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Reasons For Local Government Fragmentation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Hatcher
May 12, 2015

Our federal system is a complex network of over 87,000 counties, cities and special districts. Most of our nation’s metro areas are highly fragmented structures with hundreds of local governments. For many of us in public administration, the decentralized nature of American federalism obstructs efficient, effective and fair administration.

Many in our field view fragmented metro areas as feudal systems, where local officials play out their “game of thrones” with little to no regard for regional problems. Local governments often compete with one another over attracting citizens, securing finite public dollars and recruiting private sector jobs. Such competition serves as a barrier against local government cooperation. But, is this always the case?  And what has historically been the response to the fuedalism?

Writing for the Atlantic’s CityLab website, Richard Florida explores recent research examining the negative effects of fragmentation in urban areas.

In a study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), researchers found fragmented cities throughout the industrial democratic world to be inefficient and less economically productive than centralized cities. However, Florida and his colleagues found little correlation between fragmentation and economic growth in the U.S. According to Florida’s assessment, “fragmentation may be inefficient and duplicative, but it does not appear to do damage to local economic growth.”

Yet, local government fragmentation runs counter to many key components of public administration theory—accountability, economies of scale, duplication of services, etc. In public administration, we view our fragmented system of government as confusing to citizens, frustrating to policy advocates and simply irrational to everyone else. According to the National League of Cities, consolidation increases efficiencies by reducing duplication of services, increases the political power of cities, unifies planning and helps citizens hold government more accountable. Consolidation is clearly more logical.

Still, to borrow a phrase from my colleague Matthew Howell, there is logic to the fragmentation of our local communities.

First, the consolidation of cities and counties is a rare political event that often does not produce much positive change in local public administration.

Over the nation’s history, fewer than 40 cities and counties have consolidated or merged their governments. And surprisingly, especially to local officials and practitioners, research shows consolidation to be an ineffective administrative reform. For instance, research reported by Jespon in Planning Practice and Research found consolidated cities to be similar to non-consolidated cities.

In other words, our field’s top administrative reform to fragmentation—consolidation—is difficult to achieve and may not improve local governance.

Second, local governments do cooperate, even in our highly competitive federal system.

In a past PA TIMES online article, my colleague Matthew Howell and I discussed how local governments often have incentives to cooperate with one another.

Cooperation may occur when city leaders work together and form social bonds through associations of local governments (informal groups) and councils of local governments (more formal groups). Furthermore, cooperation may occur when a city is faced with a clear policy goal, such as the need to improve its economy. For example, since the 1980s, the fragmented local governments of the Denver metro area have worked together to improve the community’s economy.

And according to Howell, fragmentation may be the product of strong interest group politics. Similar interest groups form cities to promote and protect their view of government.

Lastly, fragmentation may produce positive administrative outcomes. 

Public choice theorists argue that fragmentation produces more creative policy and better economies because citizens have the option to vote with their feet by moving to a neighboring jurisdiction, or across the country that better represents their public policy views and economic preferences. This organizing of citizens based on policy preferences is called Tiebout sorting, after the economist Charles Tiebout. Such sorting may lead to communities being more economically productive due to the degree of choice enjoyed by citizens and businesses.

However, empirical research is unclear about the validity of Tiebout sorting and the overall economic effects of fragmentation and consolidation. We lack solid evidence that consolidation helps produce a better economy for a once fragmented community. Research by Richard Feiock and Jered Carr, reported in State and Local Government Review, found that city-county consolidation caused little to no economic growth in the merged community of Jacksonville, Florida.

However, we do have solid evidence documenting the administrative costs of fragmentation. The literature in our field is filled with studies containing evidence of the frustration with fragmentation held by public managers. Before we address the administrative costs of fragmentation, we need evidence-based solutions. And, we just don’t know enough about city-county consolidation to say that it is the go-to solution for fragmentation. Therefore, the main rational of fragmentation may be that we have no clear administrative reform.

Also, there is the fact that James Madison crafted our system of government to be decentralized and fragmented. That’s pretty strong logic as well.

Author: William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Government at Eastern Kentucky University. He can be reached at [email protected]. (His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer.)

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