1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

Decentralization is argued to create incentives for local and regional politicians to be more responsive and accountable to their constituents, but few studies have directly tested this claim. We use survey data from Colombia to examine individual-level evaluations of the degree to which decentralization prompts citizens to view department government as more accountable. We estimate the effect of administrative, fiscal, and political decentralization, controlling for participation, political knowledge, confidence in government, education, and income on perceptions of accountability. Our results indicate that administrative and fiscal decentralization improve perceptions of accountability, while political decentralization does not.

Few recent policy reforms have generated as much enthusiasm as the decentralization of power from national to subnational governments. Decentralization promised to increase government's responsiveness to citizen needs, improve the effectiveness of the allocation of public goods, mobilize citizens through new venues of local political participation, increase political accountability, and generally improve democracy from below (Bardan and Mookherjee 2006; Blair 2000; Daughters and Harper 2007). In both the global north and south, subnational governments were given increased fiscal, political, and administrative responsibilities. This move came at the requests of activists seeking more local control, national governments seeking to enhance state's rights (e.g., Reagan's New Federalism) and/or reformers hoping to improve the provision of services. Meanwhile, international organizations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) promoted decentralization as part of a strategy to realize the twin goals of accountability and efficiency (Rondinelli 1989).

Decentralization could, consequently, be thought of as the architecture making more accountable local government possible. If decentralization works as predicted, in countries (or parts of a country) where it has become most institutionalized or implemented most extensively, government should be (and be seen as) more accountable by citizens. Places where decentralization has not been as extensive, in contrast, should be characterized by a consensus view that there is less accountability of government.

Despite the prediction that decentralization should improve accountability, previous work has failed to fully test if this is in fact the case. At its broadest, accountability is “associated with the process of being called ‘to account’ to some authority for one's actions” (Jones 1992, 73; cited in Mulgan 2000, 555). This has led to studying accountability as voters' control of politicians through elections by sanctioning poor performance and rewarding good behavior.1 For instance, Manin, Przeworski, and Stokes define governments as accountable “if citizens can discern representative from unrepresentative governments and can sanction them appropriately, retaining in office those incumbents who perform well and ousting from office those who do not” (1999, 10). Elections then are a retrospective tool (Cheibub and Przeworksi 1999) for shaping politicians’ behavior.2 Certainly, there have been efforts to examine whether there is greater electoral accountability in subnational elections (e.g., Gélineau and Remmer 2006; Khemani 2001), but this focuses on only one aspect of accountability.

O'Donnell argues that in addition to “vertical accountability” between voters and elected officials, there exists what he calls “horizontal accountability,” which “is the existence of state agencies that are legally enabled and empowered, and factually willing and able, to take actions that span from routine oversight to criminal sanctions or impeachment in relation to actions or omissions by other agents or agencies of the state that may be qualified as unlawful” (1999, 30). O'Donnell's work makes clear that voters are not the only ones who can sanction and reminds us that unelected officials also play a role. For example, the behavior of unelected bureaucrats may also shape citizens' views of whether government is accountable. Other work has moved beyond government to emphasize civil society and “societal accountability” whereby citizen associations, social movements, and media work to bring public officials' misdeeds to light, leading to public condemnation and possible action by watchdog groups within government (Rich and Gomez 2012; Smulovitz and Peruzzotti 2000). Alternatively, Kitschelt et al. (2009) propose measuring the existence of democratic accountability by studying the provision of clientelistic goods by parties.

For us, accountability applies to government broadly, not only elected officials, but also bureaucrats, and includes providing information and responsiveness as well as sanctioning. Consequently, we see accountability much as Schedler does: “[T]he notion of political accountability carries two basic connotations: answerability, the obligation of public officials to inform about and to explain what they are doing; and enforcement, the capacity of accounting agencies to impose sanctions on powerholders who have violated their public duties… It implies subjecting power to the threat of sanctions; obliging it to be exercised in transparent ways; and forcing it to justify its acts” (1999, 14).

In this article, we focus on the answerability dimension of accountability and directly test whether administrative, fiscal, and political decentralization determine if citizens see government as more open, transparent, and responsive. By emphasizing this aspect of accountability, we fill a significant hole in the literature and advance our understanding of the consequences of decentralization. Using survey data from Colombia, we test whether more extensive decentralization increases citizens’ perceptions of the accountability of government after taking account of individual-level attributes and attitudes. Our first step, however, is to review the extant literature to ground our expectations.

Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

Falleti defines decentralization “as a process, as the set of policies, electoral reforms or constitutional reforms that transfer responsibilities, resources or authority from higher to lower levels of government” (2010, 34; italic in original). For her, administrative decentralization entails “the set of policies that transfer the administration and delivery of social services such as education, health, social welfare, or housing to subnational governments” and may involve “devolution of decision-making authority over these policies, but this is not a necessary condition” (Falleti 2005, 328). Fiscal decentralization “refers to the set of policies designed to increase the revenues or fiscal autonomy of subnational governments,” whereas political decentralization includes reforms to open subnational representation and policies to “devolve political authority or electoral capacities to subnational actors” (Falleti 2005, 328–29). Because she is fundamentally concerned with whether decentralization really increases subnational power, autonomy is central to her conceptualization of decentralization. While attitudes about government accountability will be shaped by an individual's experience, they will also be determined by the context in which that individual lives. We expect the implementation of administrative, fiscal, and political decentralization to produce outcomes that affect individual attitudes about subnational government.

