Improving local service delivery through reforms by Dr. Teles – Interview

Interviewee: Felipe Teles – Member of the Management Committee of ‘LocRef’

Interviewer: Théo Fievet – IIAS Intern

Théo Fievet (TF): From your own perspective, why was it important to invest time in such a research program?

Filipe Teles (FT): For three main reasons. First of all, the opportunity to gather such a significant number of researchers from all over Europe and share results from our research on local government reforms; secondly, the research agenda we established allowed us to deliver relevant information both for the academic community, as well as for practitioners; finally, and as a consequence of the aforementioned, this program allowed to advance new research agendas and to elaborate relevant questions for the future of local government in Europe. This COST Action had several really important consequences, which resulted from the time we all invested in the program: the fact that our research network was strengthened, new research projects were launched, several publications were delivered, and a large number of young researchers were involved.

TF: Reference to the subsidiarity principle as a golden rule was constant in the final conference, what kind of performance oriented reforms was the most in line with this principle?

FT: All those related to decentralisation and devolution. Local service delivery is inevitably linked to different approaches to territorial rescaling, since it addressed its most common problem: the size of the locality. There are many reasons why services should be provided by the lowest level of government, and one of them is definitively “proximity”, since local governments are closer to citizens and, thus, can respond to their needs and adopt tailor-fit policies. This also creates room for better democratic accountability of local politics. The subsidiarity principle states that higher-level authorities should perform only those tasks that cannot be performed effectively at the local level. The problem of size has been answered through “hard” mechanisms, like amalgamation, where localities are merged to form new entities; or, alternatively, “soft” mechanisms as inter-municipal cooperation or sub-municipal units. These allow functional optimisation without profound changes to the territorial or political status of the locality. The re-enforced inter-local cooperation allows municipalities to keep their autonomy and, at the same time, deliver the same economy of scale results.

“Local governments are closer to citizens and, thus, can respond to their needs and adopt tailor-fit policies.” F. Teles.

TF: Can you tell us about a success story you appreciated in terms of local governance reforms in Portugal? And a failure? What can we conclude from these cases?

FT: I would say that the only success story is related to public awareness about the role and importance of local governments in Portugal, whenever a reform (or tentative reform) is announced. Rather than pointing out an achievement related to the reform process itself, I consider this awareness to be quite relevant if one believes that the local level of government requires further attention. As a failure, I would say the lack of comprehensive in-depth reforms in Portugal. The main conclusion, for now, is that the Portuguese political culture and context does not allow for profound reforms.

The success story is related to public awareness about the role and importance of local governments in Portugal, whenever a reform is announced […] I consider this awareness to be quite relevant if one believes that the local level of government requires further attention.” F. Teles.

Local autonomy and self-government, though rhetorically presented as reform prerequisites, are excluded from the real debate. The result is a mix of new centralisation mechanisms and supervision tools, and of just partial decentralisation. Local government in Portugal requires a more flexible adaptation programme, rationalising inter-municipal and metropolitan structures as a part of the improvement of the territorial competitiveness together with a stronger commitment to local autonomy. The reform must go beyond public debt concerns and public administration cost cuts. It needs to recognize proximity as a relevant determinant of identity, democracy and efficiency. It also asks for a careful analysis of the competencies of each level of government and its related resources. It needs to provide an integrated approach to territory, scale, identity, competencies, political and fiscal autonomy, democracy and accountability.

Nevertheless, a more optimistic assessment of the reform in Portugal must highlight the interesting experiments related to inter-municipal cooperation.

TF: Southern states were the most seriously hit by the financial crisis. How did local governments reply to sharp budget decrease in their internal organisation? What was the influence of the Troika in those reforms? For which successes?

