Introduction: The Centrality of Decentralisation
The notion of decentralisation lies at the very heart of the dominant contemporary theories of public management. Decentralisation, the story goes, frees managers to manage. It makes possible speedier and more responsive public services, attuned to local or individual needs. It contributes to economy by enabling organisations to shed (‘let go of’) unnecessary middle managers (‘downsizing’). It also enhances efficiency by shortening what were previously long bureaucratic hierarchies (‘delayering’). Decentralisation even produces more contented and stimulated staff, whose jobs have been enriched by taking on devolved budgetary responsibilities and by an increased sense of room for manoeuvre. Beyond these administrative and managerial benefits, political decentralisation brings even larger rewards. It makes politicians more responsive and accountable to ‘the people’, less distant and more trustworthy. All in all, decentralisation is sometimes made to sound like a miracle cure for a host of traditional bureaucratic and political ills. Academics with a taste for postmodernism would no doubt refer to it as an attempt at a meta narrative — a conceptual and linguistic project designed simultaneously to supersede (and therefore ‘solve’) a range of perceived ills within the previous discourse of public administration. In Whitehall and Westminster almost all political factions support it — the left and right have somewhat different variants of course, but officially the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties all subscribe to the rhetoric of decentralisation. Tony Blair’s Labour administration seems just as enthusiastic about it as were his Conservative predecessors.
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