Historians have described the history of governments and empires in terms of centralization and decentralization. In his 1910 The History of Nations Henry 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 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.
East Province, Rwanda, created in 2006 as part of a government decentralization process
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 signifies a reduction in the authority of national governments over policymaking. This process is accomplished by the institution of reforms that either delegate a certain degree of meaningful decision-making autonomy to subnational tiers of government, or grant citizens the right to elect lower-level officials, like local or regional representatives. 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.
A national government may decide to decentralize its authority and responsibilities for a variety of reasons. Decentralization reforms may occur for administrative reasons, when government officials decide that certain responsibilities and decisions would be handled best at the regional or local level. In democracies, traditionally conservative parties include political decentralization as a directive in their platforms because rightist parties tend to advocate for a decrease in the role of central government. There is also strong evidence to support the idea that government stability increases the probability of political decentralization, since instability brought on by gridlock between opposing parties in legislatures often impedes a government’s overall ability to enact sweeping reforms.
The rise of regional ethnic parties in the national politics of parliamentary democracies is also heavily associated with the implementation of decentralization reforms. Ethnic parties may endeavor to transfer more autonomy to their respective regions, and as a partisan strategy, ruling parties within the central government may cooperate by establishing regional assemblies in order to curb the rise of ethnic parties in national elections. This phenomenon famously occurred in 1999, when the United Kingdom’s Labour Party appealed to Scottish constituents by creating a semi-autonomous Scottish Parliament in order to neutralize the threat from the increasingly popular Scottish National Party at the national level.
In addition to increasing the administrative efficacy of government and endowing citizens with more power, there are many projected advantages to political decentralization. Individuals who take advantage of their right to elect local and regional authorities have been shown to have more positive attitudes toward politics, and increased opportunities for civic decision-making through participatory democracy mechanisms like public consultations and participatory budgeting are believed to help legitimize government institutions in the eyes of marginalized groups. Moreover, political decentralization is perceived as a valid means of protecting marginalized communities at a local level from the detrimental aspects of development and globalization driven by the state, like the degradation of local customs, codes, and beliefs. In his 2013 book, Democracy and Political Ignorance, George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin argued that political decentralization in a federal democracy confronts the widespread issue of political ignorance by allowing citizens to engage in foot voting, or moving to other jurisdictions with more favorable laws. He cites the mass migration of over one million southern-born African Americans to the North or the West to evade discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
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 .
Political decentralization does not come without its drawbacks. A study by Fan concludes that there is an increase in corruption and rent-seeking when there are more vertical tiers in the government, as well as when there are higher levels of subnational government employment. Other studies warn of high-level politicians that may intentionally deprive regional and local authorities of power and resources when conflicts arise. In order to combat these negative forces, experts believe that political decentralization should be supplemented with other conflict management mechanisms like power-sharing, particularly in regions with ethnic tensions.
- 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.
- Delegation passes down responsibility for decision-making, finance and implementation. It involves the creation of public-private enterprises or corporations, or of “authorities”, special projects or service districts. All of them will have a great deal of decision-making discretion and they may be exempt from civil service requirements and may be permitted to charge users for services.
- Devolution transfers responsibility for decision-making, finance and implementation of certain public functions to the sub-national level, such as a regional, local, or state government.
- Divestment, also called privatization, may mean merely contracting out services to private companies. Or it may mean relinquishing totally all responsibility for decision-making, finance and implementation of certain public functions. Facilities will be sold off, workers transferred or fired and private companies or non-for-profit organizations allowed to provide the services. Many of these functions originally were done by private individuals, companies, or associations and later taken over by the government, either directly, or by regulating out of business entities which competed with newly created government programs.
Fiscal decentralization means decentralizing revenue raising and/or expenditure of moneys to a lower level of government while maintaining financial responsibility. While this process usually is called fiscal federalism it may be relevant to unitary, federal and confederal governments. Fiscal federalism also concerns the “vertical imbalances” where the central government gives too much or too little money to the lower levels. It actually can be a way of increasing central government control of lower levels of government, if it is not linked to other kinds of responsibilities and authority.
Fiscal decentralization can be achieved through user fees, user participation through monetary or labor contributions, expansion of local property or sales taxes, intergovernmental transfers of central government tax monies to local governments through transfer payments or grants, and authorization of municipal borrowing with national government loan guarantees. Transfers of money may be given conditionally with instructions or unconditionally without them.
Market decentralization can be done through privatization of public owned functions and businesses, as described briefly above. But it also is done through deregulation, the abolition of restrictions on businesses competing with government services, for example, postal services, schools, garbage collection. Even as private companies and corporations have worked to have such services contracted out to or privatized by them, others have worked to have these turned over to non-profit organizations or associations,
Since the 1970s there has been deregulation of some industries, like banking, trucking, airlines and telecommunications which resulted generally in more competition and lower prices. According to Cato Institute, an American libertarian think-tank, some industries deregulation of aspects of an industry were offset by more ambitious regulations elsewhere that hurt consumers, the electricity industry being a prime example. For example, in banking, Cato Institute believes some deregulation allowed banks to compete across state lines, increasing consumer choice, while an actual increase in regulators and regulations forced banks to do business the way central government regulators commanded, including making loans to individuals incapable of repaying them, leading eventually to the financial crisis of 2007–2008.[unreliable source?]
One example of economic decentralization, which is based on a libertarian socialist model, is decentralized economic planning. Decentralized planning is a type of economic system in which decision-making is distributed amongst various economic agents or localized within production agents. An example of this method in practice is in Kerala, India which started in 1996 as, The People’s Planning in Kerala.
Some argue that government standardisation in areas from commodity market, inspection and testing procurement bidding, Building codes, professional and vocational education, trade certification, safety, etc. are necessary. Emmanuelle Auriol and Michel Benaim write about the “comparative benefits” of decentralization versus government regulation in the setting of standards. They find that while there may be a need for public regulation if public safety is at stake, private creation of standards usually is better because “regulators or ‘experts’ might misrepresent consumers’ tastes and needs.” As long as companies are averse to incompatible standards, standards will be created that satisfy needs of a modern economy.
Central governments themselves may own large tracts of land and control the forest, water, mineral, wildlife and other resources they contain. They may manage them through government operations or leasing them to private businesses; or they may neglect them to be exploited by individuals or groups who defy non-enforced laws against exploitation. It also may control most private land through land-use, zoning, environmental and other regulations. Selling off or leasing lands can be profitable for governments willing to relinquish control, but such programs can face public scrutiny because of fear of a loss of heritage or of environmental damage. Devolution of control to regional or local governments has been found to be an effective way of dealing with these concerns. Such decentralization has happened in India and other third world nations.