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Interlocal Relations

Last Updated: 2018

The American governmental system is extremely fragmented, with more than 89,000 units of local government. According to the 2012 census, local governments included about 37,203 special districts, 19,522 cities, 16,364 townships, 12,884 school districts, and 3,031 counties. Interlocal relations include city-city, county-county, and city-county relationships, as well as relations among cities or counties and special local districts such as for schools, fire departments, water and sewer services, and economic development. Interlocal relations are studied in both their competitive and cooperative natures.

A recurring theme in interlocal relations, dating to the reform movements of the early twentieth century, is city-city and city-county consolidation. Leland and Thurmaier (2004, 2010) examine the development and efficacy of city-county consolidations in the U.S. using careful comparative case study designs; they find evidence of improved economic development but little support for the claims of increased government efficiencies and economizing.

Interlocal relations in the United States have largely been studied in the context of metropolitan governance. There are 382 metropolitan areas in the United States as defined by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. More than 80 percent of Americans live in one of the metropolitan areas, and nearly half live in the twenty-five largest regions. Stephens and Wikstrom (2000) note that “the average metro area contains about 100 local governments, including 40 special districts, 24 municipalities, 19 independent school districts, 16 townships, and two counties.”

Savitch and Vogel (1996) analyzed patterns of intergovernmental relations in several regions (Los Angeles; New York City; Washington, D.C.; St. Louis; and Pittsburgh), and classified metropolitan governance as mutual adjustment (direct or indirect cooperation and coordination), conflict, or avoidance. Each region adopts patterns of governance that reflect their history and unique issues and problems. Eliciting cooperation is a slow process.

Frederickson (1999) contends the new global economy and revolution in telecommunications have altered the meaning of physical space and the importance of boundaries. The disarticulation of the state includes the declining salience of jurisdictions; the fuzziness of borders; the inability of the fragmented jurisdiction to contain and manage complex social, economic, and political issues; and the asymmetry between the governed and those who govern.

At the local level, the disarticulated municipality can increase effectiveness within collaborative governance regimes by engaging in collaborative actions with three or more organizations to manage complex social and economic problems that could not be done by a single organization (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015; Agranoff 2007). Thurmaier and Mitchell (2016) define a public management network of local governments as a collaboration among three or more members with a shared purpose, which is jointly managed and requires active participation of all members. Public agencies in a network setting continue to operate independently but at the same time they can combine resources, delivering services better than any of them could do alone (Agranoff 2003).

Thurmaier and Wood (2002) frame cooperative relationships between local units of government in terms of four levels of interlocal agreement (communication, coordination, cooperation, and consolidation) and the type of substantive policy or service area. Wood uses a typology of service delivery arrangements that include joint initiatives, contracts, transfer of services (functional consolidation), city-county consolidation, and partnerships with regional institutions such as a council of government (2001).

Frederickson’s early theory of administrative conjunction (1999) posits that intergovernmental partnerships and social networks are driven primarily by professional staff who are more inclined to think and act regionally and to build “epistemic communities” than elected officials who are more focused on electoral matters that are jurisdictional and local in nature and scope. However, in later work, Matkin and Frederickson (2009) find no difference between elected officials and professional staff in their willingness to support metropolitan cooperation. Zeemering (2008) finds city council members interested in public management network development and agreement assessment.

Kelly and Pandey (2011) conclude that financially motivated and socially motivated managers are more involved in interlocal service delivery. Analyzing the relationships between interlocal service cooperation and social networks, LeRoux et al (2010) find that social networks influence the effectiveness of inter-jurisdictional partnerships; associations where members have face-to-face meetings produce better results for effective service cooperation; and jurisdictions where public managers have a master’s degree in public administration engage more actively in inter-jurisdictional service cooperation.

Many studies have demonstrated that cities frequently participate in intergovernmental service delivery arrangements. Scholars suggest that a majority of the U.S. cities and counties participate in at least one such arrangement. Intergovernmental partnerships have become the structure of choice for many jurisdictions in the delivery of urban services. Intergovernmental arrangements may be preferable to public-private partnerships in that governments share common goals and values that result in more trust, fewer agency problems, and less transaction costs (see Krueger and McGuire 2005, Post and Stein 2000, and LeRoux and Carr 2007).

Many scholars have found that city governments enter into intergovernmental service delivery arrangements in order to enhance economies of scale, reduce costs, improve service quality, equalize service levels, and solve common problems (Chen and Thurmaier 2009). Post and Stein (2002) have found that local governments mostly rely on interlocal arrangements for delivering high cost services, such as housing, parking, road construction, and water distribution.

The increasing interdependence of jurisdictions, the transcendence of regional economies, and the disarticulation of the state foster the incentive and need for cooperation and coordination among local governments to finance and deliver urban services. As a result, local governments enter into governance networks that create a spiderweb of complex relationships that are superimposed upon existing institutions. These governance networks are generally able to overcome the disarticulation of the state and reduce fiscal stress. However, metropolitan governance is not a panacea. There is little evidence that metropolitan governance is capable of overcoming fiscal disparities found between jurisdictions, solving fundamental metropolitan problems, or controlling urban sprawl (Savitch and Vogel 1996; Feiock 2009). Achieving these objectives will require more intergovernmental cooperation, stronger regional institutions, and a closer partnership between local jurisdictions, states, and the federal government.

SEE ALSO: Intergovernmental RelationsLocal GovernmentSpecial Districts


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