Commentary on ‘Going Local: Governance on the Line’
“Decentralization can mean progress toward improved governance and democracy as well as the erosion of local conditions of well-being”– Merilee Grindle
By Chambi Chachage
Merilee S. Grindle’s first chapter in her 2007 book on Going Local: Decentralization, Democratization, and the Promise of Good Governance provides a rigorous analytical framework for explaining and even predicting varying outcomes of decentralization. It is divided into four main sections: An untitled preamble; ‘The Decentralization Revolution’; ‘Explaining Diverse Outcomes: Four Propositions’; ‘The Book in Brief’.
In the preamble the author presents anecdotes from various countries across the developing world to show that local governance has had both positive and negative outcomes. Using a random sample of 30 medium-sized municipalities in Mexico, she measures the performance of these local governments and uses the results to explain why they perform similarly and/or differently across a success-failure spectrum.
The second section is presents an historical overview of the decentralization wave that swept national governments between the 1980s and mid-2000s in the context of the democratization wave. For her, the concept refers to “the formal and informal mechanisms and rules that allocate authority and resources downward among different levels of government”. As she aptly unpacks it, decentralization can and did occur simultaneously or successfully on three levels: (1) fiscally, (2) politically, and (3) administratively. It can also be put into effect in at least three different ways: (1) devolution, (2) delegation, or (3) deconcentration. These analytically distinct types of decentralization, as she fittingly points out, can also be experienced at the same time even in the same local government. Such interplays, contradictory as they may seem, are byproducts of a local governance reform that does necessarily follow a linear progression. In her words, decentralization amounted to a structural revolution. Thus its seemingly newness necessitated central and local actors to structure or restructure their responsibilities in order to meet new/renewed institutional and societal demands.
Section three advances four hypotheses that provide distinct explanations of why a given local government might respond differently to a new opportunity associated with decentralization. These propositions, as she points out, centers on the following four factors that tends to encourage and/or discourage better governance practices in the contexts of developing countries: (1) political competition, (2) public sector entrepreneurship, (3) administrative modernization, and (4) civil society. When there is greater party competition and local elections whereby the opposition can win, she thus argues, the incumbents would be motivated to prove their competence in local governance. The adoption a public sector initiative, she further argues, depends on the behavior and concerns of public official in regards to local governance reform. Inputs for enhancing the public sector, she also argues, shapes the performance of local government regardless of partisanship and electioneering. And the activeness of civil society in mobilizing and demanding accountability, she then argues, enhances local government performance. When conversed all four factors erodes local governance.
Lastly, section four provides snapshots of each chapter. Of particular interest here is the way the author ties her specific findings to the central argument of her book. She acknowledges that, out of the four factors associated with her propositions, two – civil society activism and administrative modernization – did not seem to significantly account for the differences in municipalities not least because of Mexico’s legacy of centralization. “Indeed’, she affirms, “the impact of increased political competition and the interest of public officials in reform provided more robust explanations of differences among municipalities”. It is these simultaneous, albeit, skewed resultant changes that suggests, to the author, that the “four hypotheses do not stand in isolation from each other but are in fact closely interconnected.” I cannot agree more not least because of my experience of working as a policy analyst and activist in a civil society organization advocating for local governance in my country. With a ‘new’ ostensible Decentralization-by-Devolution policy under the Local Governance Reform Program that fiscally disburses money to schools through the Ministry of Finance, politically oversees those schools through the Ministry of Education and administratively run them through the Ministry of Local Governance, Tanzania echoes Grindle’s study.
In sum this text is about coping with the ‘new’, a keyword that runs across its pages.