[skip to content]


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. You will be able to define it and to distinguish it from other related concepts such as fiscal federalism, federal and unitary states, and local governance;
  • understand and critically discuss various approaches and trends in the academic world (e.g. from first generation to second generation fiscal federalism);
  • have a better grasp of the diversity of decentralisation processes and approaches worldwide. You will be able to adopt a context-specific and non-normative approach;
  • get acquainted with varying degrees of success with which decentralisation has been carried out and understand why countries exhibit such widely different outcomes, in terms of economic performance, political reforms and effects on society;
  • understand frequent challenges governments face to implement reform as well as familiarise yourself with the role and challenges for external actors (e.g. development agencies and donors);
  • critically discuss the findings from evidence and from research on the conditions to make decentralisation work.
  • better understand the concept of political decentralisation, its components and implications. You will have a better grasp of the ways through which governments can hand over power to subnational governments (devolution) and to citizens (e.g. local elections, ouncils);
  • understand and critically discuss the links between political decentralisation, wider state-society relations and domestic accountability mechanisms in multilevel governance systems;
  • define functional assignments and understand why they are the keystone for effective public action and division of labour across levels of government;
  • understand the logic behind functional assignments, identify various steps and acquire some principles and tools to assess it;
  • understand the main principles underlying fiscal decentralisation, its main components and implications;
  • acquire main guiding principles to understand and assess expenditure assignments, revenue assignments, transfer mechanisms and local borrowing in a given context and identify possible corrective measures;
  • locate sources of information you can use as a practitioner or in your academic research;
  • identify and understand the impact of the fiscal and functional division of labour across levels of government on local entities’ performance;
  • understand and use the concepts of local policy-making, budget and fiscal autonomy;
  • understand the principles underlying the decentralised budget;
  • get acquainted with some challenges to set up domestic monitoring and evaluation systems in decentralising contexts;
  • get acquainted with some challenges of assessing the outcomes of decentralisation.

Study materials

Study guide

You will receive a looseleaf binder containing eight units. The units are 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 further assigned readings. The unit files are also available to download from the Virtual Learning Environment.

  • 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

You will receive two volumes of Readings, which are made up of case studies, carefully selected articles and extracts of a more general analytical and empirical kind.

Virtual learning environment

You will have access to the VLE, which is a web-accessed learning environment. 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.


Concepts of local development

In this interview, chaired by Phil Tomlinson, Jamie Wilson considers the concept of development, outlines his concerns with the Washington Consensus and explores new approaches to local development.

Download audio

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

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 5, and the second assignment at the end of the module, on the Tuesday after Week 8. 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 April each year.

Module sample

Click on the link below to download the module sample document in PDF.