The Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on the enduring question of the optimal degree of concentration versus dispersion of powers and the different ways in which this seemingly elusive optimum can be achieved. But, how are systems of territorial governance organised and how can we compare them? The latest in our Post-Covid Councils work looking at the location of power.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a sharp light on the challenges governments face in managing complex policy issues with an uneven impact across a country’s territory. This has brought renewed attention to the way central governments relate to regional and local governments. The question of how to balance country-wide coherence and local responsiveness has been prominent in the debate. Put another way, this is the enduring question of the optimal degree of concentration versus dispersion of powers and the different ways in which this seemingly elusive optimum can be achieved. But, how are systems of territorial governance organised and how can we compare them?
Diverse and evolving patterns
The territorial organisation of government varies greatly between countries. Differences include aspects such as the number of governmental tiers, the average size of units in each tier, the powers they have, and how they relate to each other. The distinction between unitary and federal systems is well known and is often thought of primarily in constitutional terms. In unitary systems, sovereignty is seen as residing solely at the centre whereas in federal systems it is divided between a federal government and constituent units variously called states, provinces, or cantons. Yet, the constitutional order of a country is often of limited use in understanding how a country is governed in practice. There is evidence of substantial variation in the way countries are de facto governed both among federations and among unitary states. The United Kingdom is a good example of this: while not formally a federation, it has acquired, post-devolution, many of the traits of a federal system. One way of going beyond formal constitutional orders is to think in terms of de/centralisation, i.e. the distribution of powers between central, regional, and local governments. A second important aspect is that de/centralisation may be broadly uniform across a system – as it is often the case in the classic federations such as the United States, Australia, and Switzerland – but in other cases it may be highly asymmetrical, i.e. with sharp differences across a country’s territory. Once again, the differences in the way territory is governed in England compared to the rest of the UK provide an excellent illustration of asymmetrical de/centralisation and of the challenges it presents. A further key aspect is that patterns of de/centralisation are never static; they are always subject to change over time as a result of economic, social, and political forces. This leads to significant evolution over time, putting pressure on formal institutional arrangements, which are often difficult to change.
The challenge of measurement
While each system is to an extent unique, countries can and do learn from each other. Effective comparison is thus an important tool for learning across borders. But how can we compare highly different systems? The answer social scientists try to offer is to develop measurement schemes able to capture the key dimensions of de/centralisation within each system and make comparison between them possible. Where are we on the path to reach this goal? While significant progress has been made over the last decade or so, it is fair to say that we still lack a satisfactory index of de/centralisation. What would such an index look like? Ideally, it would be sufficiently comprehensive to gauge de/centralisation system-wide and at the same time sufficiently fine-grained to capture variation across different dimensions. To do so, it would need to display five key features. First, it would include all tiers of government within a country and gauge the autonomy lower tiers enjoy vis-à-vis higher tiers. Second, it would differentiate between units in the same tier so as to capture potential asymmetries across them. Third, it would distinguish between the powers to legislate and administer policies, on one side, and to raise the resources needed to pay for them, on the other. Fourth, it would assess legislative and administrative autonomy in individual policy areas, so as to capture variation across them. Last, but not least, it should aim to capture the de facto relations between tiers of governments, as distinct from the de jure formal rules supposed to determine them. While developing an index of de/centralisation meeting these criteria is an ambitious goal indeed, collaboration between scholars and practitioners offers the most promising way of achieving it.