Local self-government outlines the right and the ability of local authorities, within the limits of the law, to regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs. In a local democracy this right is conferred to councils or assemblies composed of members freely elected by secret ballot and directly accountable to their own local constituency. This adheres to the principle of subsidiarity, which ensures that problems are addressed by those institutions and civil society groups that are most competent and closest to citizens.

Local democracy cannot be understood as a mere subdivision of the powers of the state or state institutions at the local and regional level. Appointed representatives of the central government (without accountability to local communities) - such as prefects and regional/local commissions of the state - do not enhance the possibility of local democracy as accountability runs upwards to central government.

The European Charter on Local Self Government of the Council of Europe sets a useful list of the core principles of local government, which include:

  • Full and exclusive exercise of power: in accordance with the law, local authorities’ prerogatives should not be undermined by the central or regional level
  • Appropriate financial compensation: local authorities should receive adequate financial resources, proportional to the exercise of the office – alongside budgetary autonomy – local authorities should control their own financial resources, which should partly derive from local taxes and charges
  • Self-determined administrative supervision: any administrative supervision of the local authorities’ activities by other bodies may be exercised only if in compliance with the law
  • Legal protection: local authorities may have recourse to a judicial remedy in order to secure free exercise of their powers and respect for principles of local self-government

The legal and structural profile of local democracy should be embedded in a broader community approach to be successful. This implies a participative approach to local decision-making, involving different people in the community through practices such as participatory budgeting at the local level or citizens’ panels. (Democracy support fact sheets, 2017)

The inclusion of citizens, the private sector and non-governmental community organizations in local decision-making processes and ownership of accountability mechanisms is a prerequisite for a functioning local democracy.