I have a fictional country which I'm mapping. It is roughly the size of the US. Currently I have 16 first-level administrative divisions ('provinces'). Those 16 provinces are sub-divided into 220 or so second-level 'districts'. Districts are further sub-divided to Municipalities. Each district has an area measured in the 1000's of square kilometers. Districts are already responsible for vehicle registrations, and number plates are roughly based on the UK system. Each district has an unique two-letter code, which it uses everywhere. The country's main economy is trans-continental transport. The goods are transported by ship, up a very major river, then transferred onto trains for the journey to the other coast. The rail line / river does pass through many counties and provinces. This causes both rivalry and co-operation between the various districts.

What would be the consequence of abolishing the provinces, and having the national (most probably federal) government guide / rule the districts directly? I feel that the 'province' currently doesn't serve any 'practical' purpose, except to keep all its districts in the same time-zone.

My on-line research is not yielding much information. I keep on landing up in Canada (mixture of territories and provinces), or Pakistan (adding new provinces based on ethnicity)

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    $\begingroup$ OK then, but there is another problem : the US have an area of around 10 million square kilometers, so you'd want your districts to be in the range of 50,000 square kilometers instead of a thousand ;) $\endgroup$
    – Keelhaul
    May 29, 2017 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ What's the technology level "now", and what was the tech level when these provinces were founded? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    May 29, 2017 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ Another question : do you want to know what would happen in your country if the governement suddenly abolished the provinces, or are you seeking advice on whereas or not use provinces at all ? In short, is this a question about consequences of a change, or about directly creating a country from districts ? $\endgroup$
    – Keelhaul
    May 29, 2017 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Keelhaul, Difficult to answer. Its a bit of both. I designed this country about 10 years ago, and ported to CAD about 5 years ago. I drew in the provinces rather arbitrarily. I'm now doing a region detail (about 400km x 280km) and I have a provincial boundary on that map. I'm trying to be as efficient to my subjects as I can, but also as close to the real world as possible. I'm sorry if this doesn't really answer your question. $\endgroup$ May 29, 2017 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ This is severely based on the history of the land. Much of the Middle East and Africa is divided the way it is because it was done by an outside party (with force). Why were those provinces founded> Were they once nation states? $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    May 29, 2017 at 15:43

8 Answers 8


I see two reasons for a provincial level, and ultimately a national level: The main one is for legal reasons; a provincial level can resolve disputes between districts, that the districts themselves cannot.

About trade or differences between them in local laws, or about the use (or abuse) of common resources (water, air, minerals, river or sea ways, migratory birds and animals, whatever).

You mention railways: Who is responsible for repairing them? How are they extended across districts, in particular who takes the land required for a railway extension?

Can a district shut down a railway? Refuse to allow the transportation of objectionable cargo (e.g. slaves, toxic or radioactive chemicals, nuclear bombs, criminal prisoners)?

For rivers, can a district upstream dam a river to supply itself a lake of water, fisheries and electical power, and for the ten years it takes to fill that lake, dehydrate the downstream districts that rely on that river for irrigation and drinking water?

If I dig a mine in District A to extract gold, and few hundred feet down the vein I am working crosses straight into District B for miles --- Am I stealing their gold?

If I drill for oil in District A, and it turns out the lake of oil I am pumping out is actually under 20 other Districts too: Am I stealing their oil? Further, am I responsible for the hundred-foot deep sinkholes and property destruction that are caused by sucking out all that oil?

Besides Legal issues across Districts, we also have the issues of mutual protection, police and emergency services. Obviously a coast guard should not be funded by individual coastal districts acting independently (even if there are no other countries to "guard" against, the coast guard can help fishermen and other seagoing vessels that get in trouble).

But consider disaster relief efforts: If there is a disaster (earthquake, tornado, floods, bombs, train crashes or toxic spills, major disease outbreak), presumably it happens in one or more districts, and would likely cripple their own private disaster relief organization.

A provincial disaster relief organization can be housed in many distributed districts, so they can respond to disasters in neighboring districts quickly with nearby units in unaffected districts, and depending on the level of disaster, get others on the road to the disaster site.

I'd make a similar observation about Military structure; if your country needs defenses, well distributed military bases (at strategic points of probable attack) are better than centralized ones, and better than each District having its own little military. You could say that is a responsibility of central government, but it could be organized on provincial lines (like State Militias in early America, if we roughly equate "State" with "Province").

