National politics is increasingly overshadowing everything else, even as local government does more and more. Here’s how to right the balance.
By Eguiar Lizundia and Utpal Misra
National elections always steal the spotlight. People tend to overlook the far greater number of contests that occur down ballot. But these offices—so-called subnational government—are of tremendous scale and significance. According to some estimates, there are more than a million subnational governments globally, including those at the state, provincial, county, and municipal levels. A large number of these offices are selected through the democratic process, and the share of resources they manage and the extent of their responsibilities continue to grow. Elected officials outside national capitals decide on issues such as urban planning, school curricula, and health and safety regulations. Most basic services, including water, sanitation, schooling, and policing, are also determined below the national level.
Despite the impact of subnational governance on people’s lives, these elections routinely post lower turnout rates than national races. Yet the evidence shows that the top motivators for political engagement globally—issues including health care, poverty, and education—tend to be handled at the subnational level. So why don’t voters pay more attention to their local governments, which address the issues they care about most?
This contradiction is the result of shortcomings in how power is transferred and shared with lower levels of government. It also calls into question the belief that government that is closer to the people is more accountable to the people. Formal participation in the democratic process is necessary for accountability and an indicator of citizen confidence in democracy. Although citizens of some advanced democracies trust local government more than national government, waning political participation will erode public confidence in local officeholders, their performance—and perhaps democracy itself.
Localized Governance, Nationalized Politics
Around the world, national governments are transferring more power and responsibility to subnational bodies—a process sometimes known as “decentralization”—in a bid to make government more responsive to the people. For instance, in 1998 the U.K. government created a new parliament for Scotland and empowered it to determine Scottish policy in areas including healthcare and education. Similar processes are occurring in both federal and unitary states. In federal systems, sovereignty is divided between the national government and certain subnational units; in unitary systems, subnational units are fully subordinate to the national government.
As such, an increasing share of public resources are directly managed and spent at lower levels of government. One study shows that subnational governments are responsible for 24 percent of public expenditures worldwide and 37 percent of public investment. Among members of the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, subnational governments account for 40 percent of total public expenditures and 57 percent of total public investment. Subnational administrations in federal states are responsible for 59 percent of total national investment spending—a predictably larger share than their counterparts in unitary states, which spend 32 percent.
Local authorities have also expanded the scope of their responsibilities. The global integration of supply chains since the 1980s has changed what the public expects from local jurisdictions. Citizens are demanding more innovative, open, and localized governments that can provide high-quality services. Subnational governments—driven by the leadership of individual officials—have dramatically broadened their functions, a trend exemplified by the advent of so-called city diplomacy.
For example, the city of Nagasaki is a leading advocate for global nuclear abolition and nonproliferation. To finance their growing powers, subnational entities in places such as Indonesia and Brazil have levied new taxes and fees, or negotiated with national governments for a greater share of public monies. And in Colombia, three decades of reform have given local authorities a larger role in promoting economic and social development, including providing direct technical assistance to small farmers as a part of a national effort to involve municipalities in rural development.
These trends prove that the transfer of political power and responsibility to lower rungs of government is a common phenomenon in modern democracies. Yet in the United States and elsewhere, the electoral landscape is becoming increasingly nationalized. And in Europe, there are signs that attention is moving away from the local level as subnational political parties increasingly emphasize EU issues in their platforms.
Several factors have made national government politics overshadow all else. In recent years, people have increasingly turned away from local media and now depend on social media and big news outlets to stay informed. More than eight in ten Americans use a digital device to access news. In Africa, the rapid adoption of social media and smartphones foreshadows a similar trend. Large media outlets place less emphasis on local news, instead focusing on national events in order to attract a wider audience and increase revenue. The decline of traditional sources of local news—such as locally owned newspapers and radio stations—both results from and reinforces this dynamic.
Moreover, issues such as climate change and the covid pandemic have risen to the top of people’s concerns in the last few years. In many countries, especially developing ones, local governments lack the resources and knowledge to address these challenges.