Decentralization, in general, is argued to enhance accountability by bringing government closer to citizens, thereby making subnational government more transparent, involving citizens in decision making, and facilitating the monitoring of subnational government (Blair 2000; Burki, Perry, and Dillinger 1999; Manor 1999; Peterson 1997). Decentralization is argued to reduce the scale of the principal-agent problem, as “informational problems are less severe at the local level” and “smaller constituencies facilitate the monitoring of the performance of elected representatives” (Lederman, Loayza, and Soares 2005, 5). The improved ability to monitor local officials and demand change can help control corruption (Shah 2006), and some scholars find that decentralization reduces corruption (Fisman and Gatti 2002; Shah, Thompson, and Zou 2004), which could in turn improve accountability or perceptions of accountability.3

Decentralization can engender accountability as subnational governments become more transparent and share more information; it can also improve perceptions of accountability by involving citizens in decision making. The hallmark example of this is the highly successful participatory budgeting process in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, made possible by the decentralized nature of the Brazilian state. This process involved many who were previously marginalized, and it also improved perceptions of government accountability as citizens became aware of the city's budget constraints and were involved in determining which projects should be funded (Smith 2009). The participatory budgeting experience in Porto Alegre provides one clear example of the way in which fiscal decentralization has the potential to improve accountability. Another example comes from the work of Faguet (2004), who shows that in Bolivia, giving municipalities control over public investment budgets allowed them to target resources to a few high-priority projects where local need was greatest, rather than spreading investment across multiple sectors. His analysis indicates that local decisions were more suited to local needs than central decisions, especially in the smallest and poorest municipalities.

Political decentralization, specifically, is argued to increase the accountability and responsiveness of locally elected officials by establishing local elections and opening meaningful spaces for subnational political competition. Linz and Stephan (1996) and Rose-Ackerman (1999) show that competitive elections are helpful in making sure that elected officials are accountable for their actions.4 Faguet argues compellingly,

Substantively competitive politics is characterized by a greater diversity of ideas and policy proposals competing for public favor, and hence a broader representation of the public's needs. A direct result of this is improved responsiveness and public accountability from government officials, as opposition parties continuously search for advantage over their rivals. A substantively uncompetitive politics, in contrast, leads to lower levels of policy innovation and entrepreneurialism, which, in turn, reduce the level of oversight that local government institutions are subject to. This will tend to result in a less responsive, less accountable local government. (2009, 43)

Local officials (or parties) concerned about reelection become more accountable. Where there is a lack of electoral competition, Bardhan and Mookherjee (2000) argue that local governments are more likely to be captured by elites, resulting in distortions in the provision of public goods, which Faguet (2009) finds happened in noncompetitive municipalities in Bolivia.

Fiszbein's (1997) study of Colombian municipalities following the implementation of decentralization found that political competition was critical in electing leaders who engaged in innovation, successfully developed local capacity, and thus improved the overall quality of government. More recent work by Magaloni, Díaz-Cayeros, and Estévez (2007) demonstrates that heightened political competition reduced clientelism in Mexico, although Weitz-Shapiro (2012) suggests that competition must be combined with lower levels of poverty to effectively reduce clientelism. Thus, where political decentralization has created spaces for electoral competition, we would expect accountability to improve.

The establishment of local elections (or the conversion of appointed positions into elected posts) is frequently used as a measure of political decentralization, but the existence of those elections may not be a sufficient indicator of political decentralization. Nor may it be sufficient to cause improved accountability. Eaton and Schroeder (2010, 171) argue it is not, preferring instead to focus on features of electoral rules and internal characteristics of political parties that empower local leaders as measures of political decentralization. Like Faguet (2009), they see parties and the dynamics of electoral competition as important for connecting civil society and government.

Of course, not everyone agrees that decentralization will improve accountability (or bring other promised benefits). Some are critical of decentralization in general (i.e., Prud'homme 1995); others caution that the “details” (or specifics of its implementation) and not the quantity determine if it is beneficial (Prud'homme and Shah 2002). Keefer, Narayan, and Vishwanath (2006) show that administrative decentralization can backfire; decentralization may have matched policies to preferences—but this meant reducing the availability of girls’ schools in rural Pakistan—which was not the national government's goal. Of the nine countries Crook and Sverrisson (2001) examine, they conclude that decentralization only reduced poverty in West Bengal. If outcomes worsen as a result of administrative (or fiscal) decentralization, it might not improve perceptions of accountability.

Treisman (2007) concludes that political decentralization is not clearly or consistently better than centralization at making it easier for voters to coordinate and sanction government or for improving accountability in general. If elite capture (Bardhan and Mookerjee 2000) occurs, political decentralization might not produce increased accountability. Moreover, Falleti (2005, 2010) warns that the sequence in which political, administrative, and fiscal decentralization are adopted determines whether decentralization empowers local governments or leaves them beholden to the national government, and a dependent government may be seen as less accountable.

