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Decentralization in times of crisis: a sensible balance to maintain.

Whether economic and financial, societal or health, these crises are testing the limits of our systems. This is particularly true for our political systems and governance models. Once these limits have been highlighted and understood, we say “never again”. We then want to test something else, and very often it is the opposite…

It is as if there is no salvation in nuanced and measured actions. It is as if we are always looking for a scapegoat. In this sense, it is common for political societies to oscillate between centralization and decentralization, two temptations thought of as antagonisms. But what if we were to see them as polarities instead?

With increasing globalization since the 1990s, it is hard to imagine the future without it… Logically, we aspire to more integration, more control, and more recently thanks to AI and Big Data, predictability in all things. Caught in this whirlwind, nation states can run out of steam, challenged by supranational entities, whether legal or criminal, but also confronted with a “continentalization” of communities of destiny.

In order to exist at a given level, be it global, continental, state or that of a multinational firm, an entity must rely on a “lattice” of resources useful to its survival: standardization, language, currency, available technologies ,data management and steering capabilities among others.

While ambition is not without the necessary centralisation and convergence of conduct, this does not in any way exclude subsidiarity. On the contrary, a brain is only a brain if it has organs to direct, which are themselves largely responsible for the use of their resources and their contribution to the overall health of the organism.

Even more so as the move to decentralize is real. It echoes people’s aspirations for greater horizontality and transparency in their relations with their leaders. For we are living in an exciting period, where initiatives in the field are more easily taken up, where exchanges are becoming more circular and where certain habits are becoming established… a ratchet effect is taking hold.

The aspiration to decentralize also points to a strong need for responsiveness in managing crisis situations. This cannot happen without some reorganization of the State, which is often seen as a sprawling structure surrounded by an administrative maze. However, the need for crisis management implies rethinking the levels of command, in order to keep what should be at the central level, and to delegate subsidiarily what can be delegated to more local levels. In contact with the needs of the population, the latter are best able to make informed decisions.

But the digital transformation is itself a carrier of decentralization. Not only is it changing the model of public governance, but it is also revisiting the business referentials, bringing out new necessary functions.

In the front row is the great mastermind: The Chief Digital Officer! Usually positioned as a Director of Administration: partly at the head office and partly in a functional responsibility with regional executive teams and major conurbations. A good dose of change management must be added, so that these new prerogatives are accepted by all stakeholders.

While decentralization is undeniably beneficial in times of crisis, it requires both time and preparation. And in case the decentralised levels are not yet operational when the crisis occurs, the central level can always continue to “do the job”.

Let us not get into wishful thinking about decentralisation. This must remain a lever, a pragmatic tool for the betterment of the population. But this decentralization must be thought through and implemented without ever compromising the authority or the room for maneuver of the State.

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