) provided comprehensive data on subnational finance and institutions. The data reported in the ACIR's annual publication --Significant Features of Fiscal Federalism-- were compiled from U.S. census data, surveys of local government professional associations and other sources. Lamentably, reductions in federal funding for the ACIR led to discontinuation of this publication in 1995.

It is very difficult to monitor decentralization consistently across countries. For example, fiscal information, such as that reported in the IMF's Government Finance Statistics, is often used to track international trends in decentralization among various countries. The problem with these data however, is that analysts often use the percentage of total public expenditures undertaken at the local level as an indicator of decentralization. In reality, in some countries, local governments decide on the allocation of these resources, while in others, much of these expenditures are mandated at the central level and only undertaken at the local level. The former is consistent with decentralization, while the latter is not. Nevertheless, for now these are often the best data available for cross-country comparisons. The Decentralization Thematic Group at the World Bank is in the process of coordinating several data collection efforts across the Bank to form one comprehensive, detailed database of fiscal and institutional variables across countries.

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Local Technical and Managerial Capacity

Can local governments and communities manage their new responsibilities?

The recent international trend toward decentralization has provoked a lively debate about the capacity of local governments and communities to plan, finance and manage their new responsibilities. Assessing, improving, and accommodating varying degrees of local capacity has become more and more important as decentralization policies transfer larger responsibilities as well as budgets from national governments to local governments and communities.

While one of the common rationales for decentralization proposes that local governments’ proximity to their constituents will force them to be better than central governments at managing resources and matching their constituents preferences, it is not at all clear that local governments and communities have the capacity to translate this information advantage into a efficiency advantage. Inexperienced, small local governments may not have the technical capacity to implement and maintain projects and they may not have the training to effectively manage larger budgets.

This note discusses the two main branches of the "local capacity" debate: first, the question of what local capacity is; and second, the issue of what to do about varying degrees of local capacity once it has been identified. "Local government" is taken to mean the level of government where some degree of everyday face-to-face interaction between citizens/beneficiaries and government is possible.

Assessing Local Capacity

Decentralization planners have used the general guideline that central agencies should focus on creating and sustaining the enabling environment and overall strategic issues, while local organizations should concentrate on tailoring the specific mechanisms of service delivery and public expenditure packages to fit local needs and circumstances. In reality, however, varying degrees of local capacity –both local government and civil society/the private sector-- obviously affect decisions about which levels of government can best perform which tasks. In most cases, decentralization of basic services does not mean the wholesale transfer to local agencies of all tasks associated with those services. An assessment of local capacity is an integral part of designing decentralization.

What is "Capacity?"

Measuring local capacity can be difficult and the debate over quantifying it has often been motivated by political concerns as well as technical considerations about the local government’s ability to provide services. (J. Widner, 1994). Central governments have used "lack of capacity" excuse for refusing to transfer their authority, financial resources, and the accompanying privileges to local units. For example, A. Fiszbein (1997) found in Colombia that "what was being characterized (by national agencies) as poor planning in municipios was in fact a genuine disagreement between local and national priorities." The municipios were actually demonstrating considerable local capacity by turning down conditional matching grants from central agencies and borrowing funds locally at market rates in order implement their own priorities.

For this reason, it is useful to set out some of the relevant issues in objectively measuring local capacity. The fact that a community and its government exist indicates the presence of some skills. The challenge for development agencies and their partners is to identify the latent capacity in the local government, civil society, and private sector, and bring it into the development programs.

The first task is to identify the specific tasks that that local governments and citizens will need to carry out. The following are just a few of the components of planning, implementing and sustaining basic services.

  • analyzing and solving local problems
  • determining community needs
  • organizing local and national political support for programs
  • mobilizing national resources for programs
  • raising tax revenues or collecting user fees
  • writing specifications for the technical elements of programs
  • maintaining and sustaining the service
  • evaluating the impact of the program on the local environment
  • providing for those affected adversely by the program
  • contracting for services and buying equipment

Uphoff has suggested that there are four fundamental functions that organizations (and systems of organizations) must be able to do in order to reach their objectives.

