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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Centralization-Decentralization Dialectic

Why is it that attempts to decentralize often seem to result in an accumulation of power at the centre? There are several possible explanations.

1. In some instances, the decentralization agenda may be completely fraudulent. Popular leaders may spout the rhetoric of decentralization as a means of permanently gathering more power for themselves.

2 Alternatively, the leadership may believe that a temporary centralization is a necessary step towards what Lenin called The Withering Away Of The State. "Although leaders such as Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher may have been inspired by liberal mentors - Thatcher being directly inspired by Hayek - they nonetheless were decision makers who benefited from power." (Marciano and Josselin p xvi)

3. As a third possibility, the leadership may genuinely believe in the desirability of decentralization, both short-term and longer-term,  but find themselves frustrated by larger system forces. Emerging system behaviour somehow manages to nullify any planned intervention that challenges the essential purpose and identity of the larger systems: Stafford Beer coined the term POSIWID to refer to this phenomenon.

4.  We may note that there is always a paradox in imposing a decentralization agenda from the centre. Mark Bray observes that "the terms centralization and decentralization usually refer to deliberate processes initiated at the apex of hierarchies. However, sometimes patterns change by default rather than by deliberate action. Also power may be removed from the centre either with the acquiescence of or in the face of resistance by the centre."

5. There are various trade-offs involved. For example, Jan Zábojník discusses the trade-off between the distribution of information and the distribution of motivation.

6. Centralization and decentralization often take place alternately, creating a kind of oscillation, or even simultaneously. For example, Paul Corrigan talks about Centralising and decentralising the NHS simultaneously (October 2011), and asks how to work with that?

7. Or perhaps we need to stop thinking about centralization-decentralization as a simple polar choice. Writing on IT centralization and decentralization (HBR July 2008), Susan Cramm says it's time to kill off this centralized versus decentralized IT debate. No longer should we ask, "Should we centralize or decentralize IT?", but rather, "How do we decentralize IT in a centralized manner?"




Bob Avakian, Centralization, Decentralization and the Withering Away of the State (2004)

Mark Bray (2003),  Control of Education: Issues and tensions in Centralization and Decentralization, in Arnove, Robert F. and Torres, Carlos A. (eds) Comparative Education: The Dialectic of the Global and the Local, second edition. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, pp.204-228.

N McGinn and T Welsh, Decentralization of Education UNESCO 1999

Alain Marciano, Jean-Michel Josselin (eds), Democracy, freedom and coercion: a law and economics approach Edward Elgar Publishing, 2007

Richard Saltman, Vaida Bankauskaite, Karsten Vrangbaek (eds) Decentralization in Health Care: Strategies and Outcomes. Open University Press 2007.

Jan Zábojník Centralized and Decentralized Decision-Making in Organizations (pdf),  Journal of Labor Economics, January 2002

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