Decentralisation and Local Governance

Key information

Start date
Year of study
10 weeks
Module code
Centre for Financial and Management Studies

Module overview

Decentralisation is a worldwide reality, as most countries are already engaged in a more or less advanced form of it. The following figures illustrate this trend: in the 1980s local governments around the world collected on average 15% of revenues and spent 20% of expenditures. By the late 1990s those figures had risen to 19% and 25% and had even doubled in certain countries. Moving beyond the fiscal arena, major public services such as education or health have also been transferred to local governments and political and electoral reforms have taken place. News headlines testify to the importance of local governance and local governments’ issues around the world.

The first implication for us, and for policy-makers and donors, is that the debate on whether decentralisation is good or bad in itself has lost its relevance. The key question is no longer whether a country should further decentralise or whether donors should support such a process. Although in different forms and to varying degrees decentralisation is there, it is part of the reality in which governments, other actors and citizens need to operate.

Learning outcomes

When you have completed the study of this course, you will have acquired the knowledge and tools to:

  • understand decentralisation as a complex political process and “system” with several dimensions, levels and actors, and define and distinguish it from other related concepts
  • critically discuss various approaches and trends in the academic world in relation to decentralisation
  • evaluate the success of various decentralisation approaches worldwide and explain why countries exhibit such widely different outcomes, in terms of economic performance, political reforms and effects on society
  • explain the concept of political decentralisation, its components and implications
  • critically discuss the links between political decentralisation, wider state-society relations and domestic accountability mechanisms in multilevel governance systems
  • define and assess functional assignments, and understand why they are the keystone for effective public action and division of labour across levels of government
  • explain the main principles underlying fiscal decentralisation, its components and implications
  • analyse expenditure assignments, revenue assignments, transfer mechanisms and local borrowing in a given context and identify possible corrective measures
  • evaluate the impact of the fiscal and functional division of labour across levels of government on local entities’ performance
  • apply the concepts of local policy-making, budget and fiscal autonomy
  • assess challenges to setting up domestic monitoring and evaluation systems, as well as to assessing the outcomes of decentralisation.

Tuition and assessment

Students are individually assigned an academic tutor for the duration of the module, with whom you can discuss academic queries at regular intervals during the study session.

You are required to complete two Assignments for this module, which will be marked by your tutor. Assignments are each worth 15% of your total mark. You will be expected to submit your first assignment by the Tuesday of Week 6, and the second assignment at the end of the module, on the Tuesday after Week 10. Assignments are submitted and feedback given online. In addition, queries and problems can be answered through the Virtual Learning Environment.

You will also sit a three-hour examination on a specified date in September/October, worth 70% of your total mark. An up-to-date timetable of examinations is published on the website in July each year.

Study resources

  • Study guide: The module study guide is carefully structured to provide the main teaching, defining and exploring the main concepts and issues, locating these within current debate and introducing and linking the assigned readings.
  • Key texts: 
    • Cheema GS and D Rondinelli (2007) Decentralizing Governance: Emerging Concepts and Practices, Brookings Institution Press
    • Connerley E, K Eaton and P Smoke (2010) Making Decentralization Work: Democracy, Development, and Security, Lynne Rienner
    • The module also references extracts from the Public Policy and Management pre-programme textbook:
      • Hague, R & M Harrop (2016) Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction, 10th Edition, Palgrave Macmillan
  • Readings: Throughout the module you will be directed to study a selection of readings, including journal articles, book extracts and case studies that are of particular relevance and interest to the topics covered in the module.
  • Virtual learning environment: You will have access to the VLE, a web-accessed study centre. Via the VLE, you can communicate with your assigned academic tutor, administrators and other students on the module using discussion forums. The VLE also provides access to the module Study Guide and assignments, as well as a selection of electronic journals available on the University of London Online Library.

Study calendar 2022/23

Elective module S1
Decentralisation and Local Governance (M404)  Running Not running Running Running

Study calendars are subject to change.

Module overview

Unit 1 What is Decentralisation?

  • 1.1 State Models and Decentralisation
  • 1.2 Territorial Organisation of the State and Decentralisation
  • 1.3 Political Regimes, Democracy and Decentralisation
  • 1.4 Decentralisation as a Policy
  • 1.5 Political Decentralisation
  • 1.6 Administrative Decentralisation
  • 1.7 Fiscal Decentralisation
  • 1.8 Why do Countries Decide to Decentralise?

Unit 2 Decentralisation in Practice

  • 2.1 The Objectives Pursued through Decentralisation
  • 2.2 The Status of the Decentralisation: Past Track Record and Current Reforms
  • 2.3 The Historical Path: Top-down versus Bottom-up Decentralisation
  • 2.4 The Historical Pace of Decentralisation: Big Bang versus Gradual Approach
  • 2.5 The Sequencing of the Three Dimensions of Decentralisation
  • 2.6 The Geographic Phasing of Decentralisation
  • 2.7 Recognising Mixed Results: Opportunities and Risks of Decentralisation

Unit 3 Conditions Needed to Make Decentralisation Work

  • 3.1 Materialising the Benefits of Decentralisation
  • 3.2 How Can Local Autonomy and Accountability be Achieved?
  • 3.3 Why Decentralisation Outcomes Vary
  • 3.4 Implementation Challenges: Stalemates and Deadlocks

Unit 4 Political Decentralisation, State-Society Relations and Domestic Accountability

  • 4.1 The Status of Political Decentralisation and Political Autonomy
  • 4.2 Assessing Accountability and How Governments Hand Over Power to Citizens
  • 4.3 Case Studies on Accountability Mechanisms
  • 4.4 Political Decentralisation in Multi-Level and Multi-Layered Governance Systems
  • 4.5 Can Decentralisation Contribute to Political Reforms and Domestic Accountability?

Unit 5 Administrative Decentralisation

  • 5.1 Defining Functional Assignments
  • 5.2 Policy Choices
  • 5.3 The Mandates and the Challenge of Policy Coordination in Decentralised Contexts
  • 5.4 Assessing the Quality of Functional Assignments
  • 5.5 Human Resources Deployment, Distribution and Management
  • 5.6 Can Decentralisation Contribute to State Building Processes?
  • 5.7 Decentralisation Efficiency in the Service Sector

Unit 6 Fiscal Decentralisation

  • 6.1 Expenditure Assignments
  • 6.2 Revenue Assignments
  • 6.3 Intergovernmental Transfers
  • 6.4 Allocation of Borrowing Powers
  • 6.5 Sequencing Fiscal Decentralisation [optional]
  • 6.6 Sources of Information on Fiscal Decentralisation [optional]

Unit 7 Local Government Autonomy and Capacity Learning Outcomes

  • 7.1 The Role and Potential of Local Governments
  • 7.2 Policy-Making Autonomy
  • 7.3 Discretion in Managing Human Resources
  • 7.4 The Composition of Decentralised Budgets: Challenges and Mitigating Measures
  • 7.5 Budget and Financial Autonomy

Unit 8 Monitoring, Evaluation and Decentralisation

  • 8.1 The Role of Indicators in Monitoring
  • 8.2 Decentralisation Processes and Reforms
  • 8.3 Monitoring and Evaluation Frameworks

Module samples


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules