Focus: Autonomy of European local authorities by Prof. Ladner – Interview

Interviewee: Prof. Andreas Ladner – Co-leader of the COST funded projects “Autonomy, Management Reforms and Amalgamations” and “Local Autonomy Index”

Interviewer: Théo Fievet – IIAS Intern

Andreas LadnerThéo Fievet (TF): Prof. Ladner, you have been co-leader of the COST funded projects “Autonomy, Management Reforms and Amalgamations” but also “Local Autonomy Index”, why did you decide to lead these two COST funded projects? What were your role in these projects?

Andreas Ladner (AL): Well, the COST action is an excellent opportunity to do research in an international perspective and to get in contact with colleagues from other countries who work on the same topics. To take fully advantage of these opportunities, however, we need additional resources to fund research projects. In the course of the LocRef COST action, we were particularly lucky. We received an important grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation to analyse local public sector reforms with respect to the municipalities’ autonomy, and additionally, we were given a mandate by the European Commission to create a local autonomy index for 39 countries. For the first project, the international perspective granted by the activities within the COST action was an important argument in favour of our proposal, for the second project, it was basically the network of international experts we could rely upon which helped to win the bid.

TF: About the content of these projects, what would you like to underline? How can the outcomes be instrumentalized for further researches? 

AL: The local autonomy index will hopefully be used by many other researchers to reflect on the different dimensions of autonomy, on its causes and its effects. With the collaboration of about 40 experts around Europe, we were able to gather comprehensive longitudinal data for the time between 1990 and 2014 for 39 countries. This unique data set offers a wide range of possibilities for further analyses. As for the reforms in Swiss municipalities, we not only propose an elaborate methodology to analyse local government reforms, but we also add a very specific case to the international literature which in quite a few respects can serve as an ideal type.

TF: How do you explain that Switzerland is outstanding with high local autonomy and small size of local governments? What benefit does this status give to them?

AL: Switzerland is very heterogeneous and the political system has historically developed bottom-up. The country was never ruled by a central power, by a king or a queen. Nation building was about transferring power and competences to the higher levels of state. The residual competences, however, remained in the hands of the cantons and the municipalities. The prevailing principles of liberalism made centralized solutions for the whole country very difficult, and diversity is rather seen as a virtue than as a problem.

The high degree of autonomy municipalities enjoy is, of course, even more astonishing when we consider the small size of them. The key features of their autonomy are their legal status, meaning that they cannot be amalgamated against their will, their right to set up their own political systems, and their tax autonomy. Almost all the money they spend comes directly from their citizens by the means of income tax. Swiss municipalities are less autonomous when it comes to effective political discretion and the number of tasks they are responsible for. Here, the lack behind the Scandinavian countries.

“The most important benefits can be found in the relation between the citizens and the local authorities. The citizens want to know what the authorities do with their money and the authorities are accountable to their citizens. Because they are autonomous, decisions on local level matter. There is a high level of trust in local politicians and a high degree of satisfaction with local facilities and services.” A. Ladner.

TF: Autonomy and austerity seem to be two contradicting features for local government, is there a way to assure sustainable budgets while leaving full autonomy to local governments? If not do you advocate for a temporary loss of autonomy?

AL: Not necessarily. Of course, your marge de manoeuvre depends on the resources you dispose of. If there is no money, you cannot fully use your autonomy. Fiscal autonomy and financial self-reliance, nevertheless, are good starting points. If the link between citizens and authorities functions well, and the citizens know that they have to pay for the services they get, they will be interested in sustainable budgets. If a municipality spends too much, it will have to increase local tax. This is not very popular. There are, unfortunately, municipalities which are not able to generate enough income from their citizens. This is also the case in Switzerland. In these cases, an intelligent equalization system is needed.

TF: Local autonomy is far from equal in Europe, and an ideal level of local autonomy does not exist European-wide, so under which conditions do you recommend low and high autonomy?

AL: Local autonomy, according to our analyses so far, seems to go hand in hand with economic prosperity and local democracy. It is, however, too simple to expect that giving more autonomy to municipalities solves all the problems. A spirit of community, capable and trustworthy politician, a well-functioning local administration and at least some economic prosperity are also needed. To strive for local autonomy seems to me beneficial for all countries. But, of course, not all decisions can be taken on local level, not everything can be done by municipalities. Here, we can use the principle of subsidiarity, for example.

“It is, however, too simple to expect that giving more autonomy to municipalities solves all the problems. A spirit of community, capable and trustworthy politician, a well-functioning local administration and at least some economic prosperity are also needed.” A. Ladner.

TF: What are the next projects (such as the “Autonomy, Management Reforms and Amalgamations” and “Local Autonomy Index”) that you plan to work on?

AL: Actually, we are writing a book using the data of the Local Autonomy Index project. Whereas for the reform project, we are not only interested in whether local public sector reforms really matter, we would also like to know to what extent autonomy is used when it comes to reforms. Our next research steps will be more qualitative.

Andreas Ladner

Professor – Co-leader of the COST funded projects “Autonomy, Management Reforms and Amalgamations” and “Local Autonomy Index”

In 2002, Andreas Ladner received the Venia Docendi for Political Science at the University of Bern for his habilitation thesis “Stability and Change of Party Systems – A Comparative Analysis of Conflict Lines, Parties and Party Systems in the Swiss Cantons”. Since spring 2006, he is Professor of Swiss Administration and Institutional Policy at the IDHEAP, Institute of Public Administration, University of Lausanne. He has led various research projects for the Swiss National Science Foundation on the topics of municipal policy as well as the NCCR Democracy via the “smartvote” electoral platform. His current areas of research are the quality of democracy, local government, institutional change, political parties, and voting aid applications. He was the co-leader of the COST Action “Local Public Sector Reforms: An International Comparison” projects on “Autonomy, Management Reforms and Amalgamations” and on “Local Autonomy Index”.