Review of Going Local: Decentralization, Democratization, and the Promise of Good Governance

The Promise of Good Governance

by | Oct 28, 2007

Going Local: Decentralization, Democratization, and the Promise of Good Governance
By Merilee S. Grindle
Princeton University Press, 2007, 228 pp.

This methodologically rigorous and carefully crafted book is an exercise in good scholarship. Like its subject of good governance, it is an embodiment of leadership, performance, accountability and a commitment to constructive policymaking. Merilee Grindl has already made her reputation as a painstaking scholar of governance, bureaucracy and policymaking in Latin America and across the developing world, but Going Local seals her standing as a leading analyst of governance. Grindle, Edward S. Mason Professor of International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (KSG) and director of David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, guides the reader in the study of decentralization and its impacts on local governance in post-PRI Mexico. The book uses a model research design that focuses on tangible outputs—in this case, a set of propositions about what makes for good governance at the local level. It seeks a comprehensive, reasoned and non-hyperbolic assessment of the promise and limits to decentralization. Grindle’s powerful conclusions call into question much of the received wisdom about the nature of decentralization and its relationship to democratization, accountability and efficiency of local policymaking.

The benefits of these insights for local and multilateral policymakers are enormous, as will be discussed in more detail below. But they should also be welcomed by a wide range of academic scholars, primarily because Grindle makes her case with an inclusive treatment of a broad range of theories and policy literatures, and does so while demonstrating analytical accountability to the concerns of multiple actors in the world of local governance, ranging from elected officials and city administrators to local citizens and civil society more generally.

The book is the result of several years of fieldwork by KSG researchers. Under Grindle’s supervision, fieldworkers executed a comprehensive survey designed to measure the policy impacts of decentralization and categorize the quality of local governance, as well as highlight which institutional, social, political, or other factors might account for variation in performance. Fieldworkers also generated considerable qualitative evidence through participant observation, ethnography and informal interviews. The project sampled a total of 30 municipalities with varied socio-economic profiles in all six regions of Mexico so that differences in local government performance could be assessed on a variety of non-economic factors. These criteria include political competition, extent of entrepreneurial determination among public officials, public sector modernization and civil society activism. While the latter three factors speak to issues considered relevant to all public policy analysts, independent of the developmental context, the focus on political competition highlights Grindle’s concern with understanding governance outcomes in a recently democratized environment. Among scholars of Latin America, and Mexico particularly, there is great interest in understanding whether the recent transition to (or deepening of) democracy in formerly authoritarian political regimes has made much of a difference in policy implementation, efficiency and good governance at the local level. The question is of particular relevance for Mexico, which in the last decade has seen the demise of one-party rule at both the local and national levels.

As a variable, political competition is not a perfect proxy for democratization of an entire political regime, and thus there may be certain interpretive limitations to the findings presented in Going Local. The lack of evidence drawn from the pre-democratic period makes it is hard to say whether and how local government performance in a more democratic Mexico truly departs from the dynamics operating under one-party rule. A similar caution could be raised when seeking generalizations beyond Mexico, whose unique social and political history of corporatism may produce results different than would be seen in other newly democratic countries. This is suggested by much of the ethnographic evidence presented in the book. Indeed, the longstanding patterns of clientelism in Mexico are so bound to the culture and history of the place that they still remain entrenched in some locales, even in the newly democratic context. Likewise, Mexico has a long history of regional inequality, which also persists and is reflected in the socio-economic profiles and performance scores of the municipalities (see Tables 2.4 and 4.1), despite the advent of democratization. (One of the striking findings of this research is that there appears to be no direct correlation between economic marginality and local government performance.) Accordingly, to truly understand the impacts of history and regionalism on local government performance in Mexico, let alone elsewhere, would have required a slightly different methodology, one that allowed for variation over time and a more anthropological study of cultural traditions related to caciquismo, clientelism, regionalism, and their durability at the local level despite political regime change.

