central–local relations

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In Western pluralist countries all central governments, except those in micro‐polities, confront a twofold governing dilemma: (1) how do they organize public policy delivery and control in ‘the country’, that is outside the central departmental structures in the capital city; and (2) to what extent do they allow local citizens, or local elites, to manage the delivery of public services in their own areas. In short, central governments confront problems of territorial administration and territorial politics. This is, or ought to be, the subject‐matter of central–local relations. It is a dilemma which engages both federal and non‐federal systems. In the present context, consideration will be given only to the latter, commonly called unitary systems.

In terms of territorial administrative patterns central governments have a number of options. The local delivery of public services can be entrusted to local offices of the central departments, or to ad hoc agencies composed of local people chosen by the central government, or to elected local authorities, or to some combination of these options. A further set of options concerns the centre's supervision of these various policy delivery agencies. Supervision (or control) can be divided between the relevant central departments in the capital city, or entrusted, comprehensively, to centrally appointed career officials in various areas of the country, or to specific central departments (and ministers) responsible for particular parts of the national territory.

The actual process of central–local relations is often highly influenced by political factors. Some central governments may try to exert detailed supervision over local governments, especially elected local authorities. A principal weapon of control in these circumstances is finance: the extent to which local governments have their own sources of revenue and the degree to which they rely on central grants‐in‐aid. An alternative strategy is to shift local public services into the private sector and allow the discipline of market forces to act as the control mechanism. This can be done either on ideological grounds or simply because detailed central control of local governments is a complex, time‐consuming, difficult task.


Subjects: Politics.

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