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Why Are Governments So Hesitant to Share Services?

It makes rational sense, but people find many reasons to be wary -- even high school football rivalries.

high school football
What do high school football rivalries have to do with merging city services? A lot.
Shared services are one of the most ballyhooed management techniques for communities nationwide. That’s not surprising. The concept isn’t complicated and has the potential to save tax dollars through economies of scale and improved efficiencies. Rather than duplicate parallel services in separate communities that share borders, the communities can join forces.

Consider a physically deteriorating town hall in Marbletown, N.Y., that needed to be replaced. Marbletown formed an agreement with the neighboring town of Rosendale to share administrative office space in a former elementary school. This avoided town hall construction costs of $4 million for Marbletown and cut down on administrative expenses for both places.

But common sense isn’t enough to turn shared services into a dominant approach. There are a number of reasons why jurisdictions don’t marry physical spaces, programs and schools. For one thing, opportunities don’t just pop up like a well-managed rabbit in a hat. “When it’s a question of how to start, you get blank stares,” says MarySue Barrett, president of the Metropolitan Planning Council in Illinois. “They just have no idea of the construct of services in the next community. They don’t meet with one another.” 

That’s a real pity. Illinois has more than 7,000 jurisdictions; many of them are tiny and could benefit from combining forces. 

But even when one jurisdiction sees the possibility of synergy with another one, the process can stall when citizens and public officials have a strong sense of ownership in the status quo. “There’s resistance to change in procedures when there is a vested interest in the way things are being done,” says Grant Reeher, director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University. 

It’s a matter of human nature, rather than rational thinking. “This is one of those things that can play to people’s fears,” Barrett says. Just as proponents of shared services show that services can be enhanced and savings increased, “opponents turn them on their head and say you’re going to lose control. You’re going to lose your say. People are going to lose their jobs.”

Two school districts, for instance, may resist a merger because they aren’t willing to lose a high school team. “I’ve been all over the country,” says Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, “and I’m certainly familiar with this. People don’t want to take away two football teams with a great rivalry.”

One of the biggest fears that can stand in the way of shared services is the notion that when efforts in two jurisdictions are combined some of the savings will be accrued by laying off top administrative jobs. Turn two school districts into one, and you may lose one superintendent’s job. That makes one superintendent unhappy.

Additionally, elected officials may fear that combined services will deprive them of the praise they’ve historically gotten for good work. “Who will get the credit for picking up the trash well?” asks Reeher. But also, when trash accumulates on the sidewalks, who’ll be held responsible? 

Sharing IT services is particularly seductive, but difficult to implement. When an outside vendor is used, for example, there are already multiple procurement processes in place. To meet the needs of all involved, the jurisdictions may have to create a new procurement system. Of course, the entities involved don’t work with the vendor simultaneously to build a new system. One lead community has to begin the process, so others can follow along. “This is a case where it’s better to be the second entity to engage in a new procurement process than the first,” says Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation. 

States that have strong unions and many bargaining units run into especially high hurdles. In Connecticut, for example, there has been a repeatedly unsuccessful effort to change collective bargaining laws to make sharing services easier. Specifically, there’s a need for collective bargaining units to speak with one voice after a combination of services has been put into effect.  

DeLong illustrates the difficulties by pointing to events in the state capital, Hartford. Several years ago, the Board of Education and the local government decided to combine their IT departments. But there were separate bargaining units representing the IT people on both sides and they couldn’t get together. As a result, the sensible-seeming effort to combine IT in these two entities has stalled. “You have to negotiate with one group,” he says, “not several groups who have different approaches.”

There’s a commonplace belief that shared services can be a lifesaver for communities that are short on cash and eager to improve services. But we’d like to coin a new maxim here: When common sense does battle with common fears and practices, good new ideas will be crushed in the conflict.

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