  • $\begingroup$ Your comments do make sense. The Federal Gov't wouldn't do anything else but settle petty squabbles between districts. Railroad maintenance; that needs more thought. $\endgroup$ May 30, 2017 at 5:39

Usually, what provinces, districts etc. do is give the people living there the ability to govern themselves at low level, while increasingly higher levels allow for area-overlapping administration and planning of larger projects.

This is especially the case for a government/administrative body that has to govern over a very large amount of land / people, since on that level, everything is about numbers. This isn't inherently bad for everything, it serves its purpose (it's why you do generalizations), but on that level you simply cannot govern low leve processes efficiently without having restrictive laws up to even repressive laws.

Ideally, you want your people to feel like they can govern themselves, at least in those areas that matter in their daily life. That way, they can focus on what they need and not what a ruler thinks they need, while still allowing for non-localized planning of larger projects, for example a roads network or a unified military without losing the flexibility of a more distributed government system.

It's similar to what you can see in the business world today:

For low numbers: the flatter the hierarchy the better, as this brings flexibility and a sense of personal responsibility to each employee, as well as having a low beaurocratic barrier to make decisions.

The higher the number of people, the higher the hierarchy will become. This is from necessity: if you let one person make the decisions for a 1000 people on a low level, you can easily see how many problems this will pose not only for each individual, but also from an organizational and planning perspective. Increasing the granularity of said hierarchy can remedy that to a good degree, unless you introduce too many divisions, in which case you increase beaurocracy.

TL:DR If you centralize your government in a way that decreases autonomy of the districts too much, you risk a problem of meticulous planning. As another response already said, you'd be getting closer to a planned economy and lose most of the flexibility and robustness of a distributed system. From history, we know how well a strictly planned economy works out for the people (German Democratic Republic, Soviet Union).

Remember that by directly governing a large number of Districts from afar, the administrative body will more or less lose the sense for what the people need, and the people lose trust in the government (or worse). And the people wouldn't like someone governing them being disconnected from whom they govern, especially if the governor is not elected.

Sidenote: The whole time I had in mind that there is also a similar, albeit different approach in computer science called "subsumption architecture". Not sure if it helps, but its all I got for now ;)


I think this one depends at least partially on the history of your country, and on why the provinces exist. If you actually are using a federal/provincial structure, you need to account for the division of powers as well as federal versus provincial jurisdiction (which government deals with what matters); your national government simply cannot be responsible for everything, because it is legally not permitted to act in specific matters that are under provincial jurisdiction. The degree of independence of the provinces is variable, but they have control over at minimum a lot of domestic matters, and they may even possess limited foreign policy powers to negotiate their own agreements (see: various trade agreements between individual Canadian provinces and U.S states).

Using Canada as an example, it was formed as a federal government with provinces because those separate provinces were at the time separate colonies. Lots of negotiation was in play here, but basically nobody was willing to give up all their power to a single centralized government. This was especially true for the case of Quebec (which unlike the others was a French colony), which feared it would (as a large minority) be rendered powerless if one government held all the cards.

The ironic thing is that the federal structure was originally intended to be highly centralized by its founders, with most of the powers in the hands of the federal government and only limited powers for the provinces. This was a result of watching the American Civil War, which was provoked over the question of the rights of states (read: provinces). This intended dynamic was completely reversed by court decisions over time that essentially expanded provincial jurisdiction at the expense of federal jurisdiction, with the result that Canada's modern legal structure in practice is very different from what its written constitution would suggest. This was probably for the best, though; Canada is larger than the U.S.A by land area with perhaps an eighth of the population, incorporating numerous ethnic groups, Aboriginal peoples, French and English rights, etc., all making a highly centralized government more or less impossible.

Basically, if you have multiple countries coming together by agreement (as opposed to violent conquest; they might even come together to resist some common threat), or if you need to integrate multiple language/ethnic groups into a single country, you probably have a good case for a federal/provincial structure. Having a large landmass (which implies significant variation in environment), especially with a low population density, also recommends a decentralized structure.

Given that context, if you try to suddenly abolish existing provincial structures in favor of giving a federal government all powers, you're likely to infuriate just about everybody. At minimum, you're stripping a lot of politicians of their power and position, which is going to generate lots of problems for you. You're likely also taking the basic legal structure of your entire nation and tossing it into a smelter, which is generally going to produce chaos. You're stripping the people of their local voices in favor of a single distant federal government that likely won't be able to adequately respond to all their needs (something that other answers cover in detail), another problem. I could probably add more, but I just don't think this would be possible to accomplish short of getting conquered by some invading power or a few hundred years of slow changes.


