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A Fresh Breeze in the Community – Administrative scientists establish European research network for local public sector reform

Town hall in Hanover. Photo: pixabay/connormik.

Town hall in Hanover. Photo: pixabay/connormik.

They decide where to found new schools or whether a utility company will be privatized. They finance education and cultural institutions and run hospitals: Local authorities in Europe make decisions that have an impact on every citizen. Administrative scientists from Potsdam and their colleagues are comparing the implementation of necessary local reforms in Europe, the differences between the countries and the lessons to be drawn for improving future public sector modernization policy.

Municipal funds are neither scare in Norway nor in Switzerland. “Greece and Spain, however, are suffering,” says Sabine Kuhlmann, Professor of Political Science, Public Administration, and Organization. The conditions of European municipalities vary, yet their tasks are similar. Implementing necessary reforms, addressing demographic problems, and creating sustainable structures are essential. To determine how to manage this, researchers throughout Europe are examining public sector reforms from various perspectives in the EU project “LocRef”. What are the effects of public sector reforms? How are they being implemented? And why are they being undertaken in the first place? More than 300 experienced researchers, postdocs, and doctoral candidates from 32 European countries are participating in the mammoth project.

“There is a lot of comparative research at the national level but not at the local one. This is a blatant research gap,” emphasizes chair of the action Kuhlmann, a gap that should be closed because “it is the municipality that is nearest to citizens,” says the political scientist. Municipal offices and administrations ultimately provide the services that people directly use. “Anyone who wants to do to push back against political disenchantment has to start here.” It is about similarities and differences between countries, about positive and negative examples. “It is about learning from each other,” says Kuhlmann.

mayors, treasurers, and officials across Europe have been interviewed 

“LocRef” – whose diverse working groups are coordinated by administrative scientist Christian Schwab – focuses on privatization, remunicipalization, financial issues, and territorial reforms, how mayors perceive their function, and the reform ideas they have. One research project, for example, analyzed potential cost reductions in the municipal budget. For this, the researchers examined communities with over 10,000 citizens in France, Portugal, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany – about 4,500 in Germany alone. Mayors, treasurers, and heads of internal organization departments answered questions about the financial challenges facing their administrations. Researchers were also interested in the various strategies municipalities use and combine. Do they prefer across-the-board cuts when cuts are necessary or deliberately reduce specific expenditures? How does this impact local service provision? The studies revealed, for one, that many more municipalities in southern European countries – which have been hit hard by the financial crisis – have both cut their expenditures in terms of percentage and applied the available strategies more comprehensively than German municipalities.

Kuhlmann and her team receive a special form of EU funding for the project: the so-called COST Action. “These funds are not intended directly for research,” she emphasizes, but are instead meant to establish a scientific community and internationalize the field of research. That there are a great deal of results from surveys and field research, then, is thanks to the many dedicated researchers, who have exchanged ideas, had discussions, and worked on common questions at conferences, workshops, and training schools.

“A very important instrument of COST Actions are the short-term scientific missions, i.e. short research stays abroad. This enables younger researchers in particular to travel to and research at partner universities as well as to network and publish,” Kuhlmann explains. Many young researchers have taken advantage of this opportunity and actually “more young women than men, especially from southern and eastern European countries facing financial difficulties.”

Research results lead to concrete policy recommendations

The research results are being put into practice by policymakers at the national and European level (see interview on pp. 70). The researchers have summarized their results in several publications, which offer concrete policy recommendations and in over 200 academic journals articles. At conferences, the researchers have been discussing their findings with practitioners and are looking to increase dialogue in existing networks. One thing is certain: the autonomy of municipalities across European has risen in recent years. They have a wider scope for action and decision-making competencies. “Municipalities are becoming more important,” Kuhlmann says.

This makes the upcoming reforms – which must be tailored to the needs of the respective country and municipality – all the more crucial, Kuhlmann’s doctoral student Christian Schwab clarifies. “Transferring a concept one-to-one does not help.” Differences in municipal law, in political, social, and cultural structures as well as the financial resources have to be considered. Nevertheless, highly autonomous communities with high citizen participation seem better able to solve problems.

There is no silver bullet, though; the necessary solutions are as diverse as Europe. The lack of a one-size-fits-all solution is not, however, cause for concern for administrative scientists. As Kuhlmann emphasizes, “Diversity is a strength.”


“LocRef” (Local Public Sector Reforms) is a COST Action of the European Union, which is funding a research network on local public sector reforms.

