Accountability and Performance Within Different Institutional Settings
countries have engaged in different types of institutional reforms that attempt to enhance accountability of policy makers to citizens and of service providers to their users. The most common are related to decentralization of service delivery (attempting to bring policy makers and providers closer to their clients), mechanisms for direct citizen participation (to increase citizens and users voice in policy making or provision) and alternative modes of delivery14 in which communities manage services directly or citizens can exercise choice among providers or withhold payments for services. All of the country studies in the GDN project dealt with at least one of these three types of institutional reforms. We discuss in this section their insights with respect to whether accountability and service outcomes are indeed enhanced through these means and what appear to be pre-conditions for their effective functioning.
Accountability in Decentralized Systems: Closer Is Not Always Better
Decentralization is supposed to improve accountability and service outcomes through two major channels.15 First, it should be easier to establish effective information and enforcement mechanisms between providers and local authorities, thanks to proximity and better knowledge of local conditions. Similarly, accountability of local authorities to citizens should be easier to establish, again thanks to proximity and a more limited scope of responsibility. Indeed, local governments are mainly responsible for local public services, and thus may be evaluated by voters essentially over public service delivery issues, while central governments are evaluated by voters over a wider array of issues, and thus their accountability with respect to specific issues of service delivery might be more difficult to establish.
Further, ideological or political partisan issues may also loom larger on central than on local government elections.
The GDN project case studies showed that decentralization indeed often improves accountability and service outcomes, but that this is not always a foregone conclusion. Thus, results from the Chile and Uruguay study find a significant association of school autonomy over resource allocation with higher average student test scores and school progression rates, especially of students from low-income backgrounds. The India and Burkina Faso case studies also found that the degree of involvement of local authorities is associated with better outcomes.
On the other hand, the case study in Colombia suggests that decentralization has had positive effects on outcomes in education and water services in some localities, but not in others, depending on a variety of local conditions. Similar results were found in the Indonesian, Ugandan and other case studies.
Some apparent conditions for the potential positive effects of decentralization to be realized include (1) active local political participation, competition and oversight, presumably as they avoid capture and lead to effective accountability, (2) a minimum technical and managerial capacity of local providers and authorities, depending on the complexity of local service supply issues, (3) sufficient autonomy over resource allocation, in order to be able to adapt service delivery to local preferences and conditions and (4) adequate incentives for providers (as the case study comparing Chile and Uruguay shows—more on this below), including compensation in cases where there is community provision.16
In addition, financing with own taxes appears to increase capacities and autonomy and to promote more effective accountability, and hence better performance, as the Colombian and other case studies illustrate (more on this below). Also, high local elections costs and lack of official or party financing may, on occasions, lead to high local corruption, undoing much of the expected benefits of decentralization, as the case study on Indonesia suggests. More generally, political culture and legacy appear as deep determinants of the potential success of decentralization, in so far as they largely explain the presence or absence of some of the previously mentioned requirements (more on this below).17