Local government/administration

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Local government is commonly defined as the lowest tier of public administration within a given state. In unitary states, local government usually comprises the second or third tier of government, whereas in federal states, it is constituted as the third or sometimes fourth tier of government. Local government aims at bringing government to the grass-roots and enabling the citizens to participate effectively in the making of decisions affecting their daily lives. As the level closest to the citizens, local government is in a much better position than central government to deal with matters that require local knowledge and regulation on the basis of local needs and priorities.

The organization and functioning of local government considerably vary between countries. Different names are used for local government entities in different countries (county, prefecture, district, city, town, borough, parish, municipality, village, etc.). Local governments exist geographically both in urban and rural settings.

Local governments possess certain powers conferred upon them by legislation or directives of the higher levels of government. These powers consist, in substance, in regulating and managing certain public affairs and delivering certain public services. The extent of powers of local government should always be analyzed in the context of relations between local authorities and central government or regional authorities (in federal states). One of the important features of local government is that it has a specific, subordinate regulatory power for the exercise of its functions which is, however, subject to compliance with the law.

Although in some countries “local government” and “local self-government” are used interchangeably, given the fact that local government has different forms in different countries these two concepts should be differentiated. Local public administration can be exercised not only by local self-government entities (e.g. municipalities), but also by local units of state administration; the former are directly elected by the local population and enjoy wide-ranging autonomy, whereas the latter act as agents of the higher authorities and their officials are appointed by and responsible to those authorities. Local self-government is based on the principle of decentralization, and local state administration is based on the principle of deconcentration.

The degree of self-government enjoyed by local authorities can be regarded as a key element of genuine democracy. In this regard, political, fiscal and administrative decentralization is essential for localizing democracy and human rights. It should be borne in mind that democracy is not possible without respect for human rights and no human rights can be achieved without democracy.

The role of local authorities should not be limited to mere executors of decisions taken and policies developed without them. On the other hand, local independence should have certain limits clearly prescribed by law, and mechanisms may be available for supervising the legality of local authorities’ activities.

To ensure effective local governance and adequate implementation of human rights at the local level, it is important to have a proper legal framework for local government. The organization, powers and functions should be clearly prescribed by law. Further, national legislation should delineate clearly the responsibilities and powers of central and local government authorities in relation to one another.

Local government should preferably be recognized in the national Constitution; indeed in a number of countries, the constitutions specifically protect local government autonomy. It should be underlined that the constitutional protection provides the greatest guarantee of stability. A specific law on local government passed by national parliament is the next best solution in this regard. In a few countries, legal safeguards are in place to maintain the stability of laws governing local government. In Hungary, for example, Law on Local Authorities can be adopted or amended only by a two-thirds majority of the parliamentarians present. The same applies to any legislation restricting the rights associated with local self-government.

It is noteworthy that the principles of subsidiarity, decentralization and accountability are explicitly envisaged in a number of countries as main principles of local government. Furthermore, the respective laws provide for the right of local authorities to have recourse to a judicial remedy in order to ensure respect for such principles.[1]


[1] UN Human Rights Council, Advisory Committee, “Preliminary research-based report on local government and human rights,” A/HRC/AC/13/CRP.4, 11 August 2014, paras. 6–14.