From centralised management to regional management of the pandemic: challenges and opportunities

EsadeEcPol | Policy Insight

By EsadeEcPol

Author: Sandra León, PhD in political science and senior researcher in the Social Science Department (Universidad Carlos III, Madrid)

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Executive summary

  • Coordinating the response to the Covid-19 pandemic involves a dilemma between centralisation (preventing measures taken in some regions having a negative impact on others) and decentralisation (adapting measures to the needs of each region).
  • Spain’s centralised response has enabled the alignment of criteria but it has also brought coordination problems, causing cracks in the modus operandi of Spain's model of autonomous regions, the distribution of responsibilities and the accountability of the autonomous regional governments.
  • As the autonomous regions move into phase 3 and the state of emergency comes to an end, they regain initiative about the management of the crisis. There are four principles to ensure that decisions regarding the return to normality are implemented at the right pace:
    1. Regional governments will need to comply with health safeguards prevailing in public opinion.
    2. Once they regain initiative, citizens will be able to evaluate their management more clearly: it may be more costly for a regional government to implement measures too soon and then have to reverse them.
    3. To reduce the likelihood of government decisions being co-opted by a stakeholder, the proposals and demands made by civil society upon the government must be channelled via multilateral forums based on the principle of transparency.
    4. In addition to experts in infectious diseases, governments must include economists and sociologists in their analysis and monitoring cabinets because this will enable them to have a more global, balanced vision of the impact of the measures implemented in spheres such as the economy or education.
  • A regional approach also brings two opportunities:
    1. Regions can become laboratories for experiments and learning, particularly regarding the regulation of two sectors for which Spain’s central government had, until now, issued few directives: tourism and the education system. This could create a common pool of good practices as part of the efforts to contain the epidemic, and this pool of knowledge must be cultivated, expanded and shared amongst the entities of intergovernmental cooperation.
    2. The autonomy of each regional government regarding the decentralised management of the epidemic and its fallout must tally with bolstering vertical cooperation mechanisms (between autonomous regions and local governments and central government) and horizontal cooperation mechanisms (with the other autonomous regions).

A difficult balance

The coronavirus crisis has involved the great challenge of coordination between central government and regional governments in decentralised countries like Spain. The obstacles to effective cooperation between the different levels pose a question about the level of public policy management in general and the level of the threat to health in particular: What is the ideal distribution of competences for policy design and implementation?

The answer must maximise two types of benefits: those stemming from centralised coordination and those stemming from decentralised management.

On the one hand, a centralised coordination mechanism prevents measures implemented in certain regions having a negative impact on others and, therefore, increasing the collective risk. This dilemma is typical of collection action: all governments benefit from better global control of the pandemic but individually, they each prefer to regulate the lockdown of their economy or the restriction of movement according to the health risk in their region. Consequently, in the absence of coordination regulations about including negative external impacts in measures to combat the pandemic, the collective response will deviate from the epidemiological ideal.

Congreso Diputados Covid-19
The coronavirus crisis has involved the great challenge of coordination between central government and regional governments (Photo: congreso.es)

On the other hand, the excessive centralisation of pandemic management comes at a cost. A centralised, standardised decision imposes a maximum common denominator on restrictions to the economy and freedom of movement. When the impact of the epidemic varies considerably between regions, the measures implemented may cause a disproportionate economic lockdown in some regions. In addition, decentralisation enables regions to experiment with their response to the virus and thus contribute to faster collective learning about the most effective measures for combating the epidemic or adapting services to the health risk (such as re-opening schools).

Decentralisation enables regions to experiment with their response to the virus

In the coming days, the balance of pandemic management in Spain will shift from a centralised scenario to one in which regional governments have greater freedom to set the pace of returning to normal. Until now, decisions about confinement and the early stages of lockdown easing have been centralised. Once the autonomous regions enter phase 3, their governments will have the last word. Now that the autonomous regions are involved again in the management of this crisis, it is necessary to check the shortcomings that have been seen in recent weeks, the impact of centralised management on the regional model, and the key factors to ensure that the new distribution of responsibilities maximises the benefits of decentralised management and minimises the potential costs.