Still, Grindle has been more than successful in confronting and transcending these and other methodological limitations to produce a work of enormous importance and insight. For one, she offers an extensive chapter on the history of regionalism and local governance in Mexico, which gives an analytical benchmark for comparing the present with the past, and for understanding cultural and social differences across the nation, qualitatively at least. For another, her comparison of political competition across the 30 different municipalities grounds her claims in an understanding of differences across cities and regions, rather than over time. She is able to indirectly measure whether local government performance is linked in some way to electoral conditions—namely, to citizens’ willingness and capacity to recall their leaders and find replacements if policy success is not achieved. This certainly is a form of democracy; and on these and other counts, her findings are both critical and counter-intuitive, especially to the legions of inside-the-beltway policy wonks who tend to see decentralization, democratization, and good governance as all of a piece. Her critical stance is best evidenced in her claim that “democratization of elections does not necessarily lead to less conflictive politics, easier decision making, or better functioning governments” (p. 83).

Many of Grindle’s findings contradict conventional wisdom or raise questions about the assumptions commonly held by promoters of decentralization, analysts of good governance, advocates of civil society empowerment and purveyors of political discourse in Mexico. One is that despite the fact that strong civil society activism may help extract beneficial resources from local government, it does very little to assure government accountability or reinforce a rights-based, citizenship approach to good governance (p.141). That is, activism can help the particular group engaged with local government, but it does not generate a wholesale sense of citizen responsiveness on the part of local leaders nor does it sustain deep commitments to democratization and social inclusion across local civil society more generally. Such findings should give pause to those who link civic activism to either accountability or democratization, and who tend to make generalizations about the positive relationship between decentralization, local governance and democratic ideals of citizenship.

Another key conclusion offered by Grindle is that state entrepreneurship, defined in terms of the preferences and activities of high-level officials in town hall, has a critical and positive effect on local government performance independent of party affiliation (p. 103; emphasis mine). Stated differently, no single political party had a monopoly on entrepreneurial capacity at the local level, and no single political party could claim more expertise in local government performance; it all came down to the entrepreneurial wherewithal of local officials. This finding lends an opening salvo to the raging political discourse in contemporary Mexico, where PRI, PAN, and PRD spokespersons competing for the hearts and minds of the democratic electorate continue to trade claims about their parties’ monopoly on local performance expertise.

Perhaps the most significant, albeit most complex, finding presented in Going Local is the claim that although “decentralization can contribute to improved performance of local government…it does not necessarily achieve these ends” (p. 178). This statement, combined with the prior finding about competitive democracy at the local level, suggests that the relationship between performance, democratization, and decentralization is indirect at best, and far from by causal. In policymaking terms, this means that anyone interested in promoting or enabling better performance of local governments must work to change a variety of institutional relations, social and political relations, and leadership attitudes and strategies. Among the few suggestions for achieving such aims, which are summarized in a concluding chapter, Grindle boldly highlights the importance of investing in material projects (i.e. “bricks and mortar”) and in producing local economic development. In short, one message here is that good governance is much more contingent on the availability of fiscal resources—and other individual and institutional capacities—than on democratization or decentralization per se, and there is no direct relationship between the latter and the former.

This important finding raises a final question for me about one element that remained relatively under-examined in this book. It is the institutional and political relations between local and national governance in Mexico. Granted, this book is primarily about local governance, and cannot be faulted for not looking more extensively at federal involvement in localities. But ultimately, the extent to which local leaders were successful or performed well, according to Grindle at least, had a lot to do with how well they could “work” the national governance system to secure funds and other resources for local projects (see p. 93, 179). Accordingly, any study of the possibilities and limits of good local governance must incorporate an understanding of the national administrative and political system into its framework. Doing so might produce evidence that party politics does matter after all. After all, one would suspect that local public sector entrepreneurs would have more success securing federal resources—for innovation, bricks and mortar projects, responding to civil society demands—when they come from the same party in power nationally. Such a hypothesis is no more than that, and no doubt would be mediated by a variety of other regional, historical, social and political factors. But it is something I would love to see explored in the next book by Merilee Grindle. Until then, we have plenty of great material for both answering and raising questions about good governance to keep us stimulated and busy for quite a while.

Fall 2007Volume VII, Number 1
Diane E. Davis is Professor and Head of the International Development Group at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the editor of Political Power and Social Theory. She is co-director of MIT’s Jerusalem 2050 project.

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