Autonomous development of the regions: goal or chimera?

In the last two decades, the idea has been forged in public opinion that centralism is an obstacle to Chile’s development. As is logical, this has been permeating the political class, especially during electoral periods, and it is common for presidential candidates of different doctrinal signs to commit to advancing in terms of decentralization, promising greater degrees of administrative autonomy to the regions.

The second government of Michelle Bachelet was quite active in this area, managing to approve the constitutional reform and laws that allowed the election of regional governors and the beginning of the process of transfer of powers. Boric’s government has promised to deepen and accelerate the country’s decentralization and has recently begun a process of transferring powers in a key area for regional development, such as productive development, through the generation of regional decision-making governance. .

For its part, the constitutional proposal, rejected on September 4, 2022, went much further by proposing a Regional State and consecrating the existence of autonomous territorial entities in political, administrative and financial terms.

In such a way that, to a greater or lesser degree, decentralization in Chile today appears as a new mental model in public opinion that floods political discourses and narratives. Although this cultural change is essential to advance in the decentralization of the country, it risks enormous disappointment and a centralist reaction in the coming years if it is not accompanied by an urgent, persistent and significant strengthening of the capacities of regional governments. And this is not happening today.

Because, in contrast to the decentralizing “mantra”, there is a real policy model (“the machine or the mechanism”), which does not accompany or lead to the promise of regional autonomy. This set of entrenched institutional practices prevents the will of the new national government from materializing in that direction.

Nobel Laureate in Economics Amartya Sen has made an invaluable contribution to renewing the concept of development by understanding it as freedom. In such a way that the real autonomy of people depends on an expansion of their capacities. The same thing happens with the regions.

For this reason, the Presidential Advisory Commission on Decentralization and Regional Development maintained that the success of political, administrative, and financial decentralization depended largely on strengthening the capacities of governments and regional development agents (in addition to their participation in regional governance). .

The new regional governors have inherited an operating mechanism adapted to the needs of centralism and dominated by the same technocracy and national bureaucracy for decades. Therefore, with these “stubborn monkeys” it is not possible to expect new results when the ways of operating are the same.

This means that success in the task of designing public policies specific to each region depends on the capacity of each regional government to implement, monitor and evaluate them, not just design them. And this requires institutional changes that ensure an appropriate critical mass permanently installed in the territory.

A concrete example is the Regional Development and Innovation Strategies, which should guide regional public investment decisions. Believing that the problem is their good design, including broad citizen participation and the hiring of renowned consultants, is not understanding the nature of the territorial planning process. Or simply “pretend”, that is, comply with a legal obligation and show the public that they have been called to participate, not knowing how it will be executed.

If regional governments do not possess the critical mass devoted to the ongoing role of implementing and coordinating these planning instruments, they end up losing their purpose and legitimacy, and gaining dust on public shelves. In fact, the Chilean experience shows that those beautiful and colorful reports of Strategies have little or nothing to do with the real decisions of public investment in the region and that they barely serve to rudimentarily qualify as “pertinent” the projects that seek regional financing (normally almost every). A study on the Atacama Regional Strategy 2007-2017 illustrates this diagnosis.

One of the most effective and fastest ways to advance in strengthening the management capacities of regional governments is through the active cooperation of their regional universities. Not in specific consultancies but by making them participate in permanent institutional mechanisms, aimed at improving their ability to manage strategic knowledge (Territorial Strategic Intelligence) and to address priority sector issues (public innovation for new skills).

It would be of great importance that the national government supports pilot programs in this direction in certain regions. The experience gained will make it possible to extend these institutions to the rest of the country’s regions, with the appropriate adaptations specific to the reality of each region.

Thus, the regions where there is a greater critical mass and where universities have historically played an important role in development will create institutions with an emphasis on the coordination and synergy of these capacities. On the other hand, other regions will need greater support from the national government to face the decentralization process.

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Autonomous development of the regions: goal or chimera?