The distinction is between a "federal" system of government and a "unitary" one. Both have been tried, some of have been toggled between, and there are pros and cons to each.

For example, France historically had a unitary government in which prefects appointed by the central government had authority over issues that are provincial or local government tasks in many other countries. For example, if you wanted to change the speed limit on the road through your village you would need approval from the local prefect and would have to lobby a member of the national parliament to make that happen. In the 1980s or so, it switched to having regional governments with internally elected officials.

Benefits of Unitary Government

One benefit of unitary government is that resources aren't wasted on meta issues of deciding which level of government handles which issue.

Another benefit of unitary government is that it is less prone to NIMBY issues in which local governments adopt policies that have negative externalities or prevent something that is useful to the nation from being located anywhere at all. For example, Japan's unitary government has been noted for having better land use regulation than countries that vest that responsibility at the local level.

A third benefit may be that the supply of competent potential elected officials and senior government officials may be scarce. Your nation may have enough competent people to serve in elected office and senior government offices to run one national government reasonably well, but not enough to run dozens of provincial governments as well.

More generally, if the most competent elected officials and government officials are in the national government, then important policy decisions are made by the most competent people available.

A fourth benefit is that it is easier for people new to democracy to understand a unitary system than a more elaborate federal system.

A fifth benefit is that policy changes can be imposed nationwide very rapidly. But, the downside is that getting a policy change to happen may be harder with a national legislature to convince and greater inertia than with a smaller provincial body to convince. It also makes it easier to research the law that will apply to anything (especially interstate commercial ventures) if you have only one body of law to review.

A sixth benefit is that there may be some provinces where the locals are prone to elect unwise provincial leaders who would adopt bad policies. But, their voice is diluted in a national government so their bad policies are not implemented.

Benefits of Federalism

One of the practical purposes of a provincial level of government is to prevent too much of importance from riding on a national government deadlock.

For example, in the United States, now and then, there is government shutdown because a majority in Congress cannot agree on a budget. If all government activity depends upon that budget, then all government activity comes to a screeching halt, nationwide, when there is a failure to agree on a budget. But, if lots of important stuff is funded at the provincial level, then only the stuff funded at the national level stops nationwide when there is a failure to agree on a budget. Of course, there could be a failure to agree on a budget at a provincial level too. But, only one province is affected at a time.

Similar logic applies in the case of a strike by a public employees union.

A somewhat related concept is that smaller bureaucracies may simply be easier to manage.

A second purpose of a provincial government is the serve as a "minor league" training ground for future national parliamentarians and senior government officials. Rather than electing novices to the national government, voters selecting national elected officials and national governments selecting senior executives can choose from people who have distinguished themselves in their service in very similar positions at the provincial level if they wish to do so, and novices serving in provincial government do less harm.

A third purpose of provincial government is to put more of government into the hands of governments that aren't truly sovereign. A sovereign government has no "safety net" of higher level judicial officials and legislators to correct them if they take action that is beyond the realm of acceptable political conduct. Provincial government officials recognize that they can't start wars, change boundaries, change the national constitution, or violate their own constitutions and get away with it in the manner that national governments do. There are plenty of people who have something worthwhile to contribute to the policy process who shouldn't be trusted around the power to make war, for example. This feature also means that most national officials, having been trained to act within limits in the "minor leagues" are less likely to push beyond those limits when they eventually take national office.

A fourth purpose, usually put higher on the list by political scientists, is that different provinces can have different policies. For example, gun control restrictions that might make sense of a highly urbanized province might not make sense for a province in a huge arctic desert where police are not readily available and wild animals are a genuine concern. Or, different provinces might have different ethnic and religious makeups that call for different policies - one province might regulate alcohol very strictly while another might allow it rather freely, for example.

The differences need not be strictly differences of policy either. For example, if residents of one province speak French and residents of another province speak German, it may be useful to have two different provincial governments even if they are applying a single set of laws.

