Balancing centralized, joint management in local governance

By ZHAO JUJUN / 04-20-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Train staffers hand out recruitment materials to passengers on a train from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, to Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, on Feb. 6. Photo: CNSphoto

Since the fourth round of institutional reform in 1998, a functional logic, which aims to optimize the allocation of government responsibilities and transform government functions, began to replace an organizational logic, which aimed to rationalize and establish organization, and became the basic guiding logic of the reform. Institutional reforms in 2019 and 2023, in particular, have comprehensively optimized construction of a coordinated responsibility system between the Party and the government, and greatly alleviated long-standing institutional shortcomings such as “policy conflicts” and the “Nine-dragon-water-governing” effect, a metaphor from Chinese mythology where nine dragons struggle over control of a waterway, leading to confusion, inefficiency, chaotic inconsistencies in authority and power, and finally a dysfunctional system.

Centralized vs. joint management

In recent years, as an extension of reform in central government institutions, local governments have accelerated the process of institutional reform in line with the idea that “in principle, a single department should be responsible for a single matter.” Although this reform has been effective, in real life, there still seem to be a large number of issues that need to be “coordinated and managed” by multiple departments. Typical regulation issues such as business environments, online car hailing, support for childbirth, etc., and even issues with clear responsibilities such as air pollution prevention and control, are also in a state of “campaign-style governance” in which multiple departments work together. This is not only the nature of public affairs, but also due to the current characteristics and behaviors of local government. This is a fundamental issue that needs to be clarified before promoting institutional reform and continuously optimizing the allocation of local responsibilities.

Not all public services can be cleanly classified and assigned to the jurisdiction of a specialized department. Given the cross-department nature of some public affairs, it is difficult to manage them separately. However, most public affairs have a relatively clear scope and boundary. Therefore, it is necessary to promote institutional integration in accordance with the idea that “a single department should be responsible for a single matter,” so that “whoever is responsible will take the blame.” 

However, while most public services have clear boundaries, some highly complex and ambiguous matters cannot be fully handled by one or two departments. For example, at present, local governments are promoting high-quality development as a core measure to implement the spirit of the 20th CPC National Congress. High-quality development involves all aspects of society as a systematic and comprehensive project, which can hardly be the sole responsibility of one department. That said, it also does not mean that there should be a “High-Quality Development Bureau” arrangement to make sure relevant policies are implemented effectively. 

Joint management has merits

A robust business environment is an important guarantee for high-quality development, which is actively pursued by local governments. However, building a thriving business environment can involve many functional departments and test the overall governance capacity of local governments, so it is not appropriate for a specific department to assume the primary responsibility. 

Therefore, in order to demonstrate the determination to build a better business environment, it is more reasonable for local governments to set up a consultation and coordination body similar to the “Business Environment Construction Office,” which is led by chief local officials and includes departments that have major responsibilities in this regard, such as the National Development and Reform Commission or the Bureau of Administrative Examination and Approval. These offices and bureaus already have dual responsibilities and coordinated titles. Currently, it is under debate whether some places have adequate resources in place or if they should set up newly established, special, top-down “business environment” regulation departments.

Compared with traditional public affairs such as commerce regulation, the supervision of these new environments often results in “joint management” by multiple departments before the nature and the emerging development pattern can be clarified. A good example is digital governance. 

In March, China established a national data bureau, responsible for advancing the development of data-related institutions, through coordinated integration, sharing, development, and application of data resources. This bureau drives the planning and construction of a Digital China, the digital economy, and a digital society. The bureau will take over certain functions from the Office of the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission and the National Development and Reform Commission.

In recent years, many local governments established a range of full-time data management departments prior to the central government reform. However, unlike the central government, which mainly focuses on macro-control, data management at provincial and prefecture-level governments should focus on promoting the development of the digital economy and increasing joint data sharing within a region. In particular, they should build and maintain unified local government information platforms at the provincial or prefecture level to encourage high-quality data sharing, data security, and an orderly data flow. Meanwhile, other functional departments need to upload and update data as required. Without the cooperation of these departments, it will be difficult to break through data barriers and truly realize “one-network operation” and “one-network supervision.” 

