Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials

The forthcoming article “Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials” by Adriana Molina‐Garzón, Tara Grillos, Alan Zarychta and Krister P. Andersson is summarized by the author(s) below. 

Decentralization has been highly debated over the years. Millions of dollars and hours of work have been dedicated to the implementation of decentralization, its improvement, and better understanding its effects. However, many unanswered questions remain, especially related to social dynamics among public officials and bureaucrats who are in charge of delivering public services. We often forget that institutional reforms also create governance challenges among the people involved. Since these individuals have considerable discretion in how they serve clients, their preferences and behaviors can influence the effectiveness of governance reforms. With this in mind, we study the effects of decentralization on cooperation among public officials at multiple levels of state and local government in the Honduran health sector.  

We offer a deeper understanding of what happens when institutional reforms are implemented and potential tensions between individual and group interests arise throughout the system; from health center staff, to managing organizations and their state-level regulators. The main dilemma: actors could achieve better collective outcomes in the public sector by cooperating with one another, but individuals may choose to shirk or freeride, especially where their efforts are not easily monitored. (Monitoring is difficult within the hierarchical structure of how health services are delivered to local communities).   

We study cooperation among public officials in the setting of a prominent health sector decentralization reform in Honduras. We conducted public goods games with systematic sample of public officials and bureaucrats working at regional, municipal, and local levels of the health system. Within the game, individuals had the opportunity to cooperate by contributing to a common good (a health solidarity fund in this case) or to keep the money for themselves. This structured activity helped reveal participants willingness to cooperate with one another and also allowed them to reflect on their daily work experiences – two main reasons why it is now common to use this approach as a tool to study behavior. We conducted these public good games in two settings: decentralized municipalities and a matched set of centrally-administered municipalities. We also used surveys about connections between participants to better understand relational dynamics within the health system 

Our evidence shows that public officials in decentralized municipalities do cooperate more and have a higher frequency of strong connections to their colleagues across levels of government than public officials in centrallyadministered health systemsThis implies that decentralization affects the dynamic between the various civil servants who are in charge of delivering public services. In particular, it can create a setting that both incentivizes creating more ties across the service delivery hierarchy and promotes cooperation across levels. While we recognize that decentralization can and sometimes does have negative effects on important outcomes at the local level, we believe that studying these relational dynamics among those who provide public services is also fundamental to better understand the mechanisms and conditions under which decentralization may improve public services. 

About the Author(s): Adriana Molina‐Garzón is PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science at University of Colorado Boulder, Tara Grillos is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science at Purdue University, Alan Zarychta is Assistant Professor, Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at University of Chicago and Krister P. Andersson is Professor of Political Science, Institute of Behavioral Science at University of Colorado Boulder. Their research “Decentralization Can Increase Cooperation among Public Officials” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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