These functions are:

  • decision-making, which includes planning and evaluation;
  • resource mobilization and management;
  • communication and coordination; and,
  • conflict resolution.

Thus the question becomes: "Can local communities and their governments organize themselves to perform the four functions and provide basic services for their residents?"

The second task is to create appropriate, comprehensive measures for local groups’ ability to carry out the required functions. There are several issues to consider in measuring capacity:

Outputs vs. Outcomes: The effects of government policies are subject to so many uncontrollable outside influence (such as weather) that outcomes are usually an unreliable indicator of how well the government provides services.
Ability varies between tasks and sectors: One of the most important tasks in planning decentralization is to identify the comparative advantage of the local governments in various tasks.

People vs. Institutions: Observers must consider whether "local capacity" consists of individuals who may or may not continue to play a role in the government or whether there are institutionalized mechanisms (such as competitive pay, prestige, contracting arrangements, or training procedures) for ensuring a continuous supply of technical and managerial expertise. In assessing the community’s capacity, one would want to look at the depth and history of civil society organizations as well as the number of private contracters and concentration of skills (ie. Is there only one contractor who could move at any time?) in this area.

Bureaucratic and Technical Infrastructure: The processes by which information is received, processed, and stored underlie most local government functions. The existence of appropriate technology -databases, filing systems, is essential, for example, for the ability to collect taxes or user fees.

The Role of Civil Society: NGOs can often be a source of trained, experienced personnel and local construction, accounting, etc. firms can provide services on a case-by-case basis. The local government’s relationship with the private sector and demonstrated ability to contract out is an important, often overlooked part of "capacity." In assessing the community’s longer-term capacity, one would want to look at the depth and history of civil society organizations (is there one skillful community leader or a network?) as well as the number of private contracters and concentration of skills (i.e., Is there only one contractor who could move at any time or are there several firms that could provide technical help) in this area.
Decentralize or build local capacity? Which comes first?

The answer: "Do both simultaneously"

The traditional approach to decentralization has been to build capacity before transferring responsibilities or revenues. This cautious method was fueled by worries about irresponsible spending, local corruption, regional inequities, and service collapse as well as many central governments’ reluctance to devolve authority. Some authors such as Bahl and Linn even argued that the lack of local capacity, among other factors, made decentralization ineffective and even undesirable in developing countries.

This traditional approach is changing, however as increasing evidence shows that the capacities of all levels increases as decentralized service systems mature. There is a growing appreciation that "management is a performance art" better learned by doing than listening. Rondinelli, et al. (1984) reports that Indonesia, Morocco, Thailand, and Pakistan’s local government capacity increased slightly but perceptibly in the years following decentralization. Devolution in Papua New Guinea has increased popular participation in government and improved the planning, management, and coordination capacity of provincial administrators. Faguet’s ongoing research on Bolivia shows that local governments’ education investments are more rational and more in line with local needs than the national government’s expenditure. In general, much of the evidence indicates that decentralization has increased local participation and hence local government leverage in gaining access to national resources and encouraged the development of public and private planning and management skill.

Implementing the Answer: Doing Both Simultaneously

Decentralization in and of itself can be the best way to build local capacity. Central support can be important to maintain equity in spending across jurisdictions and ensure proper attention to training. Tendler (1997), for example, points out that effective delivery of local services rests upon partnerships crossing levels of government and the public, private and civil sectors. Nevertheless, capacity-building should not be a supply-driven endeavor that provides the same support package to widely varying local jurisdictions. It is also not always clear that national capacity is greater than local capacity. Putnam’s research, for example, shows that Italians rate local government effectiveness higher than national government capacity.

Demand-driven capacity-building programs. One way enhance local capacity is through training and practice is to allow local institutions to use a portion of program funds, or their own funds, to contract for the technical expertise that they feel is appropriate to their specific requirements. This technical help can often be found locally, and acquired quicker and cheaper than from central or regional sources. Similarly communities (or regional groupings of communities) can be given block grants for their own capacity-building training programs. They can purchase the training they need to fill the gaps which they have identified in their own management and technical capacity. They can decide whether to buy the training from local, regional or central institutions. When local sources are used, a local network of technical expertise develops. This local network can be tapped more efficiently for maintenance of existing and new programs in the future.

