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Unitary Government vs. Federal Government — What's the Difference?

By Tayyaba Rehman — Published on October 26, 2023
Unitary Government centralizes all power in a single authority, whereas a Federal Government divides power between national and subnational entities, such as states or provinces.
Unitary Government vs. Federal Government — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Unitary Government and Federal Government


Key Differences

A Unitary Government consolidates all governmental powers, responsibilities, and functions within a single central authority. This entails a hierarchy where the central authority holds the supreme power, and any administrative divisions must adhere to its directives. On the contrary, a Federal Government disseminates power, ensuring both the central authority and its sub-entities (like states or provinces) maintain certain levels of autonomy and jurisdiction over designated matters.
In the frame of a Unitary Government, local or regional authorities generally administer only those powers that the central government delegates to them. This centralized structure means all policy and administrative decisions emanate from, and return to, a singular point of control. A Federal Government, however, enables its constituent entities to exercise legislative, executive, and sometimes judicial powers in specific areas without interference from the central authority.
Despite its centralized nature, a Unitary Government may establish local governments to facilitate governance, but it retains the right to modify or abolish them as it deems fit. Federal Governments safeguard the existence and autonomy of its subnational entities through constitutional guarantees, limiting the central government’s power to alter their status unilaterally.
The mechanism for amending the constitution or making critical policy changes often differs notably between the two. A Unitary Government can typically enact changes more swiftly and unilaterally due to the consolidation of power. In contrast, Federal Governments may require collaboration or consensus among its subnational entities to enact significant constitutional amendments or policy shifts.
In international relations, a Unitary Government unilaterally decides and implements foreign policy and international agreements. Meanwhile, in a Federal Government, the involvement of subnational entities in international dealings can vary, with certain matters, like treaties, typically being the exclusive prerogative of the central authority, while others might require subnational consent or coordination.

Comparison Chart

Power Distribution

Centralized in a single authority.
Divided between central and subnational entities.

Constitutional Amendments

Can typically be altered by the central authority.
Often requires consent or agreement from subnational entities.

Subnational Autonomy

Limited; controlled or delegated by central authority.
Guaranteed; subnational entities have constitutionally protected autonomy.

Decision-making Speed

Generally faster due to centralized decision-making.
May be slower due to the need for coordination among various entities.

International Relations

Solely managed by the central authority.
Central authority manages most, with some involvement of subnational units.

Compare with Definitions

Unitary Government

Unitary forms can more swiftly implement policy changes nationally.
The Unitary Government enacted healthcare reform without regional dispute.

Federal Government

A Federal Government divides power between different levels of government.
The United States is an example of a Federal Government.

Unitary Government

A Unitary Government centralizes all power in one authority.
The United Kingdom operates as a Unitary Government.

Federal Government

Federal systems allocate certain autonomous powers to subnational units.
In the Federal Government of Germany, states have distinct legislative powers.

Unitary Government

Unitary Governments decide on and manage international relations independently.
France, a Unitary Government, navigates its international relations centrally.

Federal Government

Constitutions within Federal Governments often safeguard subnational autonomy.
The Federal Government cannot alter state laws within their jurisdiction.

Unitary Government

All legislative power in a Unitary Government typically resides centrally.
All nationwide laws in a Unitary Government originate from a single legislature.

Federal Government

Federal Governments may divide responsibilities among different government levels.
In a Federal Government, education policies might be determined at the state level.

Unitary Government

Unitary systems can alter local government structures unilaterally.
The Unitary Government changed municipal boundaries without local input.

Federal Government

In Federal Governments, constitutional amendments may require wider agreement.
Changing the constitution in a Federal Government often involves several entities.

Common Curiosities

What's a key difference between Unitary and Federal Government?

Unitary Government centralizes power, while Federal Government divides it among various entities.

How does a Federal Government manage international relations?

Generally, the central authority manages international relations, but some aspects may involve subnational entities.

Do states in a Federal Government have their own constitutions?

Often yes, they may have their own constitutions and laws, operating under the larger national constitution.

Can Unitary Governments have local administrative units?

Yes, but they operate under the authority and at the discretion of the central power.

Can a Unitary Government quickly amend its constitution?

Typically, yes, due to its centralized power structure, changes can be more unilateral and swift.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Tayyaba Rehman
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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