Academic journal article Public Administration Review

County Service Delivery: Does Government Structure Matter?

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

County Service Delivery: Does Government Structure Matter?

Article excerpt


One of the most enduring debates among political reformers, scholars, and practitioners has focused on the hypothesized impact that government structure has on local government policy decisions. Specifically, the debate boils down to the following question: Are the policy consequences different for reformed versus unreformed government structures? On one side of the issue are those who predict so-called "reformed" government structures produce better public services, lower tax rates and expenditures, and more professional administration, while "unreformed" government structures result in a lower quality of public services, higher tax rates and spending, and less administrative professionalism. On the other side of the issue are those who contend that government structure does not matter. In short, they argue that taxing and spending decisions, quality of services, and administrative professionalism are not determined by the structure of local government, but rather by other factors. (1)

The findings of empirical studies of the impact of local government structure appear to be divided. On the one hand, some studies (Lineberry and Fowler 1967; Hansen 1975; Karnig 1975; Lyons 1978; Schneider and Park 1989; Benton 2000a, b, 2002) support the argument that structure matters. On the other hand, other studies (Morgan and Pelissero 1980; Benton and Gamble 1984; Dena and Mahey 1987; Farnham 1987; Hayes and Chang 1990; Morgan and Kickham 1999)report that structure has little or no impact. However, many of these studies have focused on municipalities. This choice of study subjects is undoubtedly due to the fact that there are many more reformed municipalities than reformed counties. Indeed, the political reform movement that swept the country during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has been slow in coming to county governments.

A study conducted by Schneider and Park (1989), however, suggests the policy effects of structural reform may be different for counties than for municipalities. In fact, Schneider and Park find that reformed county governments spent more--not less--than did unreformed counties. In addition, their research shows that reformed county governments performed more functions than did unreformed counties.

The present research expands this line of inquiry--particularly as it applies to county expenditures--in two important ways. First, it examines in greater depth the notion of "reform." In particular, it looks at the impact of adopting a charter form of county government, in addition to having either an elected executive or appointed administrator, on county spending policies. Second, it examines the influence of this expanded notion of reform on spending for three different types of county services (traditional, local, and regional).

Previous Research

Proponents of municipal government reform typically argue that the adoption of reform structures tends to promote the employment of businesslike or professional practices and principles in the day-to-day operation of city government. This, in turn, should lead to greater efficiencies and assist in constraining municipal taxing and spending. Social science research that has tested this proposition, however, has produced mixed results. On the one hand, a number of studies (Lineberry and Fowler 1967; Welch and Bledsoe 1988; Lowery and Berry 1983; Lyons 1978; Hansen 1975; Karnig 1975) have reported significant variations in policy outputs that are attributable to reformed versus unreformed types of city government. In particular, these studies find that reformed municipalities tended to tax and spend less than unreformed municipalities. On the other hand, a number of other studies (see Hayes and Chang 1990; Deno and Mehay 1987; Farnham 1987; Morgan and Pelissero 1980) find that city government structure has little or no effect on municipal revenue and expenditure behavior. …

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