Coronavirus lessons learnt by Spain’s autonomous regions

The coronavirus crisis and the ensuing coordination difficulties at all levels have revealed certain shortcomings in how the Spanish State of autonomous regions operates including, but not limited to:

  1. The difficulties faced by the health ministry when coordinating health-related tasks assigned to the central government by Spain’s constitution. The division of this ministry with the arrival of the coalition government aggravated the shortage of technical and human resources that this ministry has been suffering since the cutback period. The ministry’s incapacity was showcased by the gathering of comparable data from the autonomous regions about the health impact of the pandemic.
  2. The need for coordination is being felt in a system held back by intergovernmental relations at the foremost political level, represented by the Conference of Presidents. This is not only due to the extent of political confrontation between the Government and the opposition but also a simple lack of practice: the conference has only been convened twice in the last decade, so when the pandemic broke out an opportunity to institutionalise this event and bolster this mechanism to survive the vicissitudes of the political cycle was missed.
  3. The outdated funding mechanism for autonomous regions, pending reform since 2014, caused problems between Spain’s autonomous regions regarding the distribution of funds intended to combat the epidemic. The grievances stemming from the outdated system caused disagreements about the distribution of transfers because some regional governments tried to make the distribution offset imbalances in the finance system’s funding per inhabitant. The Region of Valencia, for example, criticised Spain’s central government for not taking its insufficient funding into account when allocating the new resources.
  4. The autonomous regions have not been involved in the main legislation implemented to combat the epidemic and its impact. This is not unusual because in Spain’s model of autonomous regions, regional governments do not participate much in nationwide legislation (due to the structure and legislative role of the Senate). However, the pandemic has highlighted this lack of involvement because of regional governments’ limited capacity to make their mark on the legislative framework which will delimit the exercise of their competences.

Table 1. Lessons learnt from the coronavirus about the autonomous region model

Area Problem
Ministry of Health Lack of technical and human resources for coordination tasks.
Conference of Presidents This conference has only been convened twice in the last decade. Its institutionalisation depends on the political cycle, and this weakens intergovernmental coordination at the highest political level.
Funding of autonomous regions The current model has not been revised since 2014. This causes problems about the distribution of funds to combat Covid-19.
Participation of autonomous regions in nationwide legislation Autonomous regions are not involved in parliamentary decisions about legislation that affects them.

State of emergency and the functioning of autonomous regions

Centralised management during the state of emergency has stripped the autonomous regions of responsibility due to the imbalance between the competences assigned to them – public health, healthcare and social services – and their limited involvement in the design of policies to combat the epidemic. Indeed, most citizens think that the main level of government responsible for dealing with the coronavirus in their region is the central government.

Figure 1. Most people think that the central government is (and should be) responsible for handling the coronavirus crisis in their autonomous region

Chart 1 EsadeEcPol
Source: Sandra León & Amuitz Garmendia. Popular reactions to external threats in federations, SocArXiv (2020)

The highly visible role assumed by the central government has suspended the accountability of regional governments. Despite being the main entities responsible for public health and healthcare and social services in their regions, the appreciation of each autonomous government’s strengths and weaknesses in these areas has been relegated to the background.

Another impact of the centralisation of power in recent months is that intergovernmental relations have become more vertical and hierarchical. The prevailing dynamics have transformed regional governments into passive rather than active agents destined to receive instructions from the central government or apply to the ministry of health to move into the next phase. This imbalance has complicated co-governance between different levels of government, and making the central government responsible for the pace of lockdown easing has encouraged regional governments to be exempted of their responsibilities.

Making the central government responsible for the pace of lockdown easing has encouraged regional governments to be exempted of their responsibilities

Finally, this centralisation has eroded the institutional co-existence needed in order to re-establish intergovernmental relations during the new normal. The state of emergency may have encouraged the idea that the model of autonomous regions can be switched on and off in times of crisis according to the circumstances. When intergovernmental cooperation mechanisms have no bearing on how the epidemic is managed and the powers of autonomous regions are suspended, then loyalty and trust between governments suffer. This affects the foundations that must underpin such cooperation when these exceptional circumstances end and relations between autonomous governments and central government are once again conducted by the collaboration entities that characterise Spain’s model of autonomous regions (bilateral committees, intergovernmental councils, etc).

Table 2. Impact of state of emergency on Spain’s model of autonomous regions

State of emergency Impact
Centralisation of power in the central government. Suspension of accountability of autonomous regions.
Relations between governments more hierarchical and vertical. Autonomous regions relieved of responsibilities.
Limited co-government. Regional autonomy suspended. Erosion of loyalty and trust that intergovernmental cooperation is based on.