The implementation of administrative, fiscal, and political decentralization offers opportunities to enhance subnational government accountability, but these might or might not be realized. We seek to test empirically whether this has actually occurred. Accordingly, we expect:

  • H1: Citizens living in a context of more extensive administrative decentralization will perceive their subnational government as more accountable;
  • H2: Citizens living in a context of greater fiscal decentralization will perceive their subnational government as more accountable; and
  • H3: Citizens living in a context of greater political decentralization will perceive their subnational government as more accountable.

Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

The above discussion highlights the extent to which decentralization matters, positing that context has a direct impact upon how accountable citizens perceive government to be. However, we do not expect perceptions to be constant across all respondents in a department. Instead, two individuals living in the same department may think about accountability differently based on their attitudes about government, the extent to which they are involved and participate in government, and their knowledge about politics. We discuss each of these in turn.

The poor behavior of government officials (such as not providing information) obviously damages government evaluations, but, if it becomes extreme (corrupt, morally suspect), it can actually damage support for democracy in general (Weitz-Shapiro 2008). Thus, at one extreme, complete mistrust of politicians might be linked to an unwillingness on the part of citizens to monitor politicians’ behavior and engage in democratic activities (Cleary and Stokes 2006). At the same time, a degree of skepticism is healthy for political life. It reflects a vigilant and active society willing to exercise control over government if politicians have violated the rules of the game (Hardin 1999). Therefore, since some skepticism is good for democracy and is indicative of mature democracies (Cleary and Stokes 2006), but too much skepticism (or cynicism) undermines democratic functioning, we hypothesize:

  • H4: Respondents who are optimistic or skeptical, as opposed to cynical, about government will be more likely to perceive government as accountable.

In addition to optimism about government, political participation should affect perceptions of accountability. In her examination of how marginalized groups used democratic decentralization in Uganda and South Africa to demand accountability from leaders, Dauda (2006) highlights the role and importance of community participation. Similarly, Fiszbein notes that in addition to political competition, which brought to office innovative leaders who worked to improve capacity, community participation was also important. He finds participation “increased demands for effective local governments…and forced government accountability” (1997, 1034).

This suggests that individual political participation may be an important predictor of perceptions of accountability. Those who are more actively involved in local government may perceive greater accountability than those who are either not involved or simply vote. Moreover, part of how accountability is envisioned to work involves citizens taking steps to monitor government and demand transparency. While independent media and opposition political parties fulfill this role, the studies mentioned above highlight how community meetings and town halls also serve this function. Therefore, to the extent that individuals have realized that accountability is a result of their actions, they may view government as more accountable. Thus, we hypothesize:

  • H5: Respondents with higher levels of local political participation will be more likely to perceive government as accountable.

Finally, we anticipate that the amount of information citizens have about government will influence their perceptions of government accountability. Because we are interested in examining accountability as answerability, we expect an individual's level of political knowledge to matter. For example, if local government posts the budget online and citizens have a chance to review it and leave feedback—something we would say represents a high degree of accountability—we would expect those individuals who knew this to see their government as accountable, whereas their less informed counterparts might perceive lower accountability. This leads to our final hypothesis:

  • H6: Respondents with higher levels of political knowledge will be more likely to perceive government as accountable.

Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

Our analysis focuses on Colombia, specifically on examining accountability in the context of decentralization to the Colombian departments.5 Decentralization is relatively advanced in Colombia, a fact highlighted by the country's self-description in its constitution as a decentralized, unitary republic.6 Falleti (2005, 2010) argues decentralization has proceeded in Colombia in a manner that offers the greatest chance for the successful transfer of autonomy to subnational governments, as political decentralization preceded administrative and fiscal devolution. This sequence “has given governors and mayors those legal, economic, and administrative tools they need for good, creative government. The extent to which this is realized varies widely with the heterogeneous constellation of Colombian departments and municipalities” (2010, 149). This variation in decentralization across departments, but within a country where decentralization policies have progressed successfully and to a high degree, provides an excellent set of cases to accurately test if accountability perceptions are indeed shaped by fiscal, administrative, and political decentralization.

Significant variation in decentralization exists at the departmental level in Colombia, as illustrated in Figure 1. While laws decentralizing responsibility for service provision or establishing subnational elections have applied everywhere, the implementation of those reforms and their success have varied considerably across the country, providing important intracountry variation necessary for hypothesis testing while holding many national factors constant (see Fiszbein 1997). In one sense, political decentralization is uniformly well advanced in the country, with mayoral elections having been adopted in 1986 and gubernatorial in 1991. However, there has been significant variation across departments (and municipalities—see Angell, Lowden, and Thorp 2001) in the extent to which new parties and individuals have taken advantage of the opportunities offered by these elections to govern at the subnational level (meaning the competitiveness of the electoral environment varies). Moreover, fiscal decentralization has advanced unequally across departments. Most departmental revenue comes from formulaic and guaranteed revenue sharing under the Situado Fiscal7 and royalties based on the production of minerals (almost exclusively oil and coal) that especially benefit departments where they are produced. Departments can minimize this dependency by taxing automobile registration as well as liquors and tobacco; they can also contract debt, enabling them to run fiscal deficits.8 Different resource endowments combined with more or less aggressive behavior in tax collection and borrowing have, therefore, resulted in variation in fiscal decentralization across the country.


