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Preferences for Centralized Decision-Making in Times of Crisis: the COVID-19 Pandemic in Germany

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Jahrbuch für Handlungs- und Entscheidungstheorie


The health crisis caused by the rapid spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) poses enormous challenges to governments around the globe. Far-reaching measures have to be enacted, and even a slight delay can have fatal negative consequences. The necessity for swift and resolute governmental action constitutes a particular predicament for federal democracies like Germany in which the regular decision-making process requires not only time for parliamentary scrutiny but also the coordination of multiple actors and interests at different levels of government. In this context, calls for centralized decision-making and expanded executive discretion are frequent. This study uses daily panel data from the Mannheim Corona Study collected during the first wave of the pandemic to investigate factors that influence respondents’ propensity to grant additional discretionary powers to the German federal government. Based on insights from the crisis management literature, we explore the effects of decentralized policy responses, trust in government, satisfaction with the government and parliament, and personal threat perceptions on individual preferences for centralized decision-making. The results show that, while trust in government before the pandemic has a minor impact, state-level policy heterogeneity and individual threat perceptions strongly increase the likelihood to support the centralization of decision-making competencies.

“Our idea of normality, of public life, social togetherness—all of this is being put to the test as never before.”

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, in her TV announcement on March 18, 2020.

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  1. 1.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) first classified the outbreak as “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” on January 30, 2020 (World Health Organization 2020a) and as pandemic on March 11, 2020 (World Health Organization 2020b).

  2. 2.

    Modern constitutions, though, usually feature special provisions for emergency situations that permit the transfer of decision-making authority to allow the executive branch to issue decrees, censor information, or (temporarily) restrict fundamental rights and suspend the usual legal process (Greene 2011; Ferejohn and Pasquino 2004; Arato 2002). Article 15 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), for example, is a derogation clause that grants states emergency powers in times of crisis (e.g., Tierney 2005). Hence, crisis provisions are well within the institutional realm. However, given the uniqueness and unpredictability of an emergency situation, no legal document can provide clear guidance on the appropriate means used by the government to respond to a specific crisis (Scheuerman 2006).

  3. 3.

    Note that Hegele and Schnabel (2021) differentiate between two very similar dimensions of federal decision-making. The centralized-decentralized dimension captures the strength of the federal government vis-à-vis the sub-national units while the unilateral-coordinated dimension concerns the degree to which a government consults other governments when making policy decisions.

  4. 4.

    As in many other countries, the implementation of an emergency health law in March further expanded the executive’s discretionary power in France (Hassenteufel 2020, p. 5).

  5. 5.

    It is important to stress that these problems are not an inherent feature of federalism per se but depend on the specific institutional design, the actors’ preferences, as well as the policies implemented during a crisis (Rocco et al. 2020, p. 472). In fact, federalism has some important advantages (Lester and Krejci 2007, see, for instance,) and other federal systems, like Germany (Naumann et al. 2020), managed to respond to the onset of the health crisis comparatively well.

  6. 6.

    In the original German item, the federal government, parliament, and states are referred to by their German names, i.e., Bundesregierung, Bundestag, and Bundesländer.

  7. 7.

    The party factions are CDU/CSU, SPD, AfD, Greens, Left, and FDP.

  8. 8.

    Table 3 in the Appendix shows that the results are virtually unchanged when we model respondents as nested within states and estimate both sets of random effects.

  9. 9.

    We note, however, that pre-pandemic trust in the federal government and satisfaction with it are correlated (weighted \(\rho = 0.5\)) which may affect inferences by inflating the standard errors. However, given the small effect size of pre-pandemic trust, we regard this as unlikely.


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Summary Statistics

Tab. 2 (Unweighted) Summary Statistics

Alternative Random-Effects Structure

Tab. 3 Regression Analysis with Alternative Random Effects

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Juhl, S. et al. (2022). Preferences for Centralized Decision-Making in Times of Crisis: the COVID-19 Pandemic in Germany. In: Sauermann, J., Tepe, M., Debus, M. (eds) Jahrbuch für Handlungs- und Entscheidungstheorie. Jahrbuch für Handlungs- und Entscheidungstheorie. Springer VS, Wiesbaden.

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