  • $\begingroup$ France very much continues to have a centralized government; it is the very model of a large centralized country. French regions (most emphatically not provinces) do not have locally elected governments but locally elected administrations; the key difference is that the regional administrations do not have legislative powers: all they can do is apply the central laws and regulations with a possibly more humane local face. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 29, 2017 at 16:23
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Fair enough, although really, federalism is generally something of a continuum. One can grant more or less power to subordinate units with elected officials. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    May 29, 2017 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ Power is of three kinds: legislative, judicial and executive. French regions have a certain small amount of executive power, and lack legislative and judicial power completely. Compare with a federal structure, where first order administrative entities (states) have lots of executive power and respectable legislative and judicial powers. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    May 29, 2017 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP In theory, there are three kinds of power. In practice, all executive power and all judicial power involves some measure of discretion which amounts to legislative power. Germany and Canada, for example, give almost no judicial power to the central government, while vesting a lot in state/province governments, but give states relatively little legislative power. This doesn't mean that they don't have federalism, they just have different federalism. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    May 31, 2017 at 0:43

Province/State/voivodeship usually have a government select by the citizens. If you take that people may get upset losing their voice, feeling centralized government don't know their problems and being in favour to other provinces (like taxation and help from capitol).
Generally to run things smoothly you would need to introduce planned economy. You would loose the ability for quick reaction in the time of need (like cataclysm) and relay on plans made years ahead.


If this is prior to the Information Age, you need more levels just to make the job tractable, both in the sheer number of things to keep track of and the local-ness of people who can be in charge.

If the government formed before “modern” time, this is what you must have. You might have a plot of phasing out layers that don’t mean anything anymore except to group the smaller levels. But then the people on top are micro-managing. To allow delegation, they might have more people in charge with different areas of responsibility rather than different geographic regions, but these commissioners have national scope. Each can subdivide further as befitting that job.


In the late Roman Empire there were six levels of government administration.

Most of the Roman Empire was divided into civatates.

1) So in most regions a pagus or subdivision of a civitas was the smallest administrative unit.

2) A civitas or city state ruling a town or city and surrounding countryside. Each civitas was ruled by aristocrats elected as magistrates and council members by those citizens eligible to vote. A Christian diocese usually corresponded to a civitas.

3) A province consisting of several civatates, and military bases, imperial lands, etc. A appointed governor who could have one of several different titles supervised the governments of the civatates and imperial government activities.

4) A secular diocese. A vicar (of a praetorian prefect) supervised the provincial governments in his diocese.

5) A praatorian prefecture. There were only four in the Empire. Ruled by a praetorian prefect.

6) An Emperor (or emperors) ruling the Empire (or a part of the Empire).

Thus the later Roman Empire had five levels of administrative subdivision and six levels of government.

Wikipedia's List of administrative divisions by country shows that countries have varying numbers of levels of administrative divisions. France, for example, has six levels of administrative divisions and thus seven levels of government.


The United States has three levels of administrative divisions and thus four levels of government.

1) Municipalities. The USA has allegedly 35,930 municipalities. They tend to provide utilities, clean streets, pick up trash, etc. etc. Among many other services. Can enact local ordinances and have magistrates courts.

2) Counties. The USA has over 3,000 counties. They perform many services including registration of wills and deeds. Can enact local ordinances. Run courts to try local and state criminal and civil cases.

3) States. The USA has fifty states, not counting other types of government like 567 tribal governments. They perform many services, for example, issuing drivers licenses. They legislate most laws and have state courts. They also legislate rules for counties and municipalities within them. States have their own armed forces, the National Guard, sharing control with the Federal government.

4) The Federal government. It handles war and diplomacy, the post office, and many other functions. Has federal laws and federal courts.

Many functions are performed by two or more different levels of government.

These examples show that it is possible to assign separate functions, as well as overlapping functions, to a central government and at least three levels of administrative divisions.


From the ancient Romans to the every moderate size modern nation, regardless of government type, uses some method of dividing the nation regionally. The reason is that the administration of a nation is simply too complex for a monolithic control structure.

The problem is the span of control. Administering everything as one unit would increase the complexity by several orders of magnitude. Even in a small nation, that would mean administrating millions of people, thousands of cities, million of miles of roads.

Besides that, regional administration is wiser because there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to governance. Consider the following.

  • Each region faces unique challenges. In the US, for example, California struggles with getting enough fresh water. West Virginia struggles to keep their population from declining as young people leave to find work elsewhere.
  • Regional administration can take the differing cultures of the people into account. Romans required each of their subject people to worship the Emperor. For polytheists, the addition of a new name in the pantheon of gods meant little to nothing. The Jews, being fierce monotheists, would rather die before worshiping another God. The Romans adjusted their requirement to fit the Jew's religion.
  • People tend to develop a deep resentment to some distant power who dictates to them. Having local administrators changes the feeling from an "us-them" to an "us-us" dynamic.

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