Figure 1. Variation in Decentralization Types Across Colombian Departments

Note: All 32 Colombian departments are plotted. Bubble size marks the extent of administrative decentralization, which is measured as the DANE administrative autonomy ratings (extent of sufficiency of resources and quality of public services, among other assessments) for the year 2007 based on survey responses from departmental functionaries. The administrative autonomy ratings have been raised to the tenth power to visually maximize variation among cases. Political decentralization on the x-axis is measured as the average of the margin of victory of gubernatorial elections for the years 1997, 2000, and 2003. Fiscal decentralization on the y-axis is measured as the percent of own-source revenue to total departmental revenue, averaged over the years 2000–2006. See the online supporting information for a more detailed description of variable coding and sources. See also Table SI.2 for a table reporting the values of administrative, fiscal, and political decentralization plotted above for each department.

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We examine accountability in nonelectoral forms, focusing specifically on answerability or “the obligation of public officials to inform about and to explain what they are doing” (Schedler 1999, 14). To explore accountability, we rely on data from the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) Democracy Audit and Culture of Democracy surveys of Colombia for the years 2004 and 2006.9 These LAPOP surveys include citizen assessments of department-level government in consulting them, making decisions and plans public, and sharing information.10 Our measure of accountability is the average of three citizen ratings: “In your opinion, your departmental government: (1) consults citizens before making decisions, (2) makes plans and decisions public, and (3) shares information openly and on time.” Possible responses were “never” (1), “almost never” (2), “once in a while” (3), “almost always” (4), and “always” (5).11 Because this measure includes multiple ratings, it is a more robust indicator than one that relies on a single survey response.

In order to test our hypotheses that citizens living under regimes with more extensive administrative, fiscal, and political decentralization will be more likely to perceive government as being more accountable (H1, H2, and H3), we include indicators of decentralization that capture the results from—rather than the existence or adoption of—decentralization policies. We focus on ratings of departmental autonomy in the administration of responsibilities as an indicator of the results of administrative decentralization. We examine fiscal autonomy of departmental governments as the degree to which they have been successful at generating independent income resulting from the opportunities afforded by fiscal decentralization, and we utilize electoral competition, measured as margin of victory, as an indicator of the outcome of political decentralization within a department. Measuring decentralization in this manner has the advantage of testing claims about this policy program from multiple angles. It also pushes the scholarship on decentralization to focus on more than parchment institutions by examining the outcomes produced by decades of implementation.

We employ an indicator of administrative autonomy constructed from expert surveys conducted by the Administrative Department of National Statistics (DANE) to measure administrative decentralization. The survey queried numerous public functionaries in each department, including elected and appointed officials as well as career bureaucrats, asking questions to gauge departmental performance in multiple areas related to decentralization, such as resources, management, labor, and public services. Responses to survey questions were averaged by DANE to produce a score for each department ranging from 1 to 5 (very low, low, medium, high, very high) in 10 areas, which was aggregated into two conceptual dimensions: administrative autonomy and political autonomy.12 We use the average of the administrative autonomy indicators only to measure administrative decentralization.

The DANE administrative autonomy measure is an average of ratings across five areas of administrative decentralization.13 The first is credibility of rules, which captures perceptions about procedures for hiring and contracting of goods and services. Respondents were asked about transparency in hiring personnel and staff as well as the frequency with which contracts were awarded on the basis of personal/familial ties or political reward. The second area is resource credibility, which assesses perceptions about the sufficiency and ownership of fiscal and human resources. For example, respondents were asked to gauge the sufficiency of the departmental budget to meet responsibilities (handed down as a result of administrative decentralization) and how personnel turnover affected the development of departmental programs. The third theme is management for results, which focused on the implementation of management tools to achieve departmental government objectives. Questions in this area spanned topics from evaluation systems to training programs to strategic actions aimed at achieving departmental government goals. The fourth area included in administrative autonomy is public territory management, which explores perceptions about the obstacles that exist in the management of departmental tasks. Respondents were asked, among other items, about the degree to which their department has fulfilled its administrative and fiscal commitments to the national government. Also asked were questions about the quality of public services provided by the department. The final theme encompassed in administrative autonomy is labor welfare, which taps into perceptions about the degree of well-being or satisfaction the respondent has with regard to the work incentives the department government provides. Questions in this area explored, for example, the respondent's perceptions of improvement in her job skills, contributions to departmental citizen satisfaction through her work, and fairness of her salary. Taken as a whole, the components of the administrative autonomy rating (which vary from 2.97 to 3.86) capture functionaries’ perceptions of departmental government authority and control over employment, service provision, and other management issues—all areas that have been recommended as sound measures of administrative decentralization (see Eaton and Schroeder 2010).

We measure fiscal decentralization as fiscal autonomy or “own-source revenues as a percentage of total subnational revenues,” which is a widely accepted indicator of this type of decentralization (Eaton and Schroeder 2010, 181). We calculate fiscal autonomy as 100 minus the percentage of departmental government transfers and royalties (provided by the national government) of total department income, averaged for the years 2000–2006. This measure, which ranges from 18 to 84%, captures the fiscal independence of the departmental government—the closer this measure is to 100%, the more fiscally autonomous the departmental government. These data were obtained from the National Planning Department (DNP) of Colombia.

