By Christine Lewis, Economist, Country Studies, OECD Economics Department
A key argument for small local governments is that they can better deliver the services that their residents want and need. A key question is: what size is too small? When is the average cost of services too high, the range of choice too narrow or expertise spread too thinly across the country? These questions are especially relevant in the Czech Republic where there are over 6 200 municipalities – the smallest on average in the OECD (Figure 1). Almost one-quarter of municipalities have less than 200 residents; around three-quarters have less than 1 000 residents.
Municipalities have important responsibilities in delivering key services including education, healthcare, transport, public housing and waste removal. It seems that scaling up some services could realise economies of scale and scope. For instance, schools tend to be small – around 60% of basic schools have less than 200 students – which limits their ability to cater to a larger range of needs (Shewbridge et al., 2016). In very small municipalities overheads may be crowding out spending on other services: administration costs per person were 50% higher in 2013 in municipalities with 100-200 residents than those with 1 000-2 000 residents. Small municipalities also have more difficulties with technical procedures, like public procurement.
Scaling up service delivery does not necessarily mean mergers, although a number of OECD countries have taken this path. In Italy and Hungary certain services must be provided jointly if municipalities are below a threshold size. France provides financial incentives for co-operation. Non-financial incentives could be used to reinforce financial incentives. Alternatively, service standards could be imposed to guarantee minimum standards across the country and induce greater co-operation to meet these standards. In any case, the central government should create a unit to monitor co-operation and facilitate co-operation between municipalities, with additional support from regional governments and the representative associations of municipalities. A promising new programme is piloting centres of shared services, which should help mitigate skill shortages, and if successful, should be expanded systematically.
This process should be accompanied by more information about the performance of service providers. Norway’s KOSTRA system is an example of best practice in combining and publishing performance information. In the Czech Republic a lot of data already exist but are fragmented or not published. Publishing performance indicators and using them in benchmarking and in budgetary processes would better inform policymakers and provide stronger incentives to providers to raise service quality. It would also help citizens decide whether the right balance has been struck between municipal size and the service quality that they expect.
OECD (2016), Economic Surveys: Czech Republic 2016, OECD Publishing, Paris.
Shewbridge, C. et al. (2016), OECD Reviews of School Resources: Czech Republic, OECD Publishing, Paris, forthcoming.