Global Democracy, devolution and governance, Economy and regeneration

What’s the point of decentralisation? Innovation, entrepreneurialism, and democratic engagement in the US


Photo by Graciela Martin on Unsplash

In this article, Professor Joanie Willett explores how decentralisation has improved the relationship between local governments and their citizens in two Appalachian communities – neither of which can be named to preserve anonymity. Professor Joanie Willett is an Associate Professor in Politics at the University of Exeter. This research was conducted as part of her Fulbright scholarship. 

How actually might political decentralisation improve the relationships between local governments and their communities? Sometimes it can feel as if ideas around devolution are being asked to do a lot, but now we need to understand some of the details about how it might work – and what it might achieve for localities.

In this blog, I’m going to tell you two stories that illustrate a number of different things. They show how having some degree of fiscal autonomy can help councils to rapidly address community needs – and how it can foster and encourage councils to be entrepreneurial in their approach to developing and improving the area. One of the things that we also notice is the ways in which a sense of local ownership can have profound benefits for the democratic sphere and how councils operate.

In the first example, we see an Appalachian town in the United States (US) of about 10,000 people. The council felt they needed to improve their revenue stream in order to do the things they wanted to in their area; so they put one penny on sales tax, generating enough over a year to leverage a loan to build an aquatics centre. This was not solely to provide a valuable community resource, the rationale was also that the aquatics centre would generate an additional revenue stream in order to provide additional services in the town.

The second example is of a small Appalachian city of 17,000 people. As an independent city, the local government collected funds and operated the school system, the courts, the fire department, water system, transportation (including road maintenance) as well as the machinery required to keep the city functioning. The city gets a few grants from the State (for example, road maintenance and development), but most of its revenue comes from a suite of local taxation.

This city is in a poor area with low incomes. A few years ago, the city got into severe financial difficulties and its income was not enough to cover the cost of its commitments. One option might have been to have joined forces with the local county government to ease their financial pressure. Was this ever something that was considered? One elected representative told me that it definitely wasn’t! They felt that the sense of identity provided by local services – for example, this is our school (and school sports teams) and our police department – pulled the town together in unquantifiable but really important ways. For example, when the city proposed a big development which technically local people should have hated, it was passed in a referendum because people felt that it would be ‘good for our town’, or ‘it would bring tax dollars into the town’. Therefore, they were able to park their private views and look at the bigger picture for the community.

Undeniably, a high level of decentralisation can be risky for councils, but as we see in these examples, it can also provide the tools to navigate these risks. It means that councils can find ways to raise money when required, whilst also being innovative and entrepreneurial. These examples also highlight something really interesting about the relationship between communities and local government. Of course, sometimes (often!) citizens disagree with what political leaders do, however, debates on proposed developments and other ideas for the locality are not just focused on whether the development will negatively impact someone’s individual life, but also centre around questions about whether it is good for the social and economic health of the community

It’s easy to think about democratic engagement mostly through lenses like elections and voting, however, we might find that there are other unexpected kinds of benefits of decentralisation to the relationship between local government and people.

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