In addition to administrative and fiscal decentralization, we test the effects of political decentralization, which we operationalize using electoral competition. Political decentralization is defined as the devolution of authority and/or electoral capacities to subnational actors (Falleti 2005). The most common measure of political decentralization, whether or not a country holds subnational elections, does not vary within Colombia and is insufficient to capture the extent of political decentralization (Eaton and Schroeder 2010, 172). As an alternative, Eaton and Schroeder (2010) recommend focusing on electoral dynamics. In a similar vein, Schneider (2003) frames decentralization in terms of representation—mapping citizen preferences on policy decisions at the local level. For Schneider, the clearest measure of representation is subnational elections because they require candidates to “compete and make appeals to citizens in local jurisdictions” (2003, 40). We agree with these scholars that capturing the full extent of political decentralization involves subnational elections but in a manner that takes into account electoral competition. Therefore, we examine subnational electoral competition as an observable, measurable, and varying (within a country) measure of political decentralization.14

We employ the average margin of victory in the governor's race in three recent elections (1997, 2000, and 2003) as a measure of political decentralization.15 The margin of victory is calculated as the difference between the winning party's vote share and the second-place party's vote share and varies from 3 to 35%. We treat smaller margin of victory averages as representing more closely contested elections. Thus, we expect the coefficient for this variable to be negative. The data are taken from the National Registry's voting records.

We include numerous individual-level independent variables to test our hypotheses regarding optimism/skepticism versus cynicism about government (H4), political participation (H5), and political knowledge (H6) on perceptions of accountability. We hypothesize that those individuals who are generally optimistic (or skeptical) about government—as opposed to cynical—perceive government as more accountable. To measure optimism versus cynicism toward government, we construct a dichotomous variable where 1 represents a respondent who is optimistic or skeptical about government and 0 indicates she is cynical. We construct this variable by combining individual responses to three corruption evaluations—of politicians in general, of departmental officials, and of municipal officials. Responses to each question ranged from “not widespread” (1) to “very widespread” (4). If a respondent evaluated government at all three levels as having “widespread” (3) or “very widespread” (4) corruption, we coded them 0, meaning he or she is cynical about government; 1 indicates that a respondent is optimistic or healthily skeptical about government.16

We expect political participation and political knowledge to increase evaluations of departmental accountability. To measure political participation, we create an additive index of the following components: attendance at a municipal meeting, participation in a meeting to plan the budget or annual municipal plan, and solicitation of help from some municipal office, official, or councilman. The index ranges from 0—no participation—to 3—participation in all three activities. We use the municipal-level participation measure because similar questions at the department level were not asked in the survey, and we have theoretical reasons to believe that participation on the local level engenders perceptions that government on the subnational level is more accountable.17 To measure political knowledge, we create an additive index of two political knowledge questions specific to Colombia—the number of departments in Colombia and the term limit of the Colombian president. Individuals were assigned a value representing the number of correct answers they gave (i.e., one of two correctly answered = 1).

We also include a series of individual-level control variables which we anticipate may affect perceptions of accountability. These control variables include age (measured in years), education (measured in years), and income (measured in ranges on a 10-point scale, with higher values indicating greater monthly family income). Finally, because we pooled data from two different surveys, conducted in 2004 and 2006, we include a control variable for the year 2004.

We estimate a multilevel model because we expect individual perceptions of accountability to be influenced by departmental decentralization and our data are structured with individual-level observations nested in departmental groups. Considering the nature of our dependent variable, we estimate a random-intercept18 model (restricted maximum likelihood) with the normal link function. Due to limitations in Level 1 data taken from LAPOP, the number of Level 2 units—Colombian departments—is reduced from 32 to 24.19 Given the small number of Level 2 units, we take a conservative approach and estimate the multilevel model separately for each Level 2 variable—administrative, fiscal, and political decentralization.20


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

The model results are reported in Table 1.21 The three models estimated are reported in separate columns, with administrative decentralization as the Level 2 variable in the first column, fiscal decentralization in the second, and political decentralization in the third. Most of our theoretical expectations are confirmed, although not all. Most strikingly, we observe differences in the significance of the types of decentralization in explaining variation across departments in perceptions of accountability. Administrative22 and fiscal autonomy are statistically significant and positively related to accountability perceptions of departmental government, whereas political decentralization is not. We first discuss the Level 2 results and then consider the Level 1 results.

Table 1. Predictors of Departmental Accountability
  1. Random intercept model (restricted maximum likelihood) estimated with normal link function. Model estimated for each Level 2 variable (administrative, fiscal, and political decentralization) separately. Coefficients are reported with robust standard errors in parentheses. For number of observations by department, see the online supporting information, Table SI.4.

  2. Level 1 variables with † are centered around their grand means. Statistical significance denoted as *p < 0.10, **p < 0.05, ***p < 0.01.

