Local Autonomy, Social Control: Decentralization as a Strategy for Government Legitimacy in Colombia. (Features: Political Reform)
Ceballos Medina, Marcela, Hemisphere
Decentralization in Colombia has not followed a steady path, but has instead been marked by significant breaks and interruptions. This article analyzes the principal steps in the process from 1968 to date. It focuses on the objectives of reform, the resources or functions transferred, and the administrative levels empowered as a result. Finally, it suggests a typology for evaluating reforms according to their degree and emphasis, whether administrative, or fiscal.
Decentralization can be defined as the process by which the central government transfers powers, functions and resources to departments and municipalities. Its goal is to increase the autonomy of the subnational levels of government and encourage more direct citizen participation in local public affairs.
This trend emerged in Colombia in the 1970s as part of a double strategy to boost government legitimacy through modernization of the state and the opening or democratization of politics. Its initial emphasis was fiscal, with control over public spending the main target. The process continued in the 1980s with a series of political reforms oriented toward democratization and the creation of avenues for citizen participation. This trend culminated in passage of a new constitution in 1991 that redefined the administrative structure of the government, granting greater autonomy to municipalities and seeking to modernize institutions at that level.
The decentralization process, therefore, has followed three major tracks: reorganization of fiscal responsibilities among the different levels of government in an attempt to rationalize public spending; municipal reforms aimed at improving public administration; and the creation of new channels for political participation and the institutionalization of social movements as a strategy to increase government legitimacy.
Levels of Decentralization
Colombia's main decentralizing reforms have focused on public administration and the structure of public services. They can be grouped according to the areas or functions they address as well as the administrative levels affected. These variables are closely related to two theoretical dimensions of decentralization: the degree of autonomy and participation of the different levels of administration and the community in government decisions, and the geographical proximity of decision-making administrative bodies to citizens.
The administrative areas or functions transferred from the central government to the departmental or local level fall into 12 different types, each of which represents a different degree of decentralization. Reform becomes more profound as the subnational levels of government and citizens go from being passive receivers of resources to active participants in public administration, all the way up to policy making.
The 12 areas of decentralization, in ascending order, are: 1) expansion of the fiscal system; 2) delivery of services or increased responsibility for a given sector; 3) financing of services through conditional transfers; 4) financing of services by other means; 5) financing of services with autonomous resources; 6) creation of new administrative levels of government; 7) control over the government agencies or companies that provide public services; 8) popular election of government authorities; 9) definition of the administrative functions of different levels or sectors (regulation and evaluation); 10) participation in budget design; 11) development planning; 12) constitutional reform/lawmaking.
The administrative levels affected also can be divided into categories according to their proximity to the community and local control: 1) the nation and Congress; 2) decentralized agencies at the local level; 3) region; 4) department and departmental assembly; 5) special districts and municipalities; and 6) the community. Congress and decentralized agencies are included in this list because Colombia's reform process follows a principal-agent model, in which the functions of territorial entities are determined by the central government. …