Devolution of Government Powers from Central Governments to Lower Levels

In response to the demands for greater self-determination, influence in decision-making and efficiency in the delivery of services and goods, many countries are devolving political, fiscal, and administrative powers to sub-national tiers of government.

Devolution, often required in a unitary system Opens in new window, is the transfer or delegation of power to a lower level, especially from central government Opens in new window to lower governments at the regional (i.e., provincial) level.

This process does not necessarily turn the unitary system into a federal one Opens in new window, though that can be the ultimate result if the devolved powers become enshrined as rightfully belonging to the lower level governments.

Normally, a constitution Opens in new window rules the relationship of the authority between central, state (regional) and local government. Authority is not power but authority creates power.

Simply put, authority is the mandatory and discretionary power to carry out functions or services commonly undertaken by and between levels of government, and sanctioned by statute or the constitution.

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A basic principle of good governance is that authority should be properly devolved to lower level governments and to allow such governments the maximum autonomy possible.

Devolution, then, means the transfer of authority by way of legislation, preferably through the constitution, to the lower levels of government.

Transfer of authority is not simply the delegation of decision making and executive authority. Devolution of political authority is constitutional decentralization—meaning the constitutional distribution of political authority among political institutions. It eventually means the granting by the constitution of full autonomy to state (regional) and local governments.

Devolution reflects the political evolution towards more democratic and participatory forms of government. It entails the existence of local communities endowed with democratically constituted decision-making bodies and possessing a wide degree of autonomy with regard to their responsibilities, the ways and means by which those responsibilities are exercised, and the financial resources required for their fulfillment.

In economic terms, devolution permits governments to match the provision of local public goods and services with the preferences of recipients. It also may enable people to vote with their feet as they move to regions that are better managed and are more prosperous.

In political terms, devolution provides local minorities with greater opportunities to preserve their distinctive cultural and linguistic identities. As Ortega and Gasset observed:

“Devolution of power to regions will serve not only to satisfy historical, cultural and linguistic aspirations, but also, and above all, will draw the average citizen closer to the centers of power and increase his [or her] capacity to control and participate in the decisions of government (Rodden and Rose-Ackerman, 1997:1580).

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Good governance demands devolution of authority to and autonomy of regional and local governments, simply because everything cannot be done efficiently at the central level. It can alleviate the workload of an over-stretched central government, something that is especially important to African States in view of the numerous tasks of development and transformation with which they are typically faced (Simeon, 1995).