Difference Between Unitary Government and Federal Government

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: April 30, 2023


Difference Between Unitary Government and Federal Government

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Unitary and federal governments are two forms of government that many countries use today, but they come with their unique pros and cons. One isn't inherently better than the other.

It depends on what works best in the local context. Still, understanding the specific differences between these two types of governments can give you greater insight into why one country might have adopted one structure over another and which form might be most suitable for your region to follow in the future. Here are some of the critical differences between unitary and federal governments.

Difference Between Unitary Government and Federal Governments in Tabular Form

Parameters of Comparison Unitary Government Federal Government
System of government A unitary government is a solitary arrangement of government where the focal government has incomparable power. A central government is a double arrangement of government where the public government and the neighbourhood states work autonomously.
Power Every one of the powers is consolidated inside the focal overseeing body. The powers are split between the public and the neighbourhood states.
Constitution It can either have a composed or an unwritten Constitution. While it is should have a composed Constitution.
Rigidity The Constitution can either be inflexible or adaptable. While the Constitution should be pretty much inflexible.
Judiciary There is no unique legal executive. There is an exceptional legal executive with interesting powers
Balance The central government can give requests to the nearby legislatures being the main power. While here there is a harmony between the public and neighborhood states.
Countries Countries like Japan, Britain, France, Italy etc. have a unitary government. Countries like the US, Australia, Russia, Canada etc. have a federal government.

What Is Unitary Government?

Most of us have never heard of a unitary government because only a handful of countries in Europe employ one. This form of government is typically used in countries that are just forming their governments or are consolidating their power. 

The word unitary refers to how energy is dispersed throughout a country. In most cases, everything from law enforcement to fiscal policy comes directly from one governing body. 

However, on rare occasions, power will be shared between two agencies (like with federalism). The United Kingdom's government, for example, operates as both unitary and federal: Scotland has its government that handles a majority of its local policies but still works alongside England's Parliament for national issues like defence and taxation.

Why is a Unitary Government Less Expensive?

Most administrative costs for a unitary government are controlled at the national level rather than spread throughout an entire federation. That means less in terms of individual state budgets. 

This also gives unitary governments a more centralized role, which some might say makes them easier to control. In our country, significant issues such as infrastructure can be addressed on a federal level without requiring dozens of states to agree on solutions that would fit their different needs. Because decision-making power is consolidated at lower levels, the unitary government is often less expensive to run—at least in theory.

What are the Advantages of a Unitary System of Government?

A unitary system of government is characterized by a clear division of responsibilities among its agencies. The executive, legislature, and judiciary branches have delineated roles, while local governments may be autonomous within some spheres or subject to control from other levels. 

This structure is more cost-effective because it allows for fewer layers of governance; if all aspects of the policy are enacted at one level instead of many, there are fewer opportunities for inefficiency or conflict. 

A single-level system also promotes efficiency through faster decision-making processes; agency heads may directly communicate with those they answer to instead of working through multiple channels.

What are the Disadvantages of a Unitary Government?

A unitary system can sometimes appear to be more efficient because there is only one level of government. However, critics argue that a unitary government does not provide enough checks and balances to ensure accountability on behalf of those in power. They also say that local governments often do not have enough autonomy from national governments.

Which Country follows a Unitary Government?

Several countries use unitary governments to ensure stability across regions. To keep all areas working similarly, these nations leave the specific authority to centralized agencies or even legislative bodies. 

This is different from countries that follow federal governance, which is typically more democratic. While both of these systems have their benefits, it's essential to understand how they differ—and why they may not always produce positive results. 

What is Federal Government?

There are three primary forms of government: federal, unitary, and confederate. The U.S. is a federal republic with both local governments (the states) and a central government (the federal government). A unitary system is typically in one country (or state), where a central or national government holds all or most power rather than being shared with local organizations. 

These governments are much more common than federal ones; in fact, only about 5% of countries are federations. In contrast to unitary systems, a confederation is when multiple independent states ally for mutual benefit. 

For example, before 1776, 13 colonies joined together to become the United States of America. Many European countries use some form of confederation today.

What are the Advantages of a Federal System?

A federal system is one in which a country, state, or province is divided into smaller administrative regions, with each part having some degree of autonomy. The division can be based on geography, ethnicity, etc. 

When it comes to a federal system, we have three types: a unitary state, confederation, and federation. Each has its own set of characteristics, and all are widely used in many countries worldwide. 

What are the Disadvantages of a Federal System?

The main disadvantage of a federal system is that it creates a complex, challenging to manage, and slow-moving system of government. This complexity has given rise to many different interpretations of a federal system. 

