Setting the Stage for Intergovernmental Cooperation

By Ruggini, John | Government Finance Review, February 2008 | Go to article overview

Setting the Stage for Intergovernmental Cooperation

Ruggini, John, Government Finance Review

Laying the groundwork is key to the success of intergovernmental service sharing.

Previous articles in this magazine1 have made the case for intergovernmental service sharing economies of scale, greater uniformity and higher service levels, reduced duplication, optimization of less frequently used equipment, increased flexibility, and potential cost savings are all potential advantages of a service delivery arrangement whereby multiple governments collaborate to provide a single type of service. For jurisdictions that are considering taking the shared service plunge, successful agreements are most often developed in three phases: organizing for cooperation, ironing out the details, and minding the store.


It is tempting to dive into the technical details of shared service arrangements - how costs will be allocated, how the service will be funded, and so forth. A key to success, however, is to first organize for cooperation by creating a deliberative process for involving stakeholders, identifying opportunities, and assessing the costs and benefits.

At its core, shared service delivery relies on trust and cooperation among elected officials and administrative staff in different communities - which may or may not occur naturally. Organizing for cooperation ensures that these necessary relationships are in place.

The first step in organizing for cooperation is creating a forum where relationships can be established and opportunities can be identified. The City of Flagstaff, Arizona, and Linn County Oregon, both organizations with successful shared service arrangements, established monthly meetings among all governmental entities in their respective geographic areas to discuss common concerns and to specifically seek shared service opportunities. This could occur at a staff or elected official level, depending on the circumstances. Alternately, a task force could be formed to specifically identify shared service opportunities. The City of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, took this approach and created a study group of three city council members to look at current service levels among their own departments and create a catalog of opportunities based on a self-assessment utilizing a shared service typology the city developed. Priorities were created and then agreements were pursued accordingly with surrounding jurisdictions. The role of elected officials is perhaps most critical during this first step, as they, often are in positions to broker relationships and begin conversations. It is also important not to organize for cooperation around the most complex initiative first, especially if jurisdictions have not worked together extensively before. Shared services often serve as a catalyst for other agreements, and in this way simpler initiatives can pave the way for larger ones.

As priorities are identified, governments should carefully study the feasibility of a shared service arrangement. A business case should be developed for the selected service before negotiations begin.2 For more complex arrangements, especially ones that may prove politically controversial, governments may find it beneficial to engage a third party to conduct the initial feasibility analysis. A third party may more easily identify difficult issues and get them resolved early in the process. Having a neutral "broker" communicate costs and benefits to key stakeholders also helps to establish trust and buy-in.

Involving key stakeholders is important during this process. They may include employees who may be affected, union representatives, elected officials, and community members anticipate who the supporters and the resisters will be, and involve both early and often. It is also important to stress to participants that not all benefits are cost-related. For example, a merged police department may result in shorter response times and increased deployment flexibility. There also may be cost savings that might not accrue for several years as staffing levels are adjusted through attrition. …

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