What Doesn’t Work
Citizens can also grow disillusioned when the process of giving power to local authorities does not make government more responsive. Drawing on examples from around the globe, including our recent research, we identify four key obstacles to successful decentralization:
Lack of knowledge. Giving new powers to subnational bodies can lead to confusion or conflicts between the various levels of government over who has authority in which jurisdictions, as multiple entities often share responsibility over one public-policy domain. Citizens often cannot identify which level of government or which agency is responsible for which services. Mozambique is a good case in point. In 2019, the county’s provinces gained the ability to elect their own assemblies and governors, which should have increased opportunities for citizen engagement. Yet two years later, citizens were still remarkably confused about who does what. Interviews we conducted in 2021 revealed that people were unclear about how government resources are allocated, what the provincial governments are responsible for, and what the fiscal relationship between the central government and various subnational entities is. This confusion may explain why many residents of one Mozambican province told us that the quality of service delivery had plummeted since 2019.
Confusion about who does what is common even among government officials and policymakers. For instance, in 2015 Nepal became a federal state comprising national, provincial, and local governments. Nevertheless, the majority of stakeholders whom we interviewed six years later, including provincial lawmakers and government officials, lacked a basic understanding of how the federal system worked. Just ten days before Tunisia’s first-ever democratic local elections, the 2018 municipal races, the national parliament passed a major law enumerating the powers and responsibilities of local authorities, giving candidates and voters little time to fully grasp how these offices functioned.
Lack of resources. As authority flows down to local government, new responsibilities in areas such as service delivery, strategic planning, procurement, and oversight begin to rest in local officials. But many provincial and municipal governments do not have adequate staffing or expertise to perform the required tasks, and it usually takes significant time and investment to overcome these shortfalls. For example, following the 2019 reforms in Mozambique, the national government did not provide the provinces adequate resources to carry out their new responsibilities, leaving them unable to fulfill campaign promises. In other words, even as national governments push responsibilities downstream, they often horde the resources required to deal with them for themselves.
Politicization. In some cases, political elites in the national government empower subnational bodies in a bid to increase their own power or influence. It is far easier for municipalities and the like to become the fiefdom of local powerbrokers, with little to no check on their abuses of power. In Nigeria, local governments have become a hub for corruption and mismanagement, with local elites working in cahoots with one another. Our polling in Mozambique suggests that the public sees the 2019 process as politicized—a tool for expanding the ruling party’s political influence at the local level—rather than something that will benefit the people. When we asked people in Nepal what stood in the way of effective subnational governance, many pointed to the open practice of nepotism or favoritism based on caste, group, or political party by elected representatives and state officials.
Unmanaged expectations. Citizens’ unrealistic expectations pose another challenge. Many mistakenly believe the sheer act of bringing government closer to the governed will bring instantaneous and far-reaching change. In a 2019 poll held in four Ukrainian municipalities, a majority of respondents said that their cities were ready to handle the increased responsibilities that they had been given in 2014. Yet few respondents reported interacting with municipal authorities. Given that municipalities received these new powers only five years prior, this finding may indicate citizen overconfidence in their representatives.
Increased dialogue between the people and policymakers can go a long way to managing expectations and tailoring government policies and services to local contexts. But to succeed, these conversations must be inclusive: It is not unusual for minorities and traditionally marginalized communities to be excluded. In Nepal, we found that even though the 2015 Constitution made provisions for women’s representation at the subnational level, women’s participation is widely seen as symbolic.
The Way Forward
Democracy’s critics argue that the failure of democratic systems to deliver on the goods and services people want has given an advantage to its authoritarian opponents. Since shifting power, responsibility, and resources to the local level can make government more responsive, this process can be part of the solution. But to succeed, any effort to transfer power to lower levels of government must be consensus-based, clear, and adequately resourced. Policymakers must prioritize inclusive participation as well as effective communication and coordination. Done well, decentralization could be democracy’s saving grace, a way to build it from the ground up. Poorly executed—as in some of the countries we have studied—it can turn into the newest version of the blame game, in which mayors, city officials, and local administrators are tomorrow’s scapegoats.
Eguiar Lizundia is a senior advisor for governance at the International Republican Institute (IRI), where Utpal Misra is a senior governance specialist. They were part of the team that developed IRI’s Decentralization Resource Guide: Best Practices, Tools, and Tips for Strengthening Subnational Governance (2022).
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