Business models in local government?

Lasse Oulasvirta & Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko

 

Business models in local government?

Since the 1960s a range of business management models have been introduced in the public sector, including accrual accounting, management information systems, activity-based cost management, human resource management, customer relationship management and the like, which in most cases are in line with the tenets of New Public Management (NPM). One of the newcomers in this list is comprehensive risk management, known as Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) in the private sector. This normative risk management model, of which the most well-known version is COSO ERM, developed by the privately run Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission (COSO), has been promoted widely to all organisations, local governments included. Using survey data, our article in Local Government Studies describes and explains the diffusion and adoption of comprehensive ERM in local government in Finland.

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(Source: Kuntajohtajan johtajasopimus (”Director contracts for municipal chief executive officers”), a publication of the Finnish Association of Local and Regional Authorities, 2016, p. 20)

What explains local governments’ reluctance to buy the idea of comprehensive risk management? 

Our survey results support the argument that if comprehensive risk management is not obligatory, it is not widely used in local government. Our statistical analysis reveals that financial constraints explain to some extent the existence of comprehensive management in municipalities, while structural factors such as the size of municipalities do not, even though risk management is slightly more advanced in larger cities than in smaller local governments.

This compels us to ask whether the slow adoption is because of the special nature of RM as a managerial innovation. Such considerations direct our attention to the kind of intuitive cost-benefit assessment public managers are likely to go through when evaluating the needs and preconditions for the introduction of a comprehensive risk management model. Our assumption is that as a managerial innovation ERM lacks immediate benefit when assessed against the efforts and costs of its introduction and maintenance. It seems that the risk environment and institutional characteristics of public sector entities, including persisting silo mentality, do not provide a particularly strong incentive neither for politicians nor public managers to pursue voluntarily the adoption of such a model.

A need for tailored solutions

The question is not only about the nature of comprehensive RM as such (and the COSO ERM model in particular). We claim that part of the slow adoption is due to the insensitivity of the developers of such models and consequently also their models and tools to the needs and realities of public sector organisations. Thus, if business management models are not sufficiently tailored to the factual needs of local governments, their voluntary adoption is likely to be meagre.

This observation relates to the interplay between developers, consultants and local authorities, and points to private sector parties in particular, who should do their homework before rushing their potential clients in the local government.

Local choice matters

Lastly, our research implies that providing a condition for proper local choice may produce system level benefits, for local politicians, public managers and the front-line staff are in the best position to assess the suitability and benefit of each business model. In the case of comprehensive RM, for example, representatives of local government may see that this particular models is not cost-effective or may even appear to be insignificant in terms of its added value. This hints that new business models and management tools should not be too lightly imposed by the legislature on local governments – spontaneous evolution is as a rule better for creating cost-effective and resilient solutions. We may conclude that local government organisations, when given a general competence to decide on the conduct of local affair, are generally more rational and selective in adopting business models than generally assumed.

 

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Lasse Oulasvirta is Professor of Financial Administration and Public Sector Accounting in the University of Tampere, School of management. His research interests include public sector financial management, budgeting, accounting and auditing. He holds PhD (Administrative Sciences) and M.A. (Business Economics) degrees.

 

 

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Ari-Veikko Anttiroiko is an Adjunct Professor based in the School of Management, University of Tampere, Finland. He holds a PhD (Administrative Sciences) and MPhil and Licentiate (Philosophy) degrees. His main research areas include local governance, local economic development, smart cities, creative cities and public sector innovations.

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