Without coordination from local leaders, data management departments alone lack sufficient authority to conduct their work. For example, in a certain city, a full-time data department was established, but operations weren’t smooth. Once the municipal Party secretary urged all departments to turn over their data, the barrier was finally overcome.

Centralized management is not easy

A common difficulty local governments face, with their relatively limited administrative resources and manpower, is the obstacle of centralizing the management of specialized departments. Under the current “isomorphic responsibility” governmental system, there is a high degree of unity and similarity in governmental functions, responsibilities, and set-ups, even at different levels of government in China. However, although there are separate units, urgent work often creates a “whole team in” approach on the ground. As a result, centralized management meant to channel to specialized departments is still carried out in a concerted manner.

As the macro-policy environment and national focus shifts, so does the local focus on what qualifies as “important work.” When a certain issue is defined as essential within a specified period, since the responsible department normally has relatively limited personnel and capacity for resource mobilization, the local government will often tackle the task as one unit. This is particularly evident in poverty alleviation work. From the perspective of centralized management by specialized departments, poverty alleviation work should fall under the jurisdiction of the Poverty Alleviation Office at all levels, but as the task must be completed within a limited time, local governments cannot afford to overburden one department. Therefore, the local poverty alleviation work is generally carried out in tandem, with participation from all departments and on all levels in “campaign-centered” governance. With high-scale participation, it is difficult to realize the basic goal of centralized management, or “one line of responsibility and one line of accountability.”  

Similarly, the central government plans to build more civilized and more sustainable cities and awards a National Civilized City Award (NCCA) to municipalities that meet the standards. To obtain the title of NCCA, local governments recruit all departments and adopt “campaign-centered” governance in practice. 

Complexity is also an obstacle in the implementation of centralized management by specialized departments. As public affairs are complex and the external environment is always changing, creating a unified and clear system delineating local responsibilities is inevitably an iterative process. Over time, the tasks which can be channeled to centralized management by specialized departments becomes clear. 

A typical example is the government work on carbon dioxide peaking and carbon neutrality. In recent years, the importance of environmental protection has been highlighted, and the responsibilities of environmental protection departments have been greatly expanded, prompting a management system to take initial shape. As an important environmental responsibility, “dual carbon” work seems to be more suitable for the environmental protection department to handle alone. After the institutional reform in 2018, “dual carbon” was transferred from the Development and Reform Department to the Environmental Protection Department. However, since 2021, “dual carbon” work in many places has quietly returned to the management system from 2018, with joint management and overall coordination among Development and Reform Department and participation from multiple departments. 

As one local official put it, “to promote high-quality development, dual carbon work should be integrated with local economic development, but environmental protection departments usually do not integrate and are not good at taking a holistic approach. Therefore, it is better to coordinate different departments around the core leadership of the development and reform department.”

Horizontal competition among local functional departments also takes a toll on the centralized management of specialized departments. Horizontal competition exists not only at the local government level, but also among various functional departments. In practice, it might seem as though certain work should be allocated to a specific functional department, but other non-responsible departments might also participate while submitting a “preemptive statement/document” to record their share of participation, which is a de facto state of joint management.

This phenomenon was clearly seen in 2020 when China resumed work and production and again more recently when rolling out the supportive birth policy. With broad participation from multiple departments, the resumption of work and production should have been the responsibility of the ministries of commerce, industry, and information technology, but has in fact become the work of all local departments on all levels. Similarly, with the continuous introduction of supportive childbirth policies, the national policy of increasing birthrates also employed a concerted management strategy. Undeniably, the policy of increasing birthrates should be “centrally managed” by the commissions of health and family planning, but it is a systematic project instead. Only with active cooperation from the departments of finance, education, human resources, housing, and others, could it achieve effective results. Therefore, it is indeed necessary for all departments to “jointly manage.”

In summary, the principle that “a single department should be responsible for a single matter” is undoubtedly the key to reform of local institutions and an optimal local responsibility system. However, in the process of reform, we should also strive to break through the constraints of “isomorphic responsibility,” to fully consider differences in the vertical allocation of responsibilities, and balance specialized and joint management based on different types of public affairs and local realities. Only by appropriately encouraging local authorities to promote institutional reform in line with local conditions, can the design of responsibility systems be constantly optimized.

Zhao Jujun is a professor from the Zhou Enlai School of Government at Nankai University.

Edited by YANG XUE