Abstract image: two giant puzzle pieces with people standing on them, coming together

Collaboration is a good thing, isn’t it? Not always, according to a new paper in Public Administration Review by faculty member Thomas Elston and colleagues.

Amid a trend globally for local governments to collaborate with one another when delivering local public services (such as refuse collection or welfare), Thomas Elston, Germà Bel and Han Wang examined whether collaboration brought improvements in the English case. They looked at local tax administration in almost 300 local authorities over 11 years, and found that collaborating to fulfil tax collection responsibilities neither saved money nor improved revenue generation, and in the short term made things worse.

“For a decade or more, English local government has experienced the perfect storm of rising demand for services and shrinking resources”, says Thomas. “Working together across local boundaries had been regarded as one of the best ways of coping, but until recently we had little evidence on whether it worked in the English case. Our research has come up with pretty clear findings that pooling resources and delivering ‘one service’ across multiple council areas is not improving things, and can actually be damaging.”

This is because collaboration is only effective where public services are subject to interdependencies – that is, when something is made possible by working together that is impossible, or extremely difficult, when working apart. Reducing criminal recidivism, for instance, requires a multi-agency response from health services, education, housing, and employment. Together, these agencies can pursue goals that none could fulfil individually. But in the case of local government services, the main interdependence used to justify cross-boundary working is the belief that bigger is better – and that joint services obtain economies of scale that are unavailable to councils individually.

Thomas and colleagues showed that, in practice, there were no further economies of scale to be found through collaboration, because England’s local authorities are already “super-sized” compared to much of Europe or the USA. While councils there have a far better track record of collaboration, those working on their own in England are not subject to a smallness ‘penalty’, and so do not depend on one another to obtain a more optimal scale.

“Increasing the quantity and quality of joint working among agencies responsible for delivering public services must be among the most oft-repeated of recommendations directed at governments the world over”, says Thomas. “There is just an assumption that collaboration is a Good Thing. And when it doesn’t produce service improvements, this failure gets attributed to the way in which collaboration was implemented – the difficulty of coordinating multiple organisations, for example. But in fact, the failure may simply be because collaboration wasn’t an appropriate policy solution in the first place.”

The team examined the collection of council tax (local taxes paid by residents based on the value of the property they live in). Council tax helps pay for services like social care, waste collection and roads. The team measured performance by what proportion of the council tax owed had been collected by the end of the year (the higher the better), and by how much was spent on the collection process, including employee and operating costs. 

They looked at nearly 300 authorities from 2009 to 2019. Tax collection rates are typically high (97% on average), providing only limited opportunity to improve service quality (and much scope for deterioration).  Despite this, by 2019, some 28% of billing authorities were party to an inter-municipal collaboration, providing one service across two or more council areas, with the same staff, offices, work processes, and IT.

By comparing collaborating and non-collaborating local authorities, the team showed that there were no cost savings from joint working, and that the collection rate actually went down. This evened out over time, but any period of lower collection rates means less funding for the local authority to provide key services to residents.

“This finding matters because collaboration is a go-to idea for governments around the world”, explains Thomas. “The assumption that it must be a good idea is so strong that most research to date on reform failures has focused on why a good plan wasn’t well executed. The cost and difficulty of coordinating multiple organisations was too great, for example; there was not enough buy-in or willingness to switch to new ways of working; or evaluation happened too early and so captured only the short-term costs of change. What we’ve shown, however, is that there may be a much more fundamental reason for failure: collaboration just wasn’t an appropriate policy solution in the first place.

“Where public service providers are irrefutably dependent on one another to get things done, collaboration is essential. But where that’s not the case, collaboration is a poor reform strategy. Our advice to policymakers is to set a high bar for what level of interdependence warrants a collaborative response, and to look for alternative strategies when that bar isn’t met.”

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: When collaborative public management becomes collaborative excess, by Thomas Elston, Germà Bel and Han Wang, is published in Public Administration Review, the premier journal in the field of public administration research and theory.