Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Raquel Gallego and Joan Subirats (UAB)


In most OECD countries, and in many other countries, there is an emerging debate about the impact of decentralization on equality. The research described here tries to gauge the extent to which political decentralization in Spain may have led to greater inequality among citizens, and also analyzes the diversity in the field of social policies in the state’s seventeen autonomous regions. The study's findings, based upon the analysis of policies and figures over the thirty years since the establishment of this State of Autonomous Communities, clearly suggest that there is a common set of principles, values, benefits and services among all. However, there is also an increasingly apparent periphery in which there are differences between regions regarding certain benefits and the existence or absence of some services.


Is decentralization always a positive thing? Those who believe so argue that the closer the public authorities with decision-making power are to the people, the better the policies can be adapted to the specific needs of the territory. The fact that different regions compare their social policies and “compete" in this area is also regarded positively, as it can generate benchmarking, learning and incentives for the general improvement of public policies. From another perspective, however, decentralization can jeopardize equality around the state, because there may be a tendency for policies to draw apart in different territories, which could end up generating increased inequality among citizens. On the other hand, this debate is part of a larger process of reconsidering welfare policies themselves, and their limits and possible inadequacies in relation to new productive, social and family realities.


What has happened in Spain? It is clear that the process of political and administrative decentralization that began in Spain with the transition to democracy in the late seventies has had a historically unprecedented breadth and intensity. Spain has undergone a change from a very centralized state to one of the most decentralized in Europe, in this way seeking to ease the historical political tension between the center and peripheral nationalism. In fact, in just thirty years the Spanish regions or autonomous communities have gone from non-existence to managing more than a third of state spending (due to the heavy weight carried by health care, education and social services in the budget), managing more than a million and a half public employees (including a large presence of health care workers and teaching staff) and having passed and trying to enforce more than three thousand regional laws. All this from institutions led by two hundred autonomous presidents and counselors, and by more than a thousand members of regional parliaments. And they also co-exist with a strong tradition of local government, represented by more than 8,000 town councils and dozens of provincial councils spread throughout the Spanish state.


The autonomous communities have been making decisions in the context of the persistence of regional differences related to certain characteristics of the population, such as structure by age group and aspects related to the relative degree of urbanization or ruralness, and there has even been the intensification of differences regarding new phenomena like immigration and new social habits. Nevertheless, the trend is towards convergence in economic development in some cases, or convergence with respect to the per capita availability and spending of public resources on welfare policies, although there is not a positive correlation between these two aspects.


General data indicate that differences in the level of welfare have been reduced, but at the same time, the perception of citizens in the respective regions is that many of the differences that pre-existed the creation of the autonomous communities still remain, even though there is recognition that there has been a general improvement in welfare policies overall. While the evidence suggests there is convergence, people perceive difference. Above all, people fear a possible deepening of these differences due to the dynamic of bilateral negotiation between central government and regional governments. All this suggests that the issue of decentralized welfare policy-making will continue to be debated in the coming years in Spain. Our research shows, for the moment, that the social value of equality has not been affected by the desire to respect diversity, both values being present in the constitutional foundation of the Spanish democratic state. In future, continued analysis is needed regarding whether or not the process of convergence in the basic aspects of social policies that were analyzed leads to a dynamic of emulation and learning between regions.


The study was conducted by a research team of the Institute of Government and Public Policy at the UAB, coordinated by Joan Subirats and Raquel Gallego and having the following members: Joseph Head, Miguel Angel Alegre, Eva Alfama, Paul Barberà, Xenia, Chela, Marina Couchman Julio Couto, Marta Cruells, Sheila Gonzalez, Mariela Iglesias, Gabriela Monteiro, and Clara Riba.


The book Descentralització i desigualtat en l’estat de benestar: Evolució sòcio-estructural, percepcions i polítiques autonòmiques (Raquel Gallego and Joan Subirats, eds., Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis Autonòmics) is being funded by the Institut d’Estudis Autonòmics of the Generalitat de Catalunya, and is expected near the end of 2010.