Many countries have created systems in an attempt to reconcile these differences. The result can be unwieldy—there are many checks and balances within a federal system. Sometimes these extra steps may seem unnecessary or excessive when taken by a single entity with sole responsibility for governing. 

How Does a Unitary Government Compare to a Federal One?

A unitary government is a model of governance in which executive power is vested in one entity, be it a president or prime minister. There's no division of powers between two or more governing bodies; instead, all branches are controlled by a single political entity. 

The United Kingdom, France, India, and Brazil are countries with unitary governments. In these systems, a country's legal system takes precedent over subnational entities like provinces and states; court decisions from district courts apply throughout England, for example. Some localities within unitary governments may have limited autonomy to make laws that only apply to them—for example, U.S. cities can enact ordinances that apply only to their residents—but they don't have any control over national policy.

On the other hand, it is a federal government, and each branch has some degree of independence. There are two or more levels of government: a central authority (the federal government) and regional authorities (states). Both groups can create laws and policies, but higher-level rules can override lower-level ones if necessary. 

Canada is an example of a federal system: Its national legislature makes most laws for its 13 provinces and territories but cannot override provincial legislation in areas where local law applies. Most federal governments also give subnational units some autonomy to manage their affairs as long as they follow national rules set by higher authorities.

What Are Examples of Each Kind of System?

A unitary system is a country with only one level of the national government. Examples include China, France, India, and Russia. A federal system is a country that has two or more groups of government: states (and possibly territories) and a central, national governing body. 

In a federation, constituent units have greater independence than under a unitary system. The United States, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Australia, and Mexico are federal systems. There are also different kinds of federalism. Under dual-federalism, for example, each state has its Constitution, and there's a higher degree of autonomy between state governments and the central government than in other forms of federalism. 

There's no single right way to do things regarding how countries govern themselves; even democracies don't always look alike—but understanding how your country works can help you better understand what goes on around you—especially if you plan on travelling internationally at some point in your life!

Main Difference Between Unitary governments and Federal Governments in Points

  • The main difference between a unitary and federal government is that a unitary government has a centralized authority. In contrast, a national system consists of several levels of government (i.e., local, state, or provincial). 
  • A unitary government may or may not have subdivisions within its borders.
  • France is considered a unitary country because it has departments, districts, cities etc., that fall under its authority. In contrast, Australia is considered federal because it has divisions responsible for various matters such as education or housing. The U.S. A. is also an example of a national system since each state maintains its law enforcement, judiciary, public schools etc.
  • The central government is the supreme in a unitary government, while the national and state governments are independent in a federal government.


Today, there are three main types of governments: unitary, federal, and confederate. When it comes to how a government works, they are all very different. These differences can be summed up simply by defining how power is distributed between various branches of government. 

In a unitary system, a single branch or level of government holds all legislative power. In other words, only one set of rules applies to every person living in that country—and those rules may not always be fair for everyone living there. The United States employs a federalist system; each state has its own laws that apply only to its residents and not necessarily to citizens in other states.

FAQs About Unitary and Federal Governments

Can a government be both unitary and federal?

Though people often use unitary and federal as if they are interchangeable, there is actually a difference between unitary governments and federal ones.

The general distinction involves just how many levels of government exist within a country or state. A unitary government has one level; a federal one has multiple levels.

Many countries have different names for their type of government that correspond to which word best describes it. Since unitary means one-level, these countries describe themselves as single-unit, while federal countries may call themselves plurinational. In general, these two systems of governance can be useful in different situations.

What do unitary and federal systems have in common?

Despite their different names, unitary and federal governments share a lot in common. They both rely on a legislative branch to make laws, an executive branch to enforce those laws, and a judicial branch to interpret those laws.

In both systems, there are two levels of government: a national one (for example, The United States of America) and local or state governments that report directly to it (e.g., Arizona). And finally, each level of government has its own constitution that sets out how power is divided between them. Although some powers are reserved for states, most powers belong to the national government—such as setting laws for taxation—while others—such as education—are decided by local or state governments.

What are the problems of unitary and federal systems?

One of the unitary government's biggest drawbacks is that it can make central government vulnerable to local pressure groups, while it makes coordination between different localities difficult. Federations are better at managing disparate parts of their territory, but they're also less coherent than unitary governments.

They lack a single source of legitimacy that people across different parts of their territory can rally around. That doesn't mean either structure is inherently good or bad—it just means that there are trade-offs in how you run your country. And if you want to find out which one best suits your needs, then you should probably know what those trade-offs are.



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"Difference Between Unitary Government and Federal Government." Diffzy.com, 2024. Sun. 03 Mar. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-unitary-government-and-federal-government-381>.

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