Why and how do municipalities merge? A view from the cognitive perspective

[Photo: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mental-virus-flipside-covid-pandemic-dr-abha-bhartia/%5D

Dr. Veronika Vakulenko

Among all public sector reforms initiatives, those appearing on the municipal level are the most tangible. This is because in modern democracies citizens can observe and (if willing to) trace changes in, for example, city planning, local infrastructure, education and many other spheres. Let’s be honest, everyone likes to visit a clean park, modern library, drive perfect roads or celebrate an opening of a new school. Meaning that local governments need to use financial recourses on creating a comfortable place for all to live in. However, it becomes rather common that local governments are not able to balance their budgets, due to a higher per capita spending, lower public service provision, or limited infrastructural capacity, which is the case particularly for smaller rural areas.

Seeking to improve local financial condition, many countries worldwide launched local government reforms, which still remain on the top of agenda among academia and practitioners. Pursuing mainly the objective to enhance local financial efficiency and quality of local public services, the reforms can vary from contractual inter-municipal cooperation to mergers or amalgamations. Mergers are the most drastic reforms as they require alterations of territorial boundaries, changes in administrative responsibilities and routines, and adjustment of financial management practices, all of which affects significantly the lives of citizens.

Several European countries, e.g., Finland, Switzerland, Ukraine, selected to implement voluntary mergers, allowing local governments to celebrate the freedom in deciding whether to initiate the territorial reform. While some municipalities recognized merger’s benefits (i.e., improvement local governments’ economic condition and quality of local public service delivery), others resisted merger. In this situation, it becomes interesting to approach municipal amalgamations from a dynamic perspective to understand behaviour and interactions between different actors, which can result in diverging reform outcomes.

In our recent study published in open access at Local Government Studies, we use an interdisciplinary concept of cognitive style, to explore the psychological aspect of mergers. By mobilizing cognitive literature, we could take a closer look at local actors’ behaviour, to argue that a merger is not a simple ‘marriage of convenience’ of local actors to increase their economic efficiency. Rather, it is a complex cognitive process, which requires local actors’ mental work in taking decisions and creating (or not) a new merged municipality. Thus, a final decision “to merge or not to merge” depends not only on financial benefits, but also on the way local actors perceive and process information about financial incentives and how they operationalize their decisions.

In a story of two neighbouring local governments in Ukraine studied during 2015-2019, we approached two local political leaders, who were drivers of changes on the local level. By studying very carefully their behaviour and actions, we found that their initial perceptions of merging were completely the opposite. While the first one was viewing this as an opportunity and was able to convincingly explain the need and future benefits of this change, as well as introducing new practices to engage local citizens. Despite several other local actors were supporting this initiative, the second leader was acting in a discouraging way and always emphasized risks for their community, which in the end resulted in collective inaction.  To summarize, new interdisciplinary approaches can be used to better understand the success stories or failures of municipal mergers. Cognitive theory in public administration has a significant potential in this field as well as implications for practice. As our case showed, better mapping the sceptics and addressing perceptions of local leaders before initiating voluntary mergers could facilitate better results from territorial reforms.

Dr. Veronika Vakulenko is an Associate Professor at Nord University Business School, Norway. Their research interests include interdisciplinary public sector accounting research; budgeting and financial management in local governments; national and supra-national public sector audit; reforms particularly in the context of developing countries.

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