Is democratic accountability obscured or improved by sub-national governance

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Democratic transparency refers to the degree to which people, political parties, and future partners can provide input and approve and award the governance (Kitschelt 2007). This essay would examine whether the effort of the partnership between government and people in decentralized governance will enhance democratic transparency. A sub-governance structure is an outcome of federalism in which a country is separated into states based on geographical and regional representation, with each state having its own governance. Some assumptions would be made to highlight the impact of democratic accountability on a sub-national governance system.
Firstly, the state is under an atmosphere of liberal democracy, where individuals in the country are constitutionally given a freedom of press, speech, and action to express their views without discrimination on his or her social status. Secondly, by the principle of liberal democracy, a government is established "of the people, by the people, and for the people," individuals have rights to participate in the governance in serval ways, which could be becoming a legislative council representative, an elected executive member or a voter. Thirdly, individuals are always motivated to monitor the quality of the delivery of service from the State, because they consented their rights to the political authority and empowered representatives in return of a democratic state with social security and welfare.

The dependent variable in this essay would be the extent of the diversity and efficiency of the channels that are more accountable towards the governance, while the independent variable would be the effect of a sub-national governance system. This essay will support the argument that a sub-national governance system could improve the democratic accountability in the dimension of “Horizontal-vertical accountability” (O'Donnell 1998) and "politic and social accountability," where the political accountabilities would distinct into vertical and horizontal accountability in this essay. Political accountability is contributing to one of the most significant elements in the democratic accountability because it is bound by a constitutional system and sanctioning the disposal. The first part of the essay will focus on the vertical accountability in the aspect of voter, politician, and relationship of state governments and the central government. The second part will focus on the horizontal accountability in the aspect of separation of power within the sub-nation and the inter-governmental competition.

Sub-national governance can improve vertical democratic accountability by increasing the policy focus of the people in a regional state. Vertical accountability can be interrupted as election system in a representative democracy. On the citizen level, election system allows citizens to evaluate the performance of the actors (Elected chief officer and legislative representative) whether they had implemented by or on behalf of his constituency (Ferejohn 1986; Woon 2012). A citizen can continuously vote a representative to reward his past performance or voting an opposite party if the current representative performed inefficiently or unable to fulfill his promise. However, the leverage ratio of one vote would be too high in a unitary system of government. Sub-national governance, nevertheless, could strengthen an individuals’ policy response and political preference because his vote will be significantly less diluted by mixing relative less number of vote. For example, Wales’s citizen can evaluate the governance (legislative and executive) action on the interests of Wales through the election without a dilution by the England voters who hold different values and expectations. Sub-national governance would more focus on the policy according to its macroeconomic factors, the local citizen's preference and demand on service delivery. A less development sub-national state may be preferred an infrastructure expansion approach policy while another sub-national state welfare approach with a focus on educational and health-care development. Hence, a sub-national approach could efficiently allocate resources and customise a policy to delivery to a particular region of citizens. Furthermore, a sub-national system significantly shifts the attention on the local issues rather than national issues (Fenwick 2015). For example, in Australia, states have plenary legislative power to legislate on any object, including health, criminal law, and education; meanwhile, the Commonwealth parliament only retains the control on the object which can unite sub-national states such as Currency, military defense, and regulations. When sub-national legislative representatives and political parties shift the focus from valence issues to substantive issues, it is believed to encourage politicians to maintain a close relationship with citizens in the sub-national to gain a higher reputation (Manin 1997). As a result, a sub-national governance would not only strengthen the voting power to express individuals order to improve the democratic vertical accountability on the state policy but also, catalyze the communication flow within politicians and citizens to bring more voice into the executive and legislative council.

However, federalism, to a smaller extent, is obscuring the democratic accountability in the relationship of state governments and central government. This counter-argument would regard to the nature of functional responsibilities, where expecting the central government provides national security while the sub-nation government provides service on some more local aspects, such as education and infrastructure development. For example, Section 51 of the Constitution of Australia has classified the “head of power’ for Commonwealth government and “Residual Power” for state governments. The accountability of state-level policy has been previously argued that could be improved because of a closer relationship between sub-national government and citizens. However, when the issue comes to a national level legislation in the Commonwealth parliament, sub-state governments will become agents to implantation the policy. When the president of the central government does not belong to the same party of the sub-national governor, there is a potential for a partisan blame (Brown 2010). Not only would the Central government and state government blame each other on an unsuccessful policy, but also, increase the difficulty for citizens and voters to assess who is accountable for the problem. Nonetheless, the disadvantage cannot be outweighed by bringing the implementation of policy closer to the individuals from a sub-national government which makes the feedback and response to the policy closer to citizens and government.

In a liberal democratic state, voting is not the only way to account the performance of state governance. On the level of politicians, actively participate in the legislative council and decision making could also help monitoring the democracy in the governance. Sub-national governance is believed that it can improve the feasibility of taking the variety of citizens’ voices to the legislative and overseeing the executive performance. When the current political parties could no longer representing demo’s voice, an emerging politician would step out and represent the voices (Jelmin 2011). Majority political party often focuses on the national-wide welfares as their organization object, and it would become too broad and general. Minority voices would then be more challenging to be brought into the council by majority parties because majority political parties dominate the election game by creating a barrier to entry. Majority parties may access a more substantial range of sponsors of funding and resources from commercials circles and experts. Meanwhile, individual politicians, and small emerging parties, which may not have as much as human and capital resource to support the economics of scale in running the canvassing campaign which is more likely to be vulnerable. A sub-national government is, nevertheless, breaking down the barriers to entry, because the system could eliminate the influence of resources competition across sub-nations. Minority parties can allocate their resources more focus on serving and canvassing their targeting segment within the sub-nation instead of targeting the national-wide population. Then, a reduction of venture startup cost under the sub-national governance would encourage the grassroots politicians to be established. It would increase the possibility for the grassroots minority to enter the congressional operation which means more perspective of voices could be brought into the debate inside the council of legislative. Therefore, a diversified in the sub-national state Senate could improve the democratic accountability because the government is no longer only report to the interests of majority parties.

