By Published: Nov. 8, 2021

Democratic reforms through decentralization could significantly help struggling nations better respond to their local populations and increase cooperation among government officials, they conclude

Open communication and transparency between local communities and their elected leaders is a hallmark of stable democracies. However, for many developing countries, roadblocks prevent citizens and their leaders from effectively communicating about critical needs, such as public health and safety.

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Political Science, political scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder found a positive link between decentralization reforms in Honduras and increased social cooperation among its government officials and “boots on the ground” staff.

According to Krister Andersson, a professor at CU Boulder and the study’s coauthor, decentralization gained popularity across the globe in recent decades as a way to help governments work more closely with and respond to their citizens more effectively.

Krister Andersson

At the top of the page: The Honduras Flag (milwardoliver/Flickr). Above: Krister Andersson

For Andersson, decentralization reform “is really a democracy reform, bringing government decisions closer to the people.” These reforms include strengthening democratic procedures and transferring resources and policy-decisions from centralized governments to more localized administrative units, such as the doctors and nurses who administer public health services.

“Researchers weren't really studying how the reforms affect the behavior of the people, the decision makers on the ground,” said Andersson. “Not only did we find in some studies that, for the most part, decentralization has actually improved health outcomes, but it's also increased the accessibility of health services, especially for rural poor.”

For Andersson and his team of scholars, Honduras provides the ideal conditions to examine how the social cooperation of local decentralized administrations compare with centralized administrations, where important policy decisions are vested with fewer officials who aren’t as in touch with the needs of the communities they serve.

“There is a natural experiment in Honduras,” said Andersson. “They decided to roll out decentralization little by little, leaving parts of the country centralized during a long period of time. The decentralization process in the health sector started more than 15 years ago and there are still health systems that operate under a centralized model. “So that presents this unique opportunity to compare municipalities where the reform has been implemented with those where it hasn’t within the same country,” explained Andersson.

Compared with the rest of the globe, this is an extraordinary move by Honduras to decentralize just half the country, Andersson said. “The reform did target some of the poorest areas that were in deep need of improvements,” said Andersson. Through decentralization, these reforms aimed at “improving access to health services for marginalized populations.”

Earlier research by Andersson and his team had shown that, for the most part, local health outcomes in Honduras were improving more in decentralized areas compared to centralized ones, but they weren’t sure why.

To understand how, exactly, these reforms might have contributed to better living conditions for Hondurans, Andersson and his team visited Honduras to set up experimental social games, known as a public goods game (PGG), which measured social cooperation in decentralized municipalities compared to centralized ones.

First, they mapped out 21 decentralized municipalities that could be compared with 10 centralized municipalities. Then, they conducted PGG experiments that included participants from every level of the local administration, including representatives from mayors’ offices as well as doctors and nurses.

I hope that this study gives a bigger sense of evaluating on different levels how developing countries struggle with public resources, and how policy decisions can influence their work dynamics as providers of public services."

In the PGG, participants played through 10 rounds where they received money (10 lempiras, the official state currency) at the start of each round, and then got to decide if they wanted to invest a portion of their money into a group fund. The totals of the group funds were then doubled after each round and then evenly divided among the players.

The first five rounds were held in complete silence, but in the second half, players were allowed to talk to each other and decide collectively how much to contribute to the group fund.

The reason researchers chose the PGG was that “individual contributions to the group fund are a measure of cooperation toward the common good, with higher contributions reflecting greater cooperation.”

After the games were finished and the data collected, researchers administered social network surveys to gauge how participants felt about the game and their interactions with other participants.

Based on these results, researchers concluded that decentralized municipalities had significantly higher levels of cooperation among participants than those in centralized municipalities.

According to Adriana Molina-Garzon, a PhD candidate at CU Boulder and coauthor of the study, the results of these cooperation games show how “a reform like decentralization can actually influence the likelihood of public officials to act more cooperatively.”

Both Andersson and Molina-Garzon emphasized that the norms of decentralization, such as open communication, greater autonomy, and greater formal accountability among different levels of the administration, were the biggest factors in influencing greater social cooperation.

Adriana Molina-Garzon

Adriana Molina-Garzon

“By deconcentrating the authority toward a more localized level, there is an increase of cross-level interactions and more face-to-face communication,” explained Molina-Garzon. These reforms in the local environments of the administration “relieves them to talk more often, and the way they communicate with each other over time leads to higher cooperation among civil servants towards achieving collective goals.”

As the lead author of the study, Molina-Garzon got to experience first-hand how social cooperation actually operated in the field among administrative officials, especially when considering the context of Honduras’ struggles with poverty and conflict.

For “people who have to go through these challenges every day, just to stop for a minute and be together in a room and play a game, they say, ‘we do see the similarities of how this is related to the type of challenges we face in our work.’ To me that's really cool. It really makes you feel like these types of tools capture something that is so difficult to measure through other research mechanisms,” said Molina-Garzon.

Decentralization might not work for every country in every context, the study notes, but Andersson and Molina-Garzon believe this study shows the potential that one particular type of decentralization reform has for democratizing centralized governments and helping them respond better to the needs of their citizens.

“I hope that (this study) gives a bigger sense of evaluating on different levels (how) developing countries struggle with public resources, and how policy decisions can influence their work dynamics as providers of public services” said Molina-Garzon. “Scholars like us can contribute and participate in that process. And I think that's important.”

For Andersson, the biggest takeaway from their research is how “we actually see the effect of the reform running through the behavior of local decision-makers,” prioritizing the common good of the community for both higher government officials and the health care staff on the ground.

“Fundamentally, the reform changed incentives of local decision makers to make their everyday work more cooperative and encouraged them to work together to improve health outcomes.”