The Swedish Agency for Public Management

Municipal agreement collaboration. Is there a need for greater opportunities? (2016:23)

On behalf of the Government, Statskontoret (the Swedish Agency for Public Management) has analysed the need of further opportunities for agreement collaboration in the municipal sector. The assignment was limited to collaboration arising from municipalities entering formal agreements with each other. We assess there to be reasons for the Government and the Riksdag to take measures to develop opportunities for municipal agreement collaboration. We have used a web survey addressed to all Sweden’s municipalities to identify operational areas that could benefit from further opportunities for agreement collaboration. Our report highlights some areas in which we see reasons for the Government to initiate in-depth analysis and the types of questions that should then be treated.

The assignment reported here is one out of seven parts within a main government commission to Statskontoret regarding government regulation of the public sector.

Agreement collaboration is just one of several conceivable forms of collaboration

There is a long tradition of various degrees and forms of municipal collaboration, both under public and private law. The forms of collaboration under public law – local federations and joint committees – are regulated in the Swedish Local Government Act. However, there are no explicit rules on collaboration by means of municipalities entering agreements with each other.

The agreement collaboration’s consistency with municipal competence is instead assessed on the basis of the general competence rule in the Local Government Act. However, if it has been stated in law that a particular task is to be handled by the municipality’s own body, no agreement may transfer that task to another municipality without special legal support. Legal support of this kind is found in special legislation in several areas. However, for duties lying within the non-mandatory area of municipalities, agreement collaborations are possible in principle, but must take into account factors including principles of municipal law and procurement legislation.

It is very common for municipalities to collaborate, and this collaboration takes place in a range of operational areas. The form of collaboration chosen is affected by factors such as the operations involved. However, the collaboration in a particular area does not automatically have to take place through a particular form of collaboration. For example, collaboration on the exercise of authority can take place in various forms, primarily local federations, joint committees or agreements if special legal support exists. There are also many examples of operational areas for which different municipalities have chosen different forms of collaboration.

There are many kinds of barrier to agreement collaboration

A starting point for the assignment was to identify operational areas that currently lack special legal support for conducting inter-municipal agreement collaboration and where the introduction of such a right would be particularly valuable. Our survey among Sweden’s municipalities also shows that the absence of special legal support in individual areas is an important barrier to agreement collaboration.

However, barriers to agreement collaboration can be of various kinds – as shown by both our survey and previous studies. That a prospective agreement collaboration does not take place often appears to be due more to general difficulties regarding inter-municipal collaboration than to the absence of special legal support itself. This might, for example, involve the municipality’s failure to reach an agreement with the prospective collaboration partner. There might also be political objections in the municipality, an assessment that the collaboration organisation will too complicated, an assessment of insufficient financial or other benefit, or of excessive costs, or resistance from staff. There might also be other types of legal barriers, such as procurement legislation preventing a prospective collaboration.

There are reasons to improve the opportunities for agreement collaboration

In some situations, agreement collaboration might be a more appropriate form of collaboration than local federations and joint committees, especially since agreement collaboration is less intrusive as regards municipal steering and organisation. In our survey, many municipalities have stated that agreement collaboration is simpler and smoother than local federations and joint committees. For this reason, agreement collaboration can, for example, be preferable in areas that are not so politically sensitive and where politicians do not need to be so actively involved. Another case is situations where the parties are more uncertain about whether collaboration should be pursued in the long term, and therefore initially want to test the conditions for this.

Against this background, Statskontoret believes there to be reasons for the Government and the Riksdag to improve opportunities for agreement collaboration.

Further analysis should first be made of specialist services, administration and IT

We have not had opportunity to run our analysis to the extent that we can give specific proposals on areas in which further opportunities for agreement collaboration should be introduced. Our ambition has instead been to identify operational areas in which it appears important to continue analysing the conditions for this. However, before the Government and the Riksdag can decide on the possible introduction of further opportunities for agreement collaboration in the areas concerned, there must be in-depth analyses of both legal and other conditions.

In our survey, the municipalities as a whole have specified a large number of different operational areas and duties which they assess would greatly benefit from further opportunities for agreement collaboration. However, some areas are mentioned particularly often, mainly the desire for improved opportunities for agreement collaboration regarding:

  • different types of specialist services in areas where the municipality exercises authority or in other cases
  • joint administration
  • IT and digitalisation.

Some other areas are also mentioned by a relatively large number of municipalities in the survey, mainly social services, healthcare and schools/education.

If the Government and the Riksdag wish to increase the opportunities for municipal agreement collaboration, we believe first that there are reasons to focus primarily on the areas mentioned above.

Different questions need to be analysed in different areas

Many of the areas mentioned above belong to the municipalities’ mandatory tasks, and many of these have already seen the introduction of a right to agreement collaboration by means of special legislation. However, some of the tasks mentioned belong to the non-mandatory area of municipalities. For this reason, continued investigation of opportunities for greater municipal agreement collaboration needs to analyse different types of questions.

As regards tasks within the mandatory area there is reason to include analysis of the following questions.

  1. Analysis of areas which have legal support today, but which municipalities have nevertheless highlighted as a problem.
    a) Which are the aspects of current regulation that municipalities view as inadequate?
    b) Is it possible and appropriate to amend the rules in order to eliminate the problems that the municipalities are experiencing?

  2. Survey of similar cases in other areas.
    a) Do the municipalities’ mandatory tasks include tasks that currently lack legal support for agreement collaboration, but which are similar in nature to tasks that have seen the introduction of a right to agreement collaboration?
    b) Can and should a right to agreement collaboration in such cases be introduced in these areas? 

As regards tasks in the the non-mandatory area there may be reason to analyse whether measures should be taken to facilitate municipalities’ opportunity for agreement collaboration on non-mandatory tasks.

As for the areas of administrative services and systems and of digital services, it should also be pointed out that the opportunities for agreement collaboration for municipalities and county councils are currently being investigated. In June this year, the Government commissioned the National Agency for Public Procurement to analyse this, and this will be reported in March 2017.

Should a general right be introduced?

Statskontoret’s assignment is explicitly not to consider the introduction of a general right to inter-municipal agreement collaboration. Our investigation has therefore not studied this opportunity in further detail.

However, over the years, the question of a general right has been raised in many contexts. Our investigation has also noted requests for a general right both by SALAR and by many municipalities in our survey. Against this background, our overall assessment is that a general right to agreement collaboration would have positive effects for municipalities and county councils.

We therefore see reason for the Government to commission fresh analysis of the question of whether it would be possible and appropriate to introduce a general right to inter-municipal agreement collaboration. It should at least, as proposed in SOU 2012:30, be reconsidered whether the Local Government Act should see the introduction of a general rule allowing agreement collaboration and external delegation between different municipalities and county councils in cases relating to the exercise of authority.

Other measures may be needed

If the Government wants to stimulate municipal agreement collaboration or other forms of municipal collaboration, amendments to the law might not be sufficient. Our study suggests that there may also be a need for targeted information and stimulus initiatives in individual operational areas. Furthermore, an alternative to municipalities collaborating on administration could possibly be to establish an institution responsible for an integrated management of the administration of many or all municipalities. We have not performed any detailed study of the conditions that exist for such a solution, but believe that there may be reason for the Government to have this investigated.