Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 02/2015

Local Government Reform as State Building: What the Polish Case Says About 'Decentralization'

Anthony Levitas

October 2014

Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


Since 1989, Poland has become one of the most decentralized states in Europe. Local government now control a third of all public expenditures. They have also delivered the goods modernizing the country's infrastructure and restructuring its schools. This success cannot be attributed to widespread civic engagement because decentralization in Poland was clearly a "revolution from above". Nor can it be attributed to the implementation of rules typically thought to enhance accountability in decentralized polities because the Polish local governments do not finance themselves and many of their responsibilities remain poorly defined. Instead, I argue that this success is due to the creation of meso-level institutions which integrated local governments into the regulatory structure of the state. Their design and operation suggests that the promise of decentralized governance lies less in "getting the rules right" than in constructing institutions that encourage their renegotiation and adjustment.