Commonwealth Secretariat Local Government Reform

2310-1350 (online)
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This series offers guidance on various aspects of reform of local government, for use by senior managers in local government, policy-makers in ministries of local government, and students and researchers in public administration with an interest in local government issues.
Resource Guide on Decentralisation and Local Government

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Zoƫ Scott, Munawwar Alam
14 July 2011
9781848590809 (PDF)

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Estimates suggest that decentralisation is currently being pursued in over 80 per cent of developing countries worldwide. For many people, local government is the part of government that most directly impacts on their lives, particularly via the provision of local services like water, sanitation, primary education and primary healthcare.

This resource guide provides practical guidance for designing, implementing and evaluating decentralisation reforms and local government practices to ensure they are as effective as possible. It also synthesises and presents current debates on the impact of decentralisation and local government on poverty reduction, service delivery and conflict as well as providing links to cuttingedge research and recent case studies.

The guide includes summaries of key texts. Each short summary provides a link to an extended summary which can be found in the alphabetised appendix.
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  • Foreword

    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.

  • Introduction

    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.

  • The Changing Role of the State

    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.

  • Designing and Strengthening Local Government

    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.

  • Fiscal Decentralisation

    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.

  • Participation and Accountability

    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.

  • Monitoring and Evaluation

    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 and Development

    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…

  • Local Service Delivery

    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.

  • Decentralisation, Conflict and Fragile Contexts

    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.

  • Relevant Organisations and Resources

    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.

  • Appendix

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

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