6.6.2 Local and Regional Government

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/662.htm)

Part of the role of politicians is to arrange for public services to be provided; they act as intermediaries between the public and the service-providers – whether the latter are permanent public servants, or are in civil society, or are employed by private companies.  There is a subsidiarity in political representation – such as regions, States, counties, cities and parishes – and another subsidiarity, not necessarily at corresponding levels, in the management of service provision.  The number of levels, and their powers, vary widely between countries.

Negotiated governance depends upon how, and at what level of subsidiarity, the politicians interact with the service-providers.  As illustrated by the earlier example of policing (2.8.6), there is scope for political intervention at each level of management of every public service: deciding policy, allocating budgets, setting performance targets, regulating, choosing contractors or employing public servants.

There are several arguments which can be put forward to make the case for centralisation of political power in public service delivery:

  • It can deliver equality of services, such as policing and education, across the whole country.
  • It can enable difficult decisions to be taken in the public interest, like selecting a location for unpopular but necessary services such as waste disposal facilities.
  • It can enable coherent policies to be implemented, so that a road network for example can serve everybody’s needs.

There are also arguments against centralisation.  ‘Localism’ may offer a better model of democracy, where power flows upwards rather than downwards.  The distribution of power has several advantages:

  • It is a safeguard against the State becoming oppressive or totalitarian.
  • Local control makes citizens more interested in politics and gives them pride in their community; as argued by Michael Kenny, in an article entitled More mayors for England: “English mayors are popular and successful”.
  • Local control can allow public services to be more responsive to local needs. Local government can be responsible to the people, without passing the buck.  It can coordinate services and prioritise the budget.  This desire for local autonomy is partly what drives the American Tea Party movement (6.2.4.3).  The UK has been much more centralised, but the government responded to Scottish demands for independence in 2014 and started to devolve power – as described by the BBC in A guide to devolution in the UK – but this process was incomplete five years later.
  • There is also an emerging trend towards allowing individuals to choose which options they would prefer, within an allocated budget, as described in the paper Personalisation and adult social care: future options for the reform of public services. Personalisation is perhaps the best possible guarantee of acceptability.
  • It is possible to largely depoliticise and decentralise some services by assigning greater roles to civil society and private companies, possibly with efficiency benefits (3.5.3.2 and 3.5.3.3 respectively). This increases individual choice and can allow services to meet different requirements.

In practice, there are many ways of layering political control – partly reflecting the practical need for some aspects of service delivery to be co-ordinated on a regional or national basis.  In this book, it is argued that the acceptability of governance is increased if people have more choice and if they can participate in meaningful negotiations about decisions which affect them.

A layered approach enables negotiations to be conducted at the level most suited to achieving a balance between conflicting interests: national issues and regional issues should be negotiated at those levels of subsidiarity, whereas local decisions need not involve people outside the locality.  Acceptability can then be maximised across the body of people to whom each issue is relevant.  Where practicable, local control is preferable because it can offer increased choice – and therefore greater acceptability.

Although by definition authoritarian governments are not democracies at national level, they can allow a measure of local democracy or local control of many issues – as noted above (6.3.1.8) – without threatening their national unity.  They can adopt a layered approach of local and regional subsidiarity.  In an article on Chinese civil society, The Economist has reported that “a flourishing civil society is taking hold” there “Beneath the Glacier”.

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