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Issues in Program Design

Contributor: World Bank
Author: Decentralization Thematic Team
Contact: Jennie Litvack

Participation & Decentralization

Participation and decentralization have a symbiotic relationship. On the one hand, successful decentralization requires some degree of local participation. Subnational governments’ proximity to their constituents will only enable them to respond better to local needs and efficiently match public spending to private needs if some sort of information flow between citizens and the local governments exist. On the other hand, the process of decentralization can itself enhance the opportunities for participation by placing more power and resources at a closer, more familiar, more easily influenced level of government. In environments with poor traditions of citizen participation, decentralization can be an important first step in creating regular, predictable opportunities for citizen-state interaction.

The symbiotic relationship between decentralization and participation leads to somewhat contradictory policy guidelines. On one hand, mechanisms for citizen participation could be considered a helpful pre-condition when evaluating the prospects for successful decentralization. Accordingly, the design of decentralization should take into account the opportunities and limitations imposed by existing channels of local participation. On the other hand, lack of participatory mechanisms could be considered a motivation for decentralization and can help create local demand for more participatory channels to voice local preferences. This note discusses each of these dimensions -- participation as a means to successful decentralization and as a goal of decentralization.

The first section concentrates on the broad mechanisms for citizen input that are best seen as parameters of decentralization policy. These types of institutional structures, embedded in the national political environment and developed over a long period of time, cannot be altered quickly by a simple regulation. The second part shifts to the smaller, more specific avenues for citizen participation that can be created in the process of decentralization. These incremental changes can eventually evolve toward broader opportunities for citizen participation and democratic governance.

Participation as a Pre-condition: Broad Decision-Making Influence

The existing institutionalized channels for participation and the ability of people to use them are two factors which should be taken into account as design parameters for decentralization programs in developing countries. Fair, regular, local elections and high levels of "social capital" (community cohesion and history of working together) enable citizens to both signal their preferences efficiently and enforce leaders’ compliance with their wishes.

Various studies have shown that broad, ongoing, citizen control over leaders can improve the quality of government action. The continuous struggle to stay in office might lead to broad efforts to satisfy consumers on all fronts. Results from studies on Colombia for example, show that public officials who fear for their jobs are much more likely to pick better staff to carry out the day-to-day work of government. Robert Putnam’s research on regional government in Italy [Putnam (1993)] found that those governments which were more open to constituent pressure were more successful at managing resources and creating innovative programs to distribute services effectively. A more recent study in Tanzania shows a positive association between the quality of local schooling and the level of social capital in various villages as well as a strong correlation between economic well-being and high levels of social capital. Another study of local governments in Mexico suggests that the Oaxaca province’s long history of participatory mechanisms may help it provide services more effectively than socio-economically similar, but less participatory Chiapas. Several studies of decentralization and government size have posited that more participatory local governments tend to be larger because their constituents trust them with more resources.

In some cases, however, broad participation can be disruptive. Local electoral cycles can lead to periodic fiscal indiscipline as local leaders try to attract more votes. Evidence on institutions and fiscal responsibility in Latin America shows that two-party governments with hierarchical budget processes tend to spend less than governments with more parties represented and more collegial, participatory budgeting processes.

Assessing how much citizen input constrains local government’s actions provides a starting point for designing decentralization policies. These initial conditions determine the extent to which decentralization will increase government as a whole’s responsiveness to citizens and provide a guideline for including participation-enhancing measures in decentralization policy.

Regular elections, local referendums, permanent public-private councils and other institutional structures are other easily identifiable conditions that may improve the ability of local governments to identify and act upon citizen preferences. Levels of social capital, which determine how well citizens are able to take advantage of the institutional arrangements for participation, are slower to develop and harder to determine. The presence and activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other citizen groups can be a revealing indicator, but it is also important to determine who these organizations really represent. Disparities between those who are represented by an NGO and those who remain outside the system can lead to local government ‘capture’ and preclude efficient matching of public spending to constituent needs.

Participation as a Goal: The More Attainable Beginning Reforms

Decentralization relies on participation to improve the allocation of services, but it does not require the kinds of broad citizen input mentioned above. In cases where local governments are not elected, the electoral process favors a small group of elites, or low levels of social capital impede active citizen-state interchange, the process of decentralization can be designed to build up more limited types of participation. Issue-specific and project-specific mechanisms for enhancing the flow of information between the government and citizens can often be implemented more quickly and easily at the local level than in central governments. Demand-driven projects are one of the key tools used by the Bank to deepen the decentralization process.

Local governments have used a wide variety of techniques to gather more information from their constituents. Surveys have been a useful tool for refining service delivery and deciding on appropriate user fees. A survey of water supply users in Baku Azerbaijan, for example, revealed that users were willing to pay more for a better quality of service and pinpointed the most important problems to address. Bangalore and several other Indian districts use report card to evaluate service delivery, Uganda has begun to require beneficiary feedback on some government services, and Nicaragua used a series of surveys to reform the bus system and adjust fares. Issue-specific ad hoc councils can also be a quick, easy way to determine citizen preferences and draw on existing private sector expertise. Colombia’s municipalities, for example, have supplemented the public sector’s weak technical capacity by involving more private experts on a short-term basis. Inviting citizen participation in implementing decentralized programs can also be cost effective. World Bank funded projects have shown that although initial training costs can be high, the long run savings are substantial and projects tend to be better maintained. Nicaragua’s municipal development program, for example, which used beneficiary participation in barrio upgrading, completed projects 20% faster than predicted and had a 50% higher rate of return than expected.

In the long run, these limited mechanisms for participation can evolve into closer and more meaningful interaction between citizens and their local governments


Citizen participation in some form is an essential part of successful decentralization. It is becoming a more common element in developing country political environments - 13,000 units of local government in Latin America are now elected, compared to 3,000 in 1973 - but the flow of information is by no means undistorted. Planning decentralization policies should take these informational imperfections into account and attempt to improve the depth and degree of citizen participation in local government action. Local government responsiveness, one of the main rationales for decentralizing can not be realized when there are no mechanisms for transferring information between the local government and its constituents.