The Accelerating Movement to Share Services

It's happening all over, and there's more to it than saving money. As a new study show, county governments are emerging as the key.
by , | December 6, 2012 AT 5:00 PM

If you think that things aren't moving that quickly in the arena of sharing of services among governments, consider this: More than half of county officials across the country either are participating in or delivering shared services or are in active discussions to do so.

That's what Eric Zeemering, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, and Daryl Delabbio, a county administrator in Michigan, found in a nationwide survey they recently completed. Their study, which will be published next month, found that it isn't just fiscal constraints that are causing so many governments to rethink how they deliver services. While county officials do say that "working with neighbors can help save money or add new revenue," the authors report that they found plenty of other motivations, including the ability to share in innovative approaches, such as reverse auctions; to improve regional decision-making; to transfer skills and knowledge, such as website design and maintenance; and to increase the level or quality of services.

Why are counties leading this trend? Typically, small local governments jealously guard their independence. County government is a natural place to turn to coordinate or deliver common services, whether they are police investigative services, road paving or group-purchasing contracts.

The approach varies widely. They can be formal contracts or inter-local agreements between governments, or they can be informal understandings. About one-third of the surveyed county officials say they have such agreements in place.

At the extreme end of the scale is the Los Angeles County sheriff's office, which contracts out so many services to local governments that it has a bureau dedicated to managing those services. The office provides SWAT teams, helicopters, specialized investigations and school liaison officers for local communities. "We consider ourselves a support unit because we are not the actual service provider," says Lt. Rick Mouwen, who is with the sheriff office's bureau of contracts and enforcement.

Zeemering and Delabbio caution that shared services aren't right for every local government. They found that a successful shared-services project has three preconditions:

Leadership. Top leaders in both the county government as well as the local governmental units participating in a shared service have to champion the initiative. But that's not sufficient. Leadership is needed on the implementation teams, as well. For example, Kershaw County, S.C., created a "synergy committee" with staff from the county, the city of Camden, the school district and local hospitals to find ways to work together, starting with joint purchasing of office paper and fleet maintenance.

Trust, reciprocity and transparency. Trust is seen as an important precondition for working together. "Relationships are the currency of how we get everything done in government," says Katy Simon, county manager of Washoe County, Nev. "If people don't trust each other, shared services are not going to work."

Clear goals and measurable results. Dialogue is important, but so are results. Howard County, Md., Executive Ken Ullman made it a priority to work with the independent public-school district so that the county and the schools could find ways to create operational efficiencies and save money. They set clear goals around jointly bidding health, dental and other employee benefits, resulting in yearly savings of $4.3 million. This paved the way for developing similar agreements in other areas.

If those preconditions are met, Zeemering and Delabbio offer three pieces of advice, based on responses to their survey, for local leaders considering the move to sharing services as either a provider or a user:

Create a shared-services assessment team. A governance team needs to be defined that jointly engages all the players, and including members of the public can helpful. Augusta County, Va., convened such a team and identified 15 services that then were further explored to see if there were opportunities to convert them to regional shared services. A regional animal shelter was created, and a regional authority to manage a jail is being developed. "Having the governance team made it possible for all of us to come to the table without fear of political whiplash," said County Administrator Patrick Coffield.

Seek the strengths in each participating government. Counties have to make honest assessments of their strengths and weaknesses, since, as the authors note, "not all county services are well-suited for selling to other governments through contract." The first step is to identify commonalities in service needs, then assess which existing unit of government does it best. Mecosta County, Mich., Administrator Paul Bullock did this, and his county now works with the city of Big Rapids on information-technology projects and with a neighboring county on emergency-dispatch services.

Consider pilot projects. Testing the waters can be a good start on developing trust and confidence in working relationships between people. The authors say survey respondents often noted that "small successes in cooperation provide a foundation for ongoing relationships." Starting with temporary sharing helps lower the costs of potential failures. If the sharing arrangement meets expectations, it can easily be expanded.

Many county managers interviewed as part of the survey describe a growing culture of cooperation, brought on in part by budgetary constraints that have forced a rethinking of how services are delivered. Pasquotank County, N.C., County Manager Randy Keaton probably said it best: "I think a key is for people to disregard county lines and look at the regional as a whole in trying to provide services."