Government Decentralization in Michigan

Outline the different state models of decentralisation and evaluate their role in facilitating democratic local governance.

There is a dynamic interplay between, in, and through different levels of governance and the powers that they wield and exert. In this paper we will look at three models of decentralization, including the benefits and dangers. The local municipality of Dalton Township, Michigan, USA will be used as a centering perspective for concepts in application.

In seeking democratic local governance through decentralization it should be noted that there is no universally accepted definition of democracy. It is a fuzzy concept that means rule of the people, in some way. In a general sense it seems that most people use it to acknowledge having elections of representatives, and certain rights that are associated with that general system of governance. (Hague, Harrop, McCormick, 2016, pg 38)

Decentralization can be defined as "...the transfer of authority, responsibility, and resources - through deconcentration, delegation, or devolution - from the center to lower levels of administration." (Cheema and Rondinelli, 2007, pg 1) Deconcentration is moving central government employees into local regions, delegation is shifting responsibilities to semi-autonomous units with central oversight for accountability, and devolution gives some autonomy to local units. (Hague, Harrop, McCormick, 2016, pg 184)

The United States is a federal system with power divided between the state and national governments. Originally the states made a union to form the national government and change it from a confederacy to a federal system with the Constitution ratified in 1788. The authority of the state is what creates the local municipalities, in the case of Michigan: counties, cities, villages, and townships. The state, not being made from the smaller units but rather making them, is a unitary system rather than federal. All three of the methods of decentralization can been seen in the state of Michigan.

The state deconcentrates authority through state agencies with local offices, such as: the department of state police, the department of transportation, the department of education, the department of natural resources, etc. There are 20 such primary agencies, with approximately another 58 subunits. This becomes quite expansive. As an example, the DNR is one agency and has these divisions: finance and operations, fisheries, forest resources, human resources, law enforcement, legislative and legal affairs, marketing and outreach, Michigan history center, minerals management section, parks and recreation, public information office, and wildlife. Just the wildlife division has four regions with a total of 39 locations. (Michigan, 2022)

The state devolutes power through the local municipalities previously mentioned: counties, townships, cities, and villages. Counties, townships, and cities run elections. Townships run elections for the villages that are inside them, even though the village council members are also elected. Each of these four municipalities gets some of its revenue from directly collected property taxes. The state has passed statutes giving these local municipalities certain authorities. For instance, the City and Village Zoning Act was passed in 1921, and both the Township Zoning Act and the County Zoning Act were passed in 1943. (Michigan Legislature, 2022b) These local municipalities exercise limited legislative, judicial, and executive powers.

The state also delegates power. This is largely done to both of the previously mentioned groups to whom authority is also deconcentrated and devoluted, state agencies and local municipalities. This is part of what's often referred to as the administrative state. For instance, the townships have been given zoning authority by state statute. At any time the state legislature can pass a law changing what the township can or cannot do with zoning, this is called local preemption. The state giveth and the state taketh away. The state also assigns the local municipalities duties and responsibilities, along with oversight accountability processes. For instance, the township clerk has to run elections which include positions at every level of elected government. The township treasurer must collect property taxes and distribute them to multiple different levels of government organizations. These are assigned duties from the state to the township. The state then also has accountability measures. For instance, the township must get an annual audit by an outside firm that the township hires and then have that report filed with the state. This audit is also released to the public, and is therefore a method of both top-down and bottom-up accountability.

The benefits pursued through such decentralization are promoted as participation, local knowledge, accountability, coordination, and accessibility. (Cheema and Rondinelli, 2007, pg 117) However, there are dangers as well, decentralization can: increase disparities, jeopardize stability, and undermine efficiency. (Prud'homme, 1995) It should also be considered that the difficulty of managing organizations may be a reason for a higher government to move logistical issues to a lower government, along with the perverse incentive of then being able to displace the responsibility as well.

The three methods of decentralization all play a role in democratic local governance. Deconcentration, delegation, and devolution offer potential benefits as well as potential problems. Politics at any level will always contain the inherent challenges of disparate interests and objectives resulting in conflicts to be resolved through a variety of power mechanisms. Subsidiarity done wrong can harm solidarity, solidarity done wrong can harm personhood. A balanced foundation is key to strong and healthy growth of the culture and society.

Reference List

Cheema, G Shabbir & Rondinelli, Dennis A (2007) Decentralizing Governance: Emerging Concepts and Practices. Washington DC: Brooking Institution Press.

Hague R, M Harrop & J McCormick (2016) Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction. 10th Edition. London UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Michigan (2022) DNR Directory Listing and Wildlife Offices accessed on 10 October 2022 at and

Michigan Legislature (2022a) Chapter 41. Townships Revised Statutes of 1846. Accessed on 10 October 2022 at

Michigan Legislature (2022b) Chapter 125. Planning, Housing, and Zoning. Accessed on 10 October 2022 at

Prud'homme, Remy (1995) The Dangers of Decentralization, in The World Bank Research Observer, vol. 10, no. 2 (August 1995). pp. 201-20.



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