Does decentralization improve accountability and service delivery?


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Decentralization has been a buzz word in the development world for a while, but disagreements remain about when and how different types of decentralization are successful in improving accountability and service delivery.  Although decentralization is often used as a monolithic concept, the term can include political, fiscal, administrative or market decentralization, and can involve varying degrees of transfer of authority and/or responsibility from the central government. 

There was an interesting discussion of decentralization on Megan McArdle’s blog in The Atlantic.  Most of the readers’ examples are from the US – but decentralization is a huge, and perhaps more crucial, issue in East Asia, where governments, the World Bank and other development partners are working to find innovative ways to improve governance and service delivery.  What do you think?  Are local governments more accountable than central governments?  Are there particular services or departments in your country that you think would be handled better by a subnational government than by the central government?



Deborah Perlman

Public sector governance

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June 26, 2008

From the point of view of service delivery local governments are (1) closer to the citizens, as such in theory they are easier (2) to approach by citizens and have an (3)interest to develop their (4)own region and be visibly accountable (5)for the results. Question: what is the role of central government? What is the perception of a governments role these days? Is it a problem that different regions develop in a different pace (migration?)
In the commercial sector personal and people to people contact brings in contracts. The better this cooperation works, the more trust is created between partners. Perhaps in terms of service delivery there are lessons to be learned from the private sector?

June 26, 2008

A subset of this question of particular relevance to the region is whether or not decentralization works for minorities, whose aspirations for autonomy in many cases require the devolution of powers to enclaves controlled by them.

Ethnicity and Local Governance is a research project investigating this question in Cambodia. Results are being published here:

Deborah Perlman
July 14, 2008

Thanks for your comment. These are definitely clear and useful criteria for and reasons to devolve service delivery to local governments - or the private sector. Public-private partnerships, where the government learns lessons from and joins with the private sector to deliver services or run government entities, are increasingly popular. You can read a bit more about them from the UN perspective here:….

Also, the comment about attention to minority rights offers one answer to your question about the role of the central government. While government can learn a lot from private sector approaches, the private sector tends to value efficiency over equity. In delivering services, the government needs to put measures in place to ensure that, even if it has delegated responsibility to another entity, the needs of the poor, women and minority groups are taken into account.