Pluralism in the legislative power could further boost the effort of the separation of power between the executive and legislative which would enhance the horizontal accountability in politic towards the democratic government. Horizontal accountability refers to the balances between the government's institutions in the country which would mutually inspect to ensure no agency could over-ride the law and intrudes on the rights (Diamond et al. 1999). If the political game is only for majority political parties, the legislative council is likely to be interfering with the decision making in the executive authority as it facilitates the corporatism in the state governance because the State Chief Executive, Prime Minister or Premiers are very likely to have previous background in the legislative branch. For example, the chair of the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom has become the game within the Conservative Party and Labor Party since 1935; In USA, the mastership of Whitehouse keeps swapping between Democratic and Republican since 1868; Labor Party and Liberal Party have dominated the Premiers of Australian States. It is significantly showing that the majority political parties are governing the executive branch and legislative branch is believed to be likely to develop into a conflict of interests and shaken the independence of powers and, thus, weaken the accountability towards governance. Elected executive government may induce “pork barrel” policy which may benefit his host political party. However, in a state of federalism, pluralism in the legislative branch would be promoted as mentioned previously. The distribution of the seats in the legislative council would have been diluted by some minority politicians, which can weaken the force of majority parties in the congressional decision. The sub-national government would have to pay more consideration to the perspective of the minority party members to reduce the claims of pork barreling (Balla et al. 2002). Meanwhile, more minority political parties involving in the legislation can monitor the government and prevent the potential fraud in the governance by weakening the voting of major parties from passing any unfair and non-democratic policy and law. So, the democratic accountability would be improved under the sub-national government because it increases the independence of legislative power to overseeing the execution of governance on whether they are acting on the best interest to the people instead of self-benefiting.

The sub-national government could further enhance the democratic accountability through the horizontal inter-governmental competition between sub-nations. In a sub-national system, individuals can freely move from one state to another, and this would motivate the sub-national government to work the best interests for its citizens in the state and provide safeguard against poor service delivery and governance (Pincus 2008). Governments would compete to deliver a higher democratic service to their citizens and invest more qualified economic incentives to retain the businesses and individuals in the sub-nation. For example, if one state’s policy is continuously discouraging the atmosphere of fair trading, businesses will then relocate to other states. Consequently, the reduction of the contribution to the National Gross Domestic Product Index would reflect that their unpopulated political preference punished the legislation and governance in the state. Criticism may claim that there are moving costs in interchanging from one state to another. However, the sub-national system would be a sufficient indicator to predict the level of democratic accountability because it induces the net movement of the demographic trend from poorly performed state to a better one (Herscovitch 2010). Even though ic accountability cannot be guaranteed by horizontal intergovernmental competition cannot guarantee democratic accountability, it would not get worse than the unitary governmental system. At least individual can always move to a more democratic accountable state to avoid tyranny and individual could still compare which sub-nation is more accountable to his interests.

The sub-national governance does improve the democratic accountability. Although this system may potentially encourage the possible blame between the central government and states government, the contribution of developing democratic accountability is much more significant. Vertically, federalism increases the voting power to reflect their feedback to the governance and reducing the barrier for minority political parties enter the sub-national parliament to prevent the tyranny of the majority. Horizontally, sub-national governance strengthens the effort of separation of power and creates a competition between state governments that would further pressure the state government act in a more democratically accountable way.


Balla, S.J., Lawrence, E.D., Maltzman, F. and Sigelman, L. (2002) 'Partisanship, blame avoidance, and the distribution of legislative pork,' American Journal of Political Science, 46(3), pp. 515-525.

Brown, A.R., 2010. Are Governors Responsible for the State Economy? Partisanship, Blame and Divided Federalism. The Journal of Politics, 72(3), pp.605–615.

Diamond, L.J., Plattner, M.F. and Schedler, A. 1999. The self-restraining state: power and accountability in new democracies. Boulder, Colo.: Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Donnell, G. (1998) 'Horizontal accountability in new democracies,' J. Democr., 9(3), pp. 112-126.

Fenwick, J. (2015) 'The problem of sub-national governance in England,' Public Money & Management, 35(1), pp. 7-14.

Ferejohn, J. (1986) 'Incumbent performance and electoral control', Public Choice, 50(1-3), pp. 5-25.

Herscovitch, B. (2010) 'Democratic accountability and the Australian federal system of government [With better design, federalism can still bring government closer to voters.]', Policy: A Journal of Public Policy and Ideas, 26(1), pp. 36-39.

Jelmin, K. 2011. Democratic Accountability in Service Delivery (A Synthesis of Case Studies). International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Kitschelt, H. and Wilkinson, S. 2007. Patrons, clients, and policies: patterns of democratic accountability and political competition. Cambridge: Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Manin, B. 1997. The principles of representative government. In: ProQuest (ed.). Cambridge; New York: Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Pincus, J. (2008) 'In Defence of the Status Quo', Where To For Australian Federalism?

Woon, J. (2012) 'Democratic Accountability and Retrospective Voting: A Laboratory Experiment', Am. J. Polit. Sci., 56(4), pp. 913-930.

August 09, 2021

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