The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Science

Authors: Bogdanor
Summary: This entry, in approximately 1200 words, defines the interrelationship between centralization and decentralization, emphasizes their significance in shaping power structures, explains their importance to organizational structure, and discusses the difficulty of measuring centralization and decentralization tendencies.
The entry defines centralization and decentralization as "alternative characterizations" of three distinct power distributions: (1) between government and the private sector, (2) between a central government and its components, and (3) among a single government's administrative departments.
In the first sense, centralization and decentralization refer to greater and smaller roles played by the government in private enterprise and social relations. The second power distribution is specifically a vertical one between a central or national government and its components, e.g. states or provinces, and it is constitutionally inherent in federal structures. The entry concisely introduces broad economic and ideological issues important for understanding centralization and decentralization in the second context. The third power distribution refers to two distinct, but overlapping patterns: a vertical distribution of authority within the executive office itself, and a horizontal distribution of authority between the central executive office and its field offices.
Centralization and decentralization are two poles of a continuum, along which lie many different combinations and degrees. Most countries occupy different places on this continuum depending upon which sector is the subject of inquiry. Comparison between countries and time periods is difficult and imprecise because no comprehensive measurement exists. However, it is still possible to draw some general conclusions based on trends in power shifts, and the entry concludes by briefly introducing some of them.