AuthorSwianiewicz, Pawel
  1. The relevance of inter-municipal cooperation in Europe

    Inter-municipal arrangements are flourishing in European local government landscape. The motivation for this article lies in the intensity and diversity of these emerging answers to the challenge of scale and efficiency in service provision at the local and regional level. By formulating joint research questions and hypotheses verified in different national settings, our research allowed for the comparison between several institutional arrangements and, particularly, its relative prominence in different political and organizational cultures.

    Inter-municipal cooperation has been an important topic of debate in European academic literature for a long time. It is well rooted in more general theories of co-operation, which are present in sociology, psychology, organization theory and game theory. On a theoretical level, cooperation between local governments as a means to achieve additional gains or a method to respond to problems of coordination, was already present in the 1950's within the debate (e.g., in public choice) on the new organization of metropolitan areas. A comprehensive summary of debates and related empirical research may be found in Dowding and Feiock (2012). However, studies of IMC in Europe suffer from a deficit of comprehensive, international comparative research. So far the most wide-ranging study covered eight European countries and has been undertaken by Hulst and van Montfort (2007, followed by a shorter discussion in 2011). In Central and Eastern Europe the volume comparing scope and forms of IMC in five countries has been edited by Swianiewicz (2011). There are also publications comparing IMC in two different countries (e.g., Wollmann, 2008, 2010, on Germany and France; Bolgherini, 2011, on Italy and Germany; Bolgherini, 2014, on Italy and Spain) or reviewing evidences on the impact of IMC on costs in a single local service (e.g., Bel, Fageda and Mur, 2014; Bel and Warner, 2015 - both on waste management).

    Although scholars have found it difficult to agree on how to explain why local governments do or do not collaborate with each other, there is considerable evidence that the institutionalization of cooperative forms of supra-municipal service provision has been occurring for a long time (Hulst and van Montfort, 2007). In this context, municipalities have taken into account multiple aspects of the expected advantages of working together, be it as a result of voluntary agreements, or as a consequence of imposed collaboration.

    These collaborative arrangements between municipalities in order to handle collective issues have taken various forms. Inter-municipal cooperative arrangements vary in shape, scope and level of institutionalization. They result from the political initiative of several actors and present different forms in their fundamental nature. Additionally, its main drivers and intrinsic motivations are of multiple natures. To add complexity to this landscape, administrative traditions, governance systems, political culture, and the different levels of local autonomy in each European country makes the advancement of comprehensive typologies a problematic, if not unmanageable, task.

    To look in depth into these inter-municipal institutions has been claimed as one of the main tasks still to fulfil by researchers (Teles, 2016a). The democratic dynamics, the service provision role, its relevance and organizational density in most European countries cannot rely on vague information, descriptive comparative research and mere legal and constitutional frameworks. Knowledge on this topic is indeed needed and requires more empirical studies exploring several of its features. It also requires both inter-countries as well as intra-country analysis of its diversity. In fact, this is precisely one of the most neglected aspects of previous comparative research, and - especially - of the tentative typologies that have been suggested. The generalization exercises and comprehensive frameworks, given the fact that research has drawn conclusions with an overall perspective, far from the individual level of the institutions, have made diversity lose some of its color; at the same time, diversity and the plurality of forms it takes is precisely one of the most relevant features of inter-municipal organizations. In order to address two of its main challenges, the diversity of inter-municipal arrangements and the need to provide in-depth information about its institutional aspects, we have conducted a common research project in eight European countries. The main objective of our article and of the analytical dimensions it explores is indirectly related to the general debate on upscaling or decentralization reforms in Europe, and the role that inter-municipal cooperation plays in that setting. The general aim of this article is to contribute, therefore, to explore the dynamics, experiences and drivers of inter-municipal cooperation in Europe, given its increasing incidence in contemporary local governance.

  2. The need to study inter-municipal cooperation

    Inter-municipal cooperation, as a research topic, is still quite under-developed and requires a significant expansion of some of its most relevant analytical features. In this article we aim at addressing some of these gaps, particularly in three areas: (1) suggesting the need to include more dimensions in the characterization and in the comparative analysis of these arrangements; (2) providing in-depth information on country diversity, and (3) claiming that the degree of institutionalization is an important aspect to explore, given the evidence it can provide regarding the role, capacity and relevance of IMC. The latter will draw extensively from the empirical analysis presented in the next two sections of the article, where the within-country variation of the level of institutionalization of inter-municipal arrangements is disclosed, analyzed and compared. The last section of the article will draw on this analysis and try to contribute to establish a road map for research on IMC in the near future, particularly regarding the mechanisms and tools for comparative studies, with the post-typology approach we suggest.

    Post-typological approaches

    Diversity is the best word to describe IMC institutional landscape in European local governance. Moreover, this is not only a matter of comparative analysis at the national level, but also of diversity within each country. Typologies as the ones presented in previous comparative studies, though relevant in providing wider pictures of IMC forms, tend to water down the color of such diversity. In-depth, individual case analysis would certainly provide other kind of data and information regarding the functioning of these arrangements, illustrating in a more complex and detailed way some of the post-typology research questions that we claim should be addressed.

    In depth information

    Our analysis does not focus on all IMC institutions, since it excludes less formal collaborative networks like contractual agreements that are quite prominent. This way we intend to accurately portray the particular phenomena of the variation of institutionalization amongst these governance arrangements. In addition, the data used in this article brings new up-to-date material. The decade difference between this research project and the data collected for Hulst and van Montfort's (2007) is important at least twofold. First, it covers an economic crisis which in many countries stimulated debates on territorial reforms, including impact on IMC (e.g., Teles, 2016b). Second, the 2004 (and then 2007) EU enlargement has changed the nature of inter-municipal cooperation in Europe, by adding a strong EU dimension among the motives of cooperation. The fact that we add new countries (not used before in comparative research in this field) and the new post-crisis landscape is certainly relevant. Furthermore, the uniform methodology of research in the individual involved countries allowed for part of the analysis to go down from country by country level to the level of individual IMC institutions. This in-depth common information allowed not only new understandings on the variation among countries, but also internal variation within each country. This allowed us to ask new questions and formulate hypotheses concerning the variation of IMC forms in Europe.

    The diversity of the institutionalization of IMC

    The main and seminal question remains to be answered: we are still looking for evidence of the relevance of these inter-local cooperative arrangements. Though highly emphasized in academic literature (e.g., Teles, 2016a), there is still a need to attest how important are IMC institutions in the functioning of local government systems in individual countries. How municipalities formalize their collaborative arrangements sets an important dimension of analysis. Relying on loosely coupled policy networks, with informal character, or formalizing procedures, rules, and governing entities represent two opposite levels of engagement. The latter could imply service integration and shared power, while the former can facilitate volatile engagements.

    For this analysis we limit our interest to IMC arrangements which are formalized (e.g., they are new, separate legal entities) and permanent rather than ad hoc. It means that we do not take into account contract agreements for service delivery between municipalities (they do not create any new entity, since they have often very limited duration). Therefore we focus on forms such as microregions (in Slovakia or Czech Republic), inter-municipal unions, associations, communities in various countries. We claim that in order to get a first picture of an inter-municipal arrangement it is important to assess its level of institutionalization, assuming that the intensity of such forms of cooperation is an appropriate indicator of its...

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