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Decentralizing infrastructure : for good or ill?


  • Bird, Richard


The author examines the many faces of infrastructure decentralization: the costs and benefits, the government structure (constraint or variable?), the"polycentric"approach, and how to make decentralization work (for whom?). He proposes basic principles and guidelines for policy design, for both small projects and large. Broadly, these guidelines are summed up in a few propositions. In all countries, some critical infrastructure is provided through a decentralized political structure. Current trends make that likely to be more true in the future. Decentralization, however defined, in and of itself had no necessary implications for good or evil so far as infrastructure is concerned: its effects depend on the incentives various decisionmakers face. The key to ensuring that these incentives are conducive to"good"decisions (about design, siting, timing, finance, pricing, operation, maintenance, and use of infrastructure) is to ensure that those who made the decisions bear the financial (and political) consequences, as much as possible. Politically, this means that political leaders at all levels should be responsive and responsible to their constituents, and that those constituents are fully informed about the consequences of all decisions. Making politicians bear the consequences of their own mistakes is as close as one can get to a"hard"political budget constraint. Economically, it must be difficult for local residents to shift cost to nonresidents who do not receive benefits and to make local decisionmakers fully responsible to their citizens for the use they make of revenues collected from them (through local taxes), to users of infrastructure (local or otherwise) for the use made of the revenues they contribute (through user charges of various sorts), and to taxpayers in general for the use made of any transfers (or subsidized loans) they receive. Administratively, what such a system requires is a clear set of"framework"laws (on local budgeting, financial reporting, taxation, contracting, dispute settlement, rules to be followed in designing user charges and so on), as well as adequate institutional support for localities to operate in this environment. To the extent that these conditions are not met, the perverse incentives that too often exist because of the structure and finance of the public sector in many countries will probably be exacerbated by the current tendency to decentralize more and more decisions in the public sector.

Suggested Citation

  • Bird, Richard, 1994. "Decentralizing infrastructure : for good or ill?," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1258, The World Bank.
  • Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:1258

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Aschauer, David Alan, 1989. "Is public expenditure productive?," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 23(2), pages 177-200, March.
    2. Bird, Richard & Wallich, Christine, 1993. "Fiscal decentralization and intergovernmental relations in transition economics : toward a systematic framework of analysis," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1122, The World Bank.
    3. Albert Breton, 1989. "The Growth of Competitive Governments," Canadian Journal of Economics, Canadian Economics Association, vol. 22(4), pages 717-750, November.
    4. Bird, Richard & Wallich, Christine, 1992. "Financing local government in Hungary," Policy Research Working Paper Series 869, The World Bank.
    5. Kitchen, H., 1993. "Efficient Delivery of Local Government Services," Papers 93-15, Queen's at Kingston - School of Policy Studies.
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    Cited by:

    1. Estache, Antonio & Sinha, Sarbajit, 1995. "Does decentralization increase spending on public infrastructure?," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1457, The World Bank.
    2. Pranab Bardhan, 2002. "Decentralization of Governance and Development," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 16(4), pages 185-205, Fall.
    3. Bird, Richard M. & Smart, Michael, 2002. "Intergovernmental Fiscal Transfers: International Lessons for Developing Countries," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 30(6), pages 899-912, June.
    4. Carlitz, Ruth D., 2017. "Money Flows, Water Trickles: Understanding Patterns of Decentralized Water Provision in Tanzania," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 93(C), pages 16-30.
    5. Herrera, Veronica, 2014. "Does Commercialization Undermine the Benefits of Decentralization for Local Services Provision? Evidence from Mexico’s Urban Water and Sanitation Sector," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 56(C), pages 16-31.
    6. Ping Zhang & Eivind Tandberg & Ehtisham Ahmad, 2002. "On National or Supranational Objectives; Improving the Effectiveness of Targeted Expenditure Programs," IMF Working Papers 02/209, International Monetary Fund.
    7. Herrera, Veronica & Post, Alison E., 2014. "Can Developing Countries Both Decentralize and Depoliticize Urban Water Services? Evaluating the Legacy of the 1990s Reform Wave," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 64(C), pages 621-641.
    8. Olsson, Jerry, 2006. "Decentralization of Governance and Financing of Public Roads in the Philippines in the 1990s," Philippine Journal of Development PJD 2004 Vol. XXXI No. 2-, Philippine Institute for Development Studies.
    9. Richard M. Bird & Thomas A. Wilson, 2003. "A Tax Strategy for Ontario," International Tax Program Papers 0407, International Tax Program, Institute for International Business, Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, revised Apr 2004.
    10. Humplick, Frannie & Moini-Araghi, Azadeh, 1996. "Is there an optimal structure for decentralized provision of roads?," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1657, The World Bank.
    11. Humplick, Frannie & Moini-Araghi, Azadeh, 1996. "Decentralized structures for providing roads : a cross-country comparison," Policy Research Working Paper Series 1658, The World Bank.
    12. Guccio, Calogero & Pignataro, Giacomo & Rizzo, Ilde, 2009. "The performance of local government in the execution of public works," MPRA Paper 16094, University Library of Munich, Germany.


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