FT: One of the most interesting aspects of the Troika’s influenced reforms is the fact that local governments were much faster and effective to adapt to the new economic constraints than central government. Most of the reforms were deeply influenced by the agreement signed with the Troika. It contained several obligations related to local authorities with direct or indirect impact on their affairs. The obligations toward an ambitious deficit reduction forced central government to make important spending and revenue cuts and territorial and administrative reforms of relevance to the local level. The key commitments were the (1) reshaping of the administrative map reducing the number of sub-municipal units, the (2) reduction of the state grants to municipalities, a (3) reduction of the municipality staff by 2% in 2012 and 2013, and the (4) decrease of the local debt limit. Furthermore, it included new rules to be implemented with respect to municipal owned enterprises, fiscal measures with consequences for local budgets, new mechanisms of risk management control, reporting and monitoring.


TF: What are the most important assets of inter-municipal cooperation in terms of local reforms? (best practices sharing, peer control, benchmarking etc.)

FT: In general, inter-municipal cooperative arrangements are seen as a way of addressing the challenges of suboptimal municipal size and can serve as functional substitutes for territorial amalgamation. The most important assets of inter-municipal cooperation are their spill over effects. Of course that the benchmarking opportunities it creates, together with the significant results in terms of economies of scale are also quite important. Nevertheless, it is common, in research, to see references to cooperation extending beyond the initially agreed areas. Cooperation may positively influence management practices and knowledge sharing between organisations, since a more inclusive political culture is encouraged through partnership working. The focus on strategic responsibilities and the enlargement of the number of agents involved in policy may have also recognizable positive effects. These “soft learning” effects are one of the most interesting facts regarding cooperation.

“Cooperation may positively influence management practices and knowledge sharing between organisations, since a more inclusive political culture is encouraged through partnership working.” F. Teles.

Inter-municipal cooperation implies less radical changes to the legal and administrative system of a country and requires very few adaptations to its institutional architecture. In its voluntary forms there is even no expected change of organisational routines.

If cooperation is to play a role in local government reforms, it presents one immediate advantage: its possibility to be tailor-made accordingly to the needs and identities of the territories involved in collaborative arrangements. It provides the setting for flexible and mutable organisation of scales of political deliberation and of service provision. It is, also, relatively easy to involve a larger number of municipalities in cooperative arrangements, or to extend cooperation to other public and private agents. Inter-municipal cooperation may well prove more capable of dealing with the shift from hierarchical and bureaucratic government to flexible and networked governance.


TF: What is your next research agenda related to the COST Action? How can you use COST Action’s outcome?

FT: First, there are still several things related to the COST Action that need to be finished. A book I’m editing with Pawel Swianiewicz on Inter-municipal Cooperation in Europe will soon be sent to the publisher, as well as another one edited together with Nikos Hlepas and other colleagues on Sub-municipal Units in Europe. Besides these books there are some articles to be published resulting from this research network which was strengthened through the COST Action. I will continue working on inter-institutional cooperation and local government’s reform, and will include some aspects related to territorial innovation. We will certainly use this network of researchers, which will continue to exist beyond the COST Action itself, as a preferential community of academics who share the same respect, interest and concern for local government. There are a lot of things to do and “The Future of Local Government in Europe: Lessons from Research and Practice in 31 Countries” (eds. Christian Schwab, Geert Bouckaert, and Sabine Kuhlmann) points out several of those things!

Filipe Teles

PhD – Member of the Management Committee of ‘LocRef’

Filipe Teles is Assistant Professor and Pro-Rector at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, and holds a PhD in Political Science. He is a member of the Research Unit on Governance, Competitiveness and Public Policy (GOVCOPP), where he has developed research work on governance and local administration, territorial reforms, political leadership and innovation. He was a member of the management committee of the COST Action “Local Public Sector Reforms: An International Comparison” and member of the working group WG III: Territorial/Functional Re-Scaling. He is a member of the Portuguese Association of Political Science, of the Political Studies Association (UK), and he is currently member of the Governing Board of the European Urban Research Association, of the Steering Committee of the Local Government and Politics Standing Group of the European Consortium for Political Research, and of the Board of the Research Committee on Comparative Studies on Local Government and Politics of the International Political Science Association.