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Political decentralization

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Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo walks with school children during an inspection of city projects (August 2013).

Political decentralization is the primary mechanism through which citizens’ preferences are represented in local decision making, and is therefore essential to an effective, inclusive and responsive system of local governance. In addition, the existence of elected local (or regional) governments adds a layer of government that increases the competitive political space, enhances political participation, and introduces an element of vertical balance of power and accountability.

Although local political systems are extremely country- and context-specific, there are several elements of local political systems that together determine the degree to which local political systems are effective, inclusive and responsive. This framework emphasizes that a local government can only be held politically accountable for performing its responsibilities if it has the necessary discretion to perform its functions (World Bank, 2009):

  • First, local elected officials need to be given meaningful discretion (authority or decision-making power) to perform the local government’s functions in a way that represent the preferences of the citizens. (This involves not only the transfer of legal functional responsibility, but also the power to direct the local government’s staff and discretion over financial resources).
  • Second, political and electoral systems need to provide locally elected leaders with incentives that encourage them to represent their constituents, rather than to represent their own personal interest or a narrow political interest.
  • Third, public and social accountability mechanisms need to be in place that enable local constituents as well as other relevant stakeholders to hold the local government and its elected officials accountable for their performance.

The institutional context for the effectiveness of local political systems and the effectiveness of a local government’s political leadership is provided by a number of factors, including (i) the internal political organization of the local government (e.g., the separation of powers between the local council and executive); (ii) the manner in which the local council and the local executive (i.e., the Chairman or Mayor) are elected (including rules for the electoral representation of women and disadvantaged groups in some countries); (iii) the nature of political party systems; (iv) the vertical separation of political powers between different government levels; (v) the effective control that the local political leadership has over the core local administrative team and over local administration at large; and (vi) non-electoral aspects of local political participation and accountability.

 

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