Roundtable: Decentralization and the Politics of Service Delivery
(The Impacts of Politics on the Policy Process)

Saturday, November 8, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Santa Ana (Convention Center)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Roundtable Organizers:  Derick W. Brinkerhoff, RTI International, Inc.
Moderators:  Paul Smoke, New York University
Speakers:  Derick W. Brinkerhoff, RTI International, Inc., Leni Wild, Overseas Development Institute and Steve Commins, University of California, Los Angeles

Public sector decentralization has become a worldwide phenomenon. In recent decades, many countries have decentralized functions with a combination of stated intention(s), perhaps the most common of which is to improve service delivery. Although decentralization receives much global attention, our systematic practical knowledge about its effects on service delivery remains limited. Much early literature highlighted weak performance, and positive assessments tended to be based on anecdotal successes or hopeful rhetoric about expected gains. Despite limited empirical evidence of positive outcomes, many countries continue to pursue decentralization, presumably in great part because they perceive it to be politically beneficial. In recent years better research has emerged in response to concerns about decentralisation performance, the availability of improved data, and the application of more robust methodologies. At the same time, decentralisation is complex, and its suitability varies across countries. Different actors—policymakers, academics in diverse disciplines, development partners—have specific interests and preferred approaches to studying the topic. Thus, despite advances, evidence about outcomes remains generally inconclusive and challenging to navigate. One of the most important factors affecting the performance of decentralization in delivering services is political incentives and dynamics--legislative and bureaucratic, intergovernmental and local--that affect design and implementation of reforms. There has been research on the political influences that shape decentralization and its effectiveness, but much of this has focused on limited aspects of reform or single cases. The purpose of this roundtable is to reflect on what we know and to look forward to future research that can help to inform policymakers about how to design and implement reform in various political environments so as to reap potential benefits and limit potential drawbacks. We plan to use comments from the presenters to stimulate a robust discussion with roundtable participants.