Participants: Over 300 scholars from 32 European countries; the University of Potsdam is the grant holder, and Prof. Sabine Kuhlmann is Chair of the Action.
Duration: 2015–2017


Prof. Sabine Kuhlmann studied social sciences at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Since 2013, she has been Professor of Political Science, Public Administration, and Organization at the University of Potsdam and has been comparatively researching public sector reform internationally.

Universität Potsdam
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
August-Bebel-Str. 89
14482 Potsdam

M.A., Mag. rer. publ. Christian Schwab studied political science and business management at the University of Mannheim and administrative sciences at the German University of Administrative Sciences Speyer. Since 2013, he has been pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Potsdam.


From Europe to Brandenburg – On the effects of district reforms

In late May 2017, Prof. Sabine Kuhlmann, Dr. Ing. Markus Seyfried, and Prof. John Siegel presented an expert report commissioned by the Brandenburg Ministry of the Interior and Municipal Affairs on the “effects of territorial reforms”. Matthias Zimmermann spoke with Prof. Kuhlmann about the reform, the report, and the chance to make a difference with science.

Prof. Kuhlmann, why were you asked to prepare this expert report?

First of all, we have the expert knowledge for administrative sciences here in Potsdam. It makes sense for policymakers to turn to us when they are interested in scientific expertise on public sector reforms. There was also a specific political concern: Brandenburg’s planned district reform has been heavily criticized, leading to a wide public debate on the actual usefulness of territorial reforms. Some opponents claimed that these reforms would have no positive effects whatsoever, so the government approached us with questions: What does the research say about the effects of territorial reform, and can these particular reforms help to achieve certain political goals? Ultimately, they affects not only Brandenburg; Thuringia is having similar discussions, and Rhineland-Palatinate is preparing a functional reform.

The planned reform has been highly controversial since it was announced. Why?

Because people fear that there will be winners and losers as a result. Towns being incorporated into a district or those who may have to forfeit their positions – district council members and representatives of the towns being incorporated – see themselves as losers. There are also party-political aspects, with resistance mainly from the ranks of the CDU and the Freie Wähler party, while the governing parties such as the SPD and the Left but also the Green Party support the project. Apart from that, many unobjective, emotional, and simply incorrect arguments were being made in Brandenburg, which is a pity. It fired up debate. I hope that our expert report will help to make it more objective again.

How did you go about preparing the report?

We prepared it based on the available research data on territorial reform in Germany and Europe – as a systematic review. We included relevant studies, analyses, reports of the Court of Auditors, and opinions to give a comprehensive picture. We evaluated references with regard to content – to what extent do the publications tell us something about the effects of territorial reform – and their methodological validity and quality. We also wanted to cover a broad methodological spectrum, not only statistical evaluations but also case studies, qualitative surveys, and expert reports.

Could you briefly summarize the results?

In general, we found that the district reform, as it had been planned, would indeed be able to achieve the objectives set by the state government, especially with regard to administrative efficiency, functioning, and sustainability. This will require, however, to implement it well and to take certain conditions into account: civic participation and close contact with the communities are paramount. The research is less straightforward, however, with regard to savings and increased efficiency; how a reform is implemented and other contextual factors significantly impact whether these benefits can be achieved.

Does a territorial reform necessarily mean losing proximity to citizens and opportunities for participation?

Not necessarily, but the risk does exist, so compensatory measures should be taken, such as certain small-scale participation structures or opportunities to maintain close contact to citizens through e-government. One should not, however, overestimate the district level as a place of participation. The community remains the most important place for civic participation, closeness to the citizen, and promoting identification. Different districts have different functions, and I am also skeptical that there is such a thing as a “district identity”. At the community level, opportunities for small-scale participation as well as grassroots structures should be made available. Digitization can foster this and minimize or eliminate negative effects.

Do you have the feeling that the expert report has helped in the debate since its publication?

Yes. I was surprised that the arguments in the press coverage have already changed. I used to read almost exclusively critical comments on the district reform. People were becoming increasingly negative, even though they sometimes were just not aware of what was going on. A few reports have since been published that say: There is now an expert report that shows what could be expected and it does not come to such negative or problematic conclusions. This means that we need not worry so much about what is happening. It was encouraging for me that scientific argumentation could indeed achieve something.

Will the results be included in the “LocRef” project?

The project officially finished in March 2017 but the large network is still in place, and the results will definitely be used there. We are currently planning joint research activities on territorial reforms with colleagues from southern Europe and other regions because it is currently an issue everywhere.

The expert report (in German) is published at https://www.uni-potsdam.de/fileadmin01/projects/ls-kuhlmann/Gutachten/Gutachten-11-06-17.pdf.

Text: Heike Kampe
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Marieke Bäumer
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine Portal Wissen.