Dependent Variable: Accountability
Average rating of responses to the following. In your opinion, your departmental government:
Consults citizens before making decisions; Makes its plans and decisions public; and Shares information openly
and on time.
Ratings: 1 = never, 2 = almost never, 3 = sometimes, 4 = almost always, and 5 = always
Fixed Effects: Level 1Optimistic/skeptical vs. cynical toward government0.171***0.166**0.166**
 Subnational political participation†0.204***0.203***0.203***
 Political knowledge†0.0300.0290.029
 Age†−0.005***− 0.005***−0.005***
 Education†−0.003− 0.003−0.003
 Year 20040.235***0.229***0.231***
Fixed Effects: Level 2Administrative Decentralization: DANE admin.0.276**  
 autonomy rating(0.125)  
 Fiscal Decentralization: Percent of own-source revenue 0.005** 
 Political Decentralization: Margin of victory in  0.002
 governors’ races  (0.005)
Random EffectsLevel 1 Variance (standard deviation)1.0091.0091.008
 Level 2 Variance (standard deviation)0.0220.0220.028
Number ofLevel 1174817481748
ObservationsLevel 2242424

Level 2 Effects

We expected departmental decentralization to shape individual-level accountability perceptions. As citizens have more opportunities to be involved in their local government and see greater transparency as a result of decentralization—administrative, fiscal, and political—they should perceive their departmental government as more answerable or accountable. We find that administrative and fiscal autonomy affect accountability perceptions; however, the link between political decentralization and accountability is not evident in our findings. 23 The results of these department-level effects are shown in Table 1 under “Fixed Effects: Level 2.”24

Administrative and fiscal decentralization are positive and statistically significant. Their coefficients indicate that baseline accountability scores by department are improved with greater levels of administrative and fiscal autonomy. A one standard deviation increase in administrative and fiscal autonomy is associated with a 0.07 and 0.08, respectively, increase in departmental intercepts. Put another way, if the least autonomous department—Vaupés with an administrative autonomy rating of 2.07 and fiscal autonomy rating of 17.63—were to raise its autonomy to the levels of the highest performers—Risaralda with a 3.86 administrative autonomy rating and Casanare with fiscal autonomy of 84.07—then its intercept for the administrative decentralization model would increase by 0.49 and its intercept for the fiscal decentralization model would increase by 0.33. Because accountability is calculated as the average of three ratings, these increases are equivalent to a one-point improvement in the accountability rating prior to averaging it. This corresponds, for example, to a positive shift in thinking the departmental government is accountable in one of the three components (consulting citizens, making plans public, and sharing information) included in the aggregate measure.

While we find that administrative and fiscal autonomy increase baseline accountability for all departments, we also find that departmental intercepts vary considerably—illustrated by Figure 2. The 24 departments analyzed are reported on the x-axis, sorted by their mean accountability scores shown in parentheses. The y-axis displays the departmental intercept (or baseline level of accountability) for each of the three models reported in Table 1. The three types of decentralization are marked with a distinct symbol. Figure 2 shows that in general, the largest intercepts are those associated with the fiscal and administrative decentralization models. In departments with higher-than-average accountability ratings (greater than 2.266), fiscal and administrative decentralization model intercepts tend to be larger. This highlights the positive influence of fiscal and administrative autonomy on perceptions of accountability. It also underscores that how decentralization has been translated into policy by individual departments within their own unique contexts has a significant bearing on how accountable citizens perceive government to be.


Figure 2. Departmental Intercepts by Decentralization Type

Note: Intercepts plotted based on the models reported in Table 1. Decentralization is measured as (1) Administrative—DANE administrative autonomy ratings for the year 2007 based on survey responses from departmental functionaries; (2) Political—the average of the margin of victory of gubernatorial elections for the years 1997, 2000, and 2003; and (3) Fiscal—the percent of own-source revenue to total departmental revenue, averaged over the years 2000–2006. The number of departments is reduced to 24 due to limitations in Level 1 data (LAPOP). For number of observations by department included in the regression analyses, see the online supporting information, Table SI.4.

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Individual-Level Results

As discussed in the previous section, administrative and fiscal decentralization significantly influence individual-level accountability perceptions as they shift baseline departmental intercepts. On the individual level, we find that optimism toward government, subnational political participation, income, and age explain perceptions of departmental accountability. These individual-level results are reported in Table 1 under the heading “Fixed Effects: Level 1.”

General optimism about government and subnational political participation are positive and significant in each model, indicating that optimistic (or skeptical) and participatory individuals evaluate departmental government as more accountable than cynics or those who do not participate. A shift from cynicism to optimism is associated with a 0.17 increase in accountability ratings across all three models. A one standard deviation increase in participation is associated with a 0.14 increase in accountability ratings. No subnational political participation is correlated with a 0.08 decrease in accountability ratings, whereas participation in all of the activities measured boosts accountability by 0.52 points. While these effects seem small, taken together they have the potential to considerably shift accountability perceptions. For example, an individual who is optimistic and participates fully in subnational politics has a 0.70-point higher accountability rating than an individual who is cynical and nonparticipatory. This is roughly equivalent to a two-point increase in the accountability rating prior to averaging it, which means, for example, this individual's responses in two of the three components measured (consulting citizens, making plans public, and sharing information) are scored one point higher.

We also expected the amount of information citizens have about government to influence their perceptions of government accountability. But political knowledge does not explain perceptions of accountability; however, income and age do. Individuals with higher monthly incomes have more positive perceptions of departmental accountability; a one standard deviation increase in income is associated with a 0.06 increase in accountability ratings across all three models. In addition to greater wealth, younger individuals have higher accountability evaluations; a one standard deviation increase in age decreases accountability scores by 0.07 across all three models. We also find that when the survey was conducted is statistically significant, with respondents in 2004 having higher accountability ratings by 0.235 in the administrative decentralization model, 0.229 in the fiscal decentralization model, and 0.231 in the political decentralization model.