Proposals for management by regional governments in the new normal

The main issue about a new scenario in which regional governments regain responsibility for handling the health crisis and the ensuing economic fallout in their regions is how to ensure that the measures taken during the new normal to ease the lockdown are taken at the right pace (not too quickly, which would increase the risk of spreading the disease, but not too slowly, which would hinder economic recovery).

One of the main challenges is to prevent decentralised decisions lifting the lockdown too quickly because this would increase the collective health risk. There are, however, four principles that can redress this imbalance:

1. Preference for health

One factor that can help reduce the risk of easing the lockdown too quickly is the preference of public opinion for health safeguards. In the early weeks of confinement, citizens gave greater priority to virus contention than economic recovery. This may have changed as the weeks went by but the tendency was too pronounced for citizens’ preferences to put pressure on regional governments to relax the conditions governing the new normal.

Figure 2. As regards the easing of the coronavirus lockdown versus economic recovery, where do you stand? [1]

Salida confinamiento
Source: Sandra León & Amuitz Garmendia. Popular reactions to external threats in federations, SocArXiv (2020)

2. Accountability

The return of decision-taking about epidemic management to regional governments will give their actions greater visibility and make them more clearly subject to the appraisal of voters. In this respect, it may be more costly for a regional government to implement measures too soon and then have to reverse them, than to implement them more gradually whilst ensuring they will be permanent.

This entails a paradox: the more the central government controls the new normal to prevent regional regulations being too lax, the greater the likelihood of regional governments wanting to get involved in these policies. In this landscape, regional governments can justify more lax (and more popular) policies to their citizens in the hope that any bad news (such as the non-compliance of such policies with the health safeguards set forth in and governed by a royal decree) would be announced by the central government.

3. Multilateral/bilateral relations

Decisions taken by regional governments about the lockdown easing and regulations governing the new normal will be subject to various sorts of pressure from representatives of civil society. To reduce the likelihood of these decisions being co-opted by a stakeholder, the proposals and demands made by civil society upon the government must be channelled via multilateral forums based on the principle of transparency.

4. Interdisciplinarity

Plurality is also applicable to the profiles of the experts who advise the government. In addition to experts in infectious diseases, governments must include economists and sociologists in their analysis and monitoring cabinets because this will enable them to have a more global, balanced vision of the impact of the measures implemented in spheres such as the economy or education, besides how they affect the control of the epidemic.


As regards the benefits of decentralised management, the lack of knowledge about the virus and the lack of experience about which measures can ensure a better balance between lockdown easing and containing the health risk all transform experiments and lessons about what works and what is not essential into an activity that can be carried out better within a decentralised framework.

  • Experimental and learning labs. In order to reap the benefits of decentralised epidemic management, the autonomous regions must be in charge. To do so, they must boost horizontal relations by encouraging meetings between regional governments to discuss good practices, i.e. what does and does not work regarding the spread of the virus and lockdown easing measures. This will enable different regions to become laboratories for experiments and learning, particularly in two sectors that the central government has issued few directives about so far: tourism and the education system. This would enable the autonomous regions to retrieve the leadership lost during the management of the crisis and would accelerate collective knowledge about which measures are the most successful by conducting more trial and error tests throughout the region.
  • More cooperation. In any case, the autonomy of each regional government regarding the decentralised management of the crisis and its fallout must be compatible with bolstering cooperation mechanisms at all levels: both vertically (between local governments and central government) and horizontally (with the other autonomous regions).

    Cooperation entities must run more smoothly by creating Covid-19-specific sub-committees, within intergovernmental councils, to exchange information and constantly monitor the evolution of the epidemic’s impact on different sectors (particularly education and social services) and the measures implemented in different regions to combat them.

    The regional parliaments must not be excluded from the discussions in said entities, as they are at present, and they must demand that the agreements made and the information shared by the entities of intergovernmental cooperation are monitored.
  • Pool of good practices. Decentralised management must not be regarded as a fragmentation of separate decisions. The progress and setbacks of each regional government must be made available in a pool of good practices as part of the efforts to contain the epidemic, and this pool of knowledge must be cultivated, expanded and shared amongst the entities of intergovernmental cooperation.

Notes

[1]   León, S. & Garmendia, A. Popular reactions to external threats in federationsSocArXiv, May 30, doi:10.31235/osf.io/qyjtm (2020)

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