There are five arguments for local self-government, either municipal or school, and all of them are significant.
First, living in a democracy, a basic tenet is that decisions should be made as close as possible to those who will be directly effected by them, and made in such a way that those effected have the opportunity both to make the decision and implement it. Leaving aside the issue of who decides which decisions should be made closer to or more remote from the local community, it is clear that provincial and/or federal governments should be complemented by local self-government.
Second, longer lines of communication and resource distribution, and accountability to remote overseers are all both directly and indirectly costly, with no demonstrable contribution to effectiveness. Operationally and realistically the Deputy Minister of any department is just as far away from what is happening “on the ground” in the capital as from “on the ground” in the most remote geographic location in the province.
Third, provincial governments operate through line departments that isolate one cluster of functions from another. This works for the provincial government, but it doesn’t work in the real world of the local community and citizens. Locally, resources should be commingled as appropriate, and local decision-makers should control the commingling. The education of children is not merely a matter of the program of studies and the curriculum. It is also a matter of public health, and social services, and recreation, and more.
Fourth, more remote decision-making is coarse-grained, not fine-grained. In other words, decisions made on behalf of very large communities (such as whole provinces) are driven by averages derived from big numbers. Decisions made by the provincial government are less likely to accommodate individual students than decisions made in the local community, or in the school or in the classroom.
Fifth, more remote decision-making tends to correspond to depersonalized bureaucratic thinking, which is more concerned with efficiency and economy than effectiveness. Centralized decision-making is also highly unstable in times of turmoil and uncertainty. As biologists would say, you only want a highly centralized decision-making process when you can be 100% certain that decisions will be 100% correct 100% of the time. To put it another way, nature tends to protect species by differentiating, creating redundancy, and facilitating individual responses to changing conditions. More advanced species distribute intelligence and decision-making, they don’t concentrate it.
The reason centralized decision-making is highly unstable in times of turmoil and uncertainty is that it reduces diversity, and diversity is essential to surviving and thriving. Any provincial government should be promoting distributed intelligence, diversity, and experimentation, as well as accountability to the local community rather than to the provincial community.
This is not say that the provincial government has no role to play in the work of local government. The argument is simply that the provincial government should concentrate on a very few primary ends (think globally), leaving local communities to concentrate on many secondary ends and all the means (act locally). Provincial governments micro-manage too often, because it is easier for them (like us) to concentrate on means rather than ends.
Decentralized decision-making tends to produce more effective results overall: centralized decision-making tends to favour efficiency and economy, and so measures tend to focus on efficiency and economy in terms that are favourable to the central authority.
Practically speaking, what does all this mean for citizens?
First, government services are being more and more bureaucratized. This process focuses on averages and is increasingly non-responsive to the circumstances of individuals. In the case of public schools, for example, there is less responsiveness to the needs of individual students because of the requirement that averages be improved. In the case of the federal government, we have the situation of ostensible support for veterans while individual veterans are protesting what they call a callous lack of regard.
One particular consequence of bureaucratization has been the more or less regular re-assignment of senior provincial government staff. Provincial governments across the country appear to have decided that the operational leaders of line departments should be management experts, but not content experts. This is not only an affirmation of management thinking: it also reflects the desire to separate the managers from the front-line work. What happens to the provincial government’s understanding of the work of public education when no senior leader has significant front-line experience and will not remain with the department long enough to acquire any?
Second, diversity is being reduced, which is increasing the instability of local government (and local communities) generally. For example, provincial government grants are increasingly conditional grants, the conditions being those that facilitate remote management (and accountability to the provincial government), rather than unconditional grants with outcome expectations clearly stated. As the local community and the local delivery of services becomes more unstable the provincial government will be adversely effected.
Third, more and more limited resources are being committed to longer decision-making processes. There is more statistical – and less real – accountability, and more activity management rather than outcome management.
Fourth, more and more citizens are disengaging from the democratic political process, locally, provincially, and federally, with a corresponding increase in cynicism, corruption, and loss of capacity. Most important, we are losing the will to imagine a better future and bring it into being.
Fifth, the integration of service components is being artificially managed from a remote location, rather than managed in the midst of the lived experience.
All of these outcomes have an impact on the services that citizens receive from their local government, whether municipal or school. The problem of impaired local government is not a matter of funding, or staffing, or buildings. It is a matter of helping special needs students; improving the readiness of students when they leave high school, regardless of the circumstances; improving the local community’s response to fragile or dangerous family situations; improving public health; and the list goes on.
Local self-government is important. And all of these arguments for local self-government are reflected in current practices in many other fields.