In all, the findings of the regression analyses indicate that individual-level perceptions of departmental government accountability are shaped by context—the extent of administrative and fiscal autonomy—and individual-level beliefs and characteristics—optimism about government, political participation, income, and age. Departments that have successfully achieved administrative and fiscal autonomy have higher baseline assessments of departmental government accountability, and individuals within these departments who are optimistic toward government, participate in subnational politics, have higher incomes, and are younger are more likely to have higher accountability ratings. While the impacts of these explanatory factors, indicated by their respective coefficients, tend to be small, together they can substantively shift individual perceptions of departmental government accountability.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

Decentralization was adopted widely across the world amid much fanfare that it would increase accountability, improve government, and bring representation closer to citizens. Given the amount of promise the policy held, it is important to evaluate the effectiveness of these reforms. Yet, few attempts have been made to identify the way in which decentralization fulfilled its grander promise in terms of improved accountability. Our research represents an attempt to determine if and how decentralization changed whether citizens saw their government as accountable in terms other than their ability to sanction through elections.

We find support for our expectation that the decentralization context determines if individuals see their government as more answerable, but only in its fiscal and administrative forms. Despite the theoretical assumptions that politicians in politically decentralized (e.g., highly competitive) environments will be more honest and responsive to citizens and this, in turn, will affect how individuals perceive government, we do not find evidence of this. Our analysis also shows that perceptions result from what an individual has experienced personally. Optimism or healthy skepticism about government and participation both improve perceptions of accountability.

This article makes two important contributions. First, we offer an explicit test of whether the three types of decentralization alter citizens’ perceptions of subnational government accountability. In doing so, we provide empirical evidence that one of the most popular, and yet frequently untested, assumptions about the benefits of decentralization is partly, but not totally, correct. Competence (and perhaps good governance), which is clearly related to administrative decentralization and fiscal empowerment, matters more for improving perceptions of accountability than does political decentralization. Of course, the absence of a link between political decentralization and perceived government accountability is something worthy of future study. Political decentralization may enhance accountability where citizens couple opportunities for sanctioning with information to determine if sanctioning is required. Therefore, political decentralization might be found to be successful if accountability is examined as both sanctioning and answerability.

Second, by measuring accountability as answerability, we move beyond electoral institutions to provide a more nuanced view of accountability. Elections are important for calling governments to account for their actions and remain a critical requirement for accountability; however, government that is accountable in the eyes of citizens may require more than simply periodic opportunities to “toss the bums out.” Decentralization enhances subnational governments’ ability to engage citizens between elections. The existence of these opportunities and citizens' awareness that they exist—regardless of whether they personally take advantage of them—help explain how decentralization improves outcomes.

While our results suggest that administrative and fiscal decentralization can have a significant positive effect on accountability, they also suggest that this might not be automatic. As the Colombian evidence indicates, even when decentralization offers the same opportunities to all units (or imposes the same restrictions upon them), what individual departments do with those opportunities matters. Some departments clearly sought to develop significant fiscal autonomy, some ambitiously sought to reinvent the way their government functioned by improving capacity and trying to respond to citizen needs, and certainly others sought to do as little as possible, except perhaps steal from public coffers. That said, those who used the opportunity afforded by decentralization to increase fiscal and administrative autonomy were rewarded with more favorable citizen evaluations of their performance. A national policy of decentralization is not a panacea for improving accountability; however, in the right hands it can be a useful tool.

  1. 1

    There is a voluminous literature examining whether voters punish politicians for poor economic performance based on the U.S. case. Remmer and Gélineau (2003) extend this work to Argentina, and Gélineau and Remmer (2006) and Khemani (2001) offer evidence that voters are more vigilant in monitoring local than national officials in Argentina and India, respectively.

  2. 2

    Elections are not universally seen as retrospective. Fearon (1999, 82) argues that voters see elections more as a chance to pick good types, making them prospective, although he still sees this as implying accountability.

  3. 3

    However, Treisman (2000) finds that federal states score a half to one point higher (more corruption) on the Transparency International Corruption scale, and others such as Prud'homme (1995) argue that decentralization creates more opportunities for corruption to occur.

  4. 4

    Canes-Wrone (2006) and Ferejohn (1986) also link competitiveness to government responsiveness. Hobolt and Klemmensen (2008) find that higher levels of political contestation lead to more responsive executives in the United States (but not Britain).

  5. 5

    Government in Colombia consists of three levels: the national, the department (an intermediate level), and the municipal (which includes both urban and rural areas).

  6. 6

    For an excellent overview of the evolution of decentralization in Colombia, see Angell, Lowden, and Thorp (2001) or Falleti (2010). For fiscal decentralization, see Alesina, Carrasquilla, and Echavarría (2005).

  7. 7

    The national government collects most taxes (around 80%) and is required to transfer a significant share to departments (and municipalities) through what is known as the Situado Fiscal. It is highly conditional, with Alesina, Carrasquilla, and Echavarría estimating that “about 80% of all transfers are allocated by rules to education and health expenditures” (2005, 183).

  8. 8

    Taxes on liquor (33%), beer (32%), tobacco (7%), and motor vehicles (19%) account for 91% of departmental tax revenue (Alesina, Carrasquilla, and Echavarría 2005, 178–79).

