Health sector decentralization and local decision-making: Decision space, institutional capacities and accountability in Pakistan

Soc Sci Med. 2011 Jan;72(1):39-48. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.10.019. Epub 2010 Nov 11.


Health sector decentralization has been widely adopted to improve delivery of health services. While many argue that institutional capacities and mechanisms of accountability required to transform decentralized decision-making into improvements in local health systems are lacking, few empirical studies exist which measure or relate together these concepts. Based on research instruments administered to a sample of 91 health sector decision-makers in 17 districts of Pakistan, this study analyzes relationships between three dimensions of decentralization: decentralized authority (referred to as "decision space"), institutional capacities, and accountability to local officials. Composite quantitative indicators of these three dimensions were constructed within four broad health functions (strategic and operational planning, budgeting, human resources management, and service organization/delivery) and on an overall/cross-function basis. Three main findings emerged. First, district-level respondents report varying degrees of each dimension despite being under a single decentralization regime and facing similar rules across provinces. Second, within dimensions of decentralization-particularly decision space and capacities-synergies exist between levels reported by respondents in one function and those reported in other functions (statistically significant coefficients of correlation ranging from ρ=0.22 to ρ=0.43). Third, synergies exist across dimensions of decentralization, particularly in terms of an overall indicator of institutional capacities (significantly correlated with both overall decision space (ρ=0.39) and accountability (ρ=0.23)). This study demonstrates that decentralization is a varied experience-with some district-level officials making greater use of decision space than others and that those who do so also tend to have more capacity to make decisions and are held more accountable to elected local officials for such choices. These findings suggest that Pakistan's decentralization policy should focus on synergies among dimensions of decentralization to encouraging more use of de jure decision space, work toward more uniform institutional capacity, and encourage greater accountability to local elected officials.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making, Organizational
  • Decision Support Techniques*
  • Delivery of Health Care / organization & administration*
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Local Government*
  • Pakistan
  • Policy Making
  • Social Responsibility