Devolution in Chile

Editor's note:

An abridged version of this blog appeared in La Tercera on March 31, 2017

Like the United Kingdom, Chile is moving to devolve power from its central government down to its cities and regions. This international trend toward more local control reflects the recognition that cities and their environs are not only the engines of national economies but are increasingly the centers of problem solving around the world. 

The formal process toward devolution in Chile began in December 2016 when President Michelle Bachelet signed the Governors Election Law, a constitutional change that for the first time allows for the democratic election of governors in each of the country’s 15 regions. The government is hoping to hold the elections in November 2017, but there is a catch: implementation of the governors law requires that Congress first approve the Devolution Law, which specifies the powers that will be transferred to each region.

Passage of the Devolution Law will be no easy feat. It has been under discussion in Congress since 2005, and is currently hung up on the determination of the “competencies” the regional governments must possess before power is handed to them. The competencies cover things like territorial organization, promotion of productive activities, and social and cultural development. 

But the requirement to come up with competencies before there are actual tasks to be accomplished or laws to be passed puts the cart before the horse. To move forward, Congress should invert the process: first determine the challenges that cities and regions are best situated to address, define the results expected, and only then determine the competencies needed to empower governors to solve the problems. This approach would not only simplify the devolution process, but it would also help everyone understand and appreciate what devolution means and what it can accomplish.

Some good examples of concrete problems to which regional governments and their metropolitan areas are best equipped to respond are transport, pollution, and urban segregation. These problems can be tackled neither at the very local level, given the limited scale of such places, or at the national level, given the central government’s lack of flexibility to adjust to the distinctive challenges of separate territories and its lack of capacity to ensure coordination among local governments.

In the case of transport, the lack of a metropolitan view generates significant inefficiencies and leads to irrational decisions, illustrated by cases in which municipalities design bike lanes that fail to connect to other municipalities in the same metro area. In the case of pollution, specifically garbage collection, a policy that aims to promote trash reduction or recycling must work at the regional level to have a real impact.

In the case of urban segregation, vision and planning at the metropolitan scale are keys to ensuring that the location of subsidized housing is balanced within in a territory. The lack of such planning has generated extreme urban segregation. Currently, Chile’s national housing policy allocates subsidies by region without paying particular attention to where these subsidies are distributed. Thus, in some Chilean municipalities, such as Padre Las Casas in Temuco and Alto Hospicio in Iquique, 80 percent or more of residential units are subsidized, a level completely out of proportion to other municipalities in the same metro area.

Identifying a set of specific problems for which the metropolitan scale has real leverage to generate solutions would help to unlock the discussion in Congress about the transfer of competencies to regions. In that way, not only will a 12-year debate advance to a resolution, but real problems like transportation, pollution, and segregation may meet their match at the hands of capable and imaginative local leaders who have been waiting for decades in the wings.