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Mayors may be agile but don't forget representation and pluralism

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LSE research fellow Nuno Ferreira da Cruz answers questions about LSE Cities’ research into the mayoral model worldwide.

What drives the popularity of the mayoral model of governance?

Our survey found that the mayoral model of governance to be the most common across the globe. Most cities have mayors, but their actual powers and responsibilities vary greatly. As we have no empirical data on the “why”, so must rely on the usual theoretical arguments supporting strong, democratic, and accountable local government.

The subsidiarity principle – the idea that by being closer to citizens local institutions are more responsive and accountable to them – has been the basis of decentralisation and devolution throughout the world.

If we focus on the case for “strong mayors”, to a large extent, centralising executive power on a single person or office has to do with responsiveness.

A powerful mayor with great administrative authority can allow for more agile local government but on the other hand, representation, pluralism, equity and voice should not be played down in the name of effectiveness. This makes the scrutiny and oversight of legislative and deliberative local bodies crucial.


What powers are mayoral models most likely to take on?

Substantial differences in urban governance exist across different cities in relation to the distribution of different political powers. While some policy sectors are exposed to greater political powers at the urban level, others are more centralised at the level of state or national governments.

Our survey show that city-level governments take greater responsibility for spatial planning, culture, utilities and transport but are far less involved with other policy sectors, such as health and education. Both highway infrastructure and operations and rail-based transport are the most centralised transport sub-sectors, mainly led by national government.


Why has the transfer of health been rejected by other countries?

We can hardly talk about rejection regarding the transfer of health or any sector for that matter. No subnational governments around the world would oppose more devolution or decentralisation if – and only if – the fiscal powers or other type of revenue guarantees are also transferred with the new competences and responsibilities.

Central governments, on the other hand, might have concerns over geographical equity and cross-subsidisation and the resilience and stability of the services. Certain sectors are traditionally not devolved because of these concerns and also due to economies of scale. These may be overcome if the cities reach a certain size. Furthermore, for health, as for other sectors, one must also consider the potential spillover effects. Decisions made at the city level may have broader regional, national and even international impacts.

More power over more sectors would allow cities to better adapt to the local conditions and to better control their own destiny. But central governments have to consider the whole population.


Nuno Ferreira da Cruz is a research fellow at LSE Cities

Responses are based on The Global Survey on Urban Governance, undertaken by LSE Cities in partnership with UN Habitat and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and supported by the MacArthur Foundation.

Picture credit: Catarina Heeckt

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