Local participation can be a strong motivator for change: Recent evidence from Colombia and Bolivia shows that citizen/constituent oversight can be an important impetus for local governments to actively improve their capacity. Regular, fair, elections and citizen councils can increase the pressure on local leaders to turn popular demands into outputs.

Clarity in responsibility assignment is essential. India’s technically and managerially ambitious Small Farmers’ Development Agency and Sri Lanka’s lack of guidance for the appropriate uses of district budgets, for example, led to low levels of success. The more successful decentralization efforts in Indonesia and Thailand however, had clearer procedures for local budget allocation and responsibilities.


The prevailing wisdom today can be summed up by the following statement from Working Group 5 (Institutional Capacity ) at the Technical Consultation on Decentralization and Rural Development, FAO, Rome, December 1997: "Rather than plan and make large up-front investment in local capacity building as a prerequisite for devolution of responsibility, there was a broad consensus that it would be quicker and more cost-effective to begin the process of devolution, to permit learning by doing and to build up capacity through practice." The evidence increasingly shows that local capacity can be built by the process of decentralization, particularly when appropriate programs to increase interaction with the private sector are included in decentralization design.

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Accountability, Transparency and Corruption in Decentralized Governance


In its democratic political aspect, decentralization as currently conceived and increasingly practiced in the international development community has two principal components: participation and accountability. Participation is chiefly concerned with increasing the role of citizens in choosing their local leaders and in telling those leaders what to do—in other words, providing inputs into local governance. Accountability constitutes the other side of the process; it is the degree to which local governments have to explain or justify what they have done or failed to do. Improved information about local needs and preferences is one of the theoretical advantages of decentralization, but there is no guarantee that leaders will actually act on these preferences unless they feel some sort of accountability to citizens. Local elections are the most common and powerful form of accountability, but other mechanisms such as citizen councils can have limited influence.

Accountability can be seen as the validation of participation, in that the test of whether attempts to increase participation prove successful is the extent to which people can use participation to hold a local government responsible for its actions.

Types of Accountability

Accountability comes in two dimensions: that of government workers to elected officials; and that of the latter to the citizens who elect them.

Government Workers to Local Officials

The first type can prove difficult to achieve, for civil servants, particularly professionals in such fields as health, education, agriculture --the very sectors that are most often decentralized-- often have considerable incentive to evade control by locally elected officials. Such people generally have university training and sophisticated life-style practices hard to maintain in small towns and villages, career ambitions that transcend the local level, and goals for their children’s education that local schools cannot meet. They may well also fear that quality standards for service delivery will suffer if provision is localized. Finally, they often find opportunities for corruption greater if they are supervised by distant managers through long chains of command than if they must report to superiors close at hand. For all these reasons, they tend to have strong urges to maintain ties with their parent ministries in the central government and to resist decentralization initiatives. And understandably, their colleagues at the center have a parallel interest in maintaining these ties, for they are much concerned about preserving national standards in service delivery and often about opportunities for venality as well (many corruption schemes provide for sharing ill-gotten gains upward through bureaucratic channels to the top).

Given all these reasons both good and bad for opposition, it is scarcely surprising that decentralization initiatives so often run into heavy bureaucratic resistance, and designers find themselves pressured to keep significant linkages between the field and the central ministries, especially concerning such issues as postings, promotions, and salaries. Needless to say, such ties tend to undercut the capacity of elected officials to supervise government servants supposedly working for them. Some decentralized governance systems (e.g., Karnataka State in India) appear to have worked through these problems to establish popular control over the bureaucracy, but it has taken many years to do so.

