Decentralization is among the most globally ubiquitous public sector reforms. In the past few decades, many countries have taken formal steps to empower local governments, typically with a mix of stated developmental and governance goals. Although decentralization receives much attention, our systematic practical knowledge about it remains limited, and it is fair to say that it often does not meet expectations. Even supporters have begun to express frustration, and references to stalled decentralization or even recentralization have emerged in both policy debates and in practice. This paper briefly recaps what decentralization was expected to achieve, broadly summarizes what we know about performance, and highlights factors that support and impede reform. It also discusses weaknesses and challenges in how decentralization has been conceived, analyzed, designed, and implemented. The core argument is that this type of reform is more diverse and complex than has conventionally been acknowledged and that more careful analysis and strategic action tailored to a specific country are needed to help to realize more effective and sustainable decentralization. The paper closes with thoughts about future directions for how we conceptualize and pragmatically approach this diverse and consequential reform.
Smoke, P. Rethinking Decentralization: Assessing Challenges to a Popular Public Sector Reform. Public Administration and Development (2015) 35 (2) 97-112. [DOI: 10.1002/pad.1703]