Delivery of public services and economies of scale: Cooperation as an alternative for small municipalities

Germà Bel

The economic crisis has strongly affected many developed countries, and has caused serious tensions in government finances. These constraints are particularly important at the local level, because local governments have limited taxing bases, and fiscal competition is stronger. Policy discussion on local government reform and local cost reductions, as well as increasing efficiency in local service delivery, is widespread.

Besides the measures of suppression or reduction of intermediate local government in some countries, the most relevant feature of local government organizational reform is the search for a better scale, to be able to provide local services in a more efficient manner. A policy frequently proposed to reduce costs is merger of municipalities. In practice, most experiences worldwide have had compulsory character, given the usual reluctance of municipalities to merge. However, it is by no means clear that municipal amalgamation results in cost reduction.

An alternative reform of local service delivery increasingly which is increasingly used has been intermunicipal cooperation, which focuses on functional consolidation of services instead of focusing on amalgamation or consolidation of governments. Little is yet known about why municipalities engage in cooperation to deliver local public services.

Shedding further light on this question is the aim of our recent article ‘Why do municipalities cooperate to provide local public services? An empirical analysis’. We use a database of the Spanish region of Aragon, characterized as having many small municipalities. Our empirical analysis confirms that small municipalities need to cooperate with other municipalities so as to reduce the costs of providing services. The need to exploit scale economies, which is not possible for small municipalities individually, may be one of the main factors driving the decision to cooperate.

Of course, municipalities could also contract to a private vendor to benefit from scale economies. However, higher transaction costs with privatization seem to be particularly influential in the decision of local governments to privatise or cooperate in the delivery of solid waste collection. Our analysis shows that small municipalities prefer to cooperate so as to reduce costs, while larger municipalities prefer to privatise the delivery of the service.

The clear policy implication of our work is that intermunicipal cooperation, as opposed to privatisation, may well be an optimal solution for the delivery of services by local governments in small municipalities. Municipalities of this type have to face the problems of a lack of competition and high transaction costs, while facing the need to exploit scale economies. By cooperating, scale economies can be achieved with lower transaction costs and fewer concerns for competition than is the case for private production.

A full account of this research is available in my recent article with Xavier Fageda and Melania

Full details of this research are available in my article with Xavier Fageda and Melania Mur: Why do municipalities cooperate to provide local public services? An empirical analysis.  Local Government Studies, 39(3), 435-454.


Germà Bel is professor of Economics at Universitat de Barcelona and Visiting Professor at Princeton University (Woodrow Wilson School). His research focuses on public sector reform, with a special emphasis on privatization and regulation, and he is particularly active in the study of transportation infrastructure and local public services.

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