  9. 9

    These surveys are ideal for testing how perceptions of accountability vary across departments because there are extensive questions exploring accountability at multiple levels of government which are not found in a comparable way in other LAPOP surveys.

  10. 10

    Our empirical measure is “perceived accountability,” even though most of the theoretical predictions generated from the literature would seem to imply actual accountability. Because we assert that citizens are relatively good judges of whether government is being accountable in terms of answerability, we feel the two can be treated interchangeably.

  11. 11

    For more details on variable coding and full question wording, see the online supporting information. For descriptive statistics, see Table SI.1 of the online supporting information.

  12. 12
  13. 13

    See the online supporting information, Table SI.3, for details on the scores for each component of the administrative autonomy rating by department.

  14. 14

    Faguet (2009) finds evidence that in the context of decentralization, greater electoral competition in Bolivia induced higher responsiveness to the electorate. Because we treat electoral competition as equivalent to political decentralization, we expect similar relationships and expect more electoral competition to be linked to higher levels of accountability.

  15. 15

    Prior to 2003, governors served a three-year term. Beginning in 2003, they were elected for a four-year term (2003–2007) but during both periods were prohibited from being immediately reelected, although they could run for nonconsecutive terms.

  16. 16

    This variable was chosen over corruption evaluations (at the municipal, departmental, and national levels as well as an average of all three) because it is empirically and theoretically distinct from our dependent variable while measures of corruption were not. Given that some may equate noncorrupt and accountable governance, reverse causality analyses indicated that corruption predicted accountability and vice versa. The same is not true for this measure of optimism.

  17. 17

    Our measure of participation assumes that positive affect toward government generated by participating in local government will “spill up” to the department level, which is consistent with Putnam's (1993) argument suggesting that social capital can “spill up” to trust in institutions. While ideally we would be able to measure participation at the departmental level, we believe this measure is a reasonable proxy.

  18. 18

    We estimate a random-intercept model because we hypothesize that decentralization shifts the baseline assessment of government accountability, with more administratively, fiscally, or politically decentralized departments having higher baseline accountability. We do not estimate a varying slopes model because we have no strong theoretical expectations that any of the three forms of decentralization will change the way in which participation, optimism versus cynicism, and information affect perceptions of accountability.

  19. 19

    The departments included in our regression analysis are Antioquia, Atlántico, Bolívar, Boyaca, Caldas, Caquetá, Casanare, Cauca, Cesar, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, Huila, Magdalena, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Quindio, Risaralda, Santander, Sucre, Tolima, Valle, and Vaupés.

  20. 20

    The results of the same model, but with all three Level 2 variables estimated together, are discussed in the online supporting information and reported in Table SI.5. The results are consistent with those reported in Table 1.

  21. 21

    See the online supporting information, specifically Table SI.6, for a discussion of regression results with the dependent variable disaggregated into its three components. The Level 1 results do not change considerably, but the Level 2 results fluctuate somewhat from the results presented in Table 1.

  22. 22

    Because this measure of administrative decentralization is an average of five ratings, the model was reestimated to include the measure each time excluding one of its five components. The results of these robustness checks are consistent with those reported in Table 1—all of the alternative measures of administrative autonomy were statistically significant and positively related to the dependent variable. See the online supporting information for a discussion and presentation of the results (Table SI.7).

  23. 23

    We tested alternative measures of political decentralization, including minimum margin of victory in gubernatorial races for each department (years 1997, 2000, and 2003) as well as the margin of victory—average and minimum—for presidential and senate races (years 1998, 2002, and 2006). We also examined political autonomy ratings from DANE (the same source for the administrative autonomy measure) as an alternative measure. The regression results employing these alternative measures do not vary considerably from those reported in Table 1.

  24. 24

    The number of observations by department varied from a minimum of 18 to a maximum of 208, with an average of 73. The 95% confidence intervals for none of the coefficients overlap zero. For the number of observations by department, see Table SI.4 of the online supporting information.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information
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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information
  • Maria Escobar-Lemmon is Associate Professor of Political Science, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843-4348.

  • Ashley D. Ross is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX 77341.

Supporting Information

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Context Matters: The Incentives to Be Accountable under Decentralization
  4. Individual-Level Determinants: Who Sees Government as Accountable?
  5. Modeling Accountability: Case Selection, Data, and Methods
  6. Results
  7. Conclusions
  8. References
  9. Biographies
  10. Supporting Information

Disclaimer: Supplementary materials have been peer-reviewed but not copyedited.


• Measurement of accountability;

• Measurement of decentralization;

• Measurement of individual factors related to accountability; and

• Robustness analyses.

The Supporting Information also includes the following tables:

Table SI.1: Descriptive Statistics

Table SI.2: Decentralization Measures Across the 32 Colombian Departments

Table SI.3: Administrative Autonomy Disaggregated into Five Components by Department

Table SI.4: Number of Observations by Department Included in Regression Analysis

Table SI.5: Predictors of Departmental Accountability Estimated with all Level 2 Variables in a Single Model

Table SI.6: Regression Results with Accountability Disaggregated into Three Components

Table SI.7: The Effect of the Five Components of Administrative Decentralization on Accountability

Please note: Wiley Blackwell is not responsible for the content or functionality of any supporting information supplied by the authors. Any queries (other than missing content) should be directed to the corresponding author for the article.