Elected Leaders to the Citizenry

The second type of accountability is that of elected officials to the citizenry. Elections (provided they are free and fair) provide the most obvious accountability, but this is a rather blunt tool, exercised only at widespread intervals and offering only the broadest citizen control over government. Voters can retain or reject their governors, a decision that can certainly have salutary effects on governance, but these acts are summary judgments, generally not reactions to particular acts or omissions. And when local elections do revolve around a given issue, such as schools, they necessarily leave everything else out of the picture. Citizens need more discriminating instruments to enforce accountability. Fortunately, a number of these are available.

  • Political parties can be a powerful tool for accountability when they are established and vigorous at the local level, as in many Latin American countries. They have a built-in incentive to uncover and publicize wrongdoing by the party in power and to present continuously an alternative set of public policies to the voters.
  • Civil society and its precursor social capital enable citizens to articulate their reaction to local government and to lobby officials to be responsive. These representations generally come through NGOs (though spontaneous protests can also be considered civil society), which, like political parties, often have parent organizations at the provincial or national level.
  • If citizens are to hold their government accountable, they must be able to find out what it is doing. At the immediate neighborhood level, word of mouth is perhaps sufficient to transmit such information, but at any higher level some form of media becomes essential. In some countries, print media can perform this function, but generally their coverage is minimal outside larger population centers. A feasible substitute in many settings is low-wattage AM radio, which is highly local, cheap to operate, and can offer news and talk shows addressing local issues.
  • Public meetings can be an effective mechanism for encouraging citizens to express their views and obliging public officials to answer them. The cabildos abiertos held in many Latin American countries are a good example. In some settings, such meetings may be little more than briefing sessions, but in others they can be effective in getting public officials to defend their actions.
  • Formal redress procedures have been included as an accountability mechanism in some decentralization initiatives. Bolivia probably has the most elaborate instrument along these lines with its municipal Vigilance Committees that are based on traditional local social structures and are charged with monitoring elected councils, encouraged to file actionable complaints with higher levels if needed.

In other systems, formal recall procedures are available to citizens dissatisfied with their officials.

  • Opinion surveys have generally been considered too complex and sophisticated to use at the local level, but usable and affordable technologies are being developed in the Philippines enabling local-level NGOs to employ such polls to assess public opinion about service provision.

A recent USAID assessment of democratic local governance in six countries found that each country employed a different mix of these mechanisms, while no country had employed them all. No one instrument proved effective in all six settings, but various combinations offered considerable promise. Some may be able to substitute at least in part for others when weak or absent. Civil society and the media, for example, might together be able to make up for a feeble party system at the local level.

Transparency and Corruption

In theory these two phenomena should be inversely related, such that more transparency in local governance should mean less scope for corruption, in that dishonest behavior would become more easily detectable, punished and discouraged in future. The history of the industrialized countries indicates that this tend to be true in the longer term, but recent experience shows that this relationship is not necessarily true at all in the short run. In the former Soviet countries, for example, local governance institutions have become much more open to public scrutiny in the 1990s, but at the same time there can be little doubt that corruption at all levels has greatly increased. It is to be hoped that the local mechanisms of accountability discussed above will in tandem with greater probity at the national level improve the degree of honesty at all levels, but at best this will take time. The message for the international development community is to press forward with as many of these accountability mechanisms as is feasible.

A second type of linkage between transparency and corruption has been noted by Manor when he notes that in India, while greater transparency in local governance was not accompanied by increased corruption, it did lead to popular perceptions of greater public malfeasance, simply because citizens became more aware of what was going on. This pattern has surely repeated itself in many other locales. Over time, to the extent that accountability mechanisms begin to become effective and corruption begins to decline, the citizenry should appreciate the improvement.


The democratic local governance initiatives currently under way in many countries hold much promise for developing effective systems of public accountability that will ensure that government servants are responsible to elected officials, and that the latter are in turn responsible to the public that elected them in the first place. In the process these systems of accountability should increase the pressure for more transparent local governance, in which corruption will be easier to bring to light and thus to curtail. But just as it took many decades for such efforts to make much headway in the industrial countries, so too quick results cannot be expected elsewhere.

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