Klaus Wirth and Alexandra Schantl, KDZ Centre for Public Administration Research Austria
The Styrian amalgamation process that was based on the Styrian Local Government Structural Reform Act (StGsrG) reduced the Styrian number of municipalities from originally 542 in 2010 to 287 municipalities in 2015. With the slogan ‘Stronger municipalities – bigger opportunities’ this reform aimed at securing and strengthening the Styrian municipalities by increasing their efficiency and thereby making them both more resilient and sustainable. Before the Styrian local government structural reform, more than one third of all Austrian municipalities with less than 1,000 inhabitants were Styrian municipalities; after the structural reform, the figure was only 3.6 per cent. The average number of inhabitants per municipality has risen from 1,754 to 3,293 and the number of municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants has increased from 5 to 15 as a result of the reform. The reform not only focused on more efficient service provision and solving capacity problems of rural local governments (RLGs), but also targeted small and medium-sized urban local governments (ULGs), in particular those with a drastic population decline. With the objective of better coordinating spatial planning and transport policy the reform furthermore has contributed to improving the urban-rural interplay. By delivering more efficient services the amalgamation practice of the City of Fehring contributes to report section 2 on local responsibilities and section 3 on local finances.
The formerly autonomous municipalities of Fehring (2,996 inhabitants), Hatzendorf (1,751 inhabitants), Hohenbrugg-Weinberg (973 inhabitants), Johnsdorf-Brunn (808 inhabitants) and Pertlstein (810 inhabitants) were merged to the City of Fehring with a total of 7,338 inhabitants.
Although in the course of the amalgamation certain administrative units of the former municipalities have been merged, small administrative units such as the citizen service office (Bürgerservice) continued to exist at that time in each municipality due to the fact that maintaining a citizen service office in each municipality was a conditio sine qua non for the amalgamation.
Therefore, the City of Fehring carried out an administrative development process in order to be able to provide its services more efficiently and within effective structures.
In 2019, the municipal council of Fehring initiated an administrative development process that focused in particular on reflecting on and further optimizing the existing administration with its decentralized units based on administrative, economic and, above all, service-oriented considerations. The overall objective was to avoid cutbacks in the citizen service. Working groups were set up to achieve both an improved citizen service and an optimized administrative organization with fewer locations.
The municipal administration was restructured and concentrated in two locations. The dislocated administrative locations were closed and converted to a kindergarten, a municipal center and a commercial property. The employees were integrated into the organization at the two remaining locations according to their personal wishes and qualifications. To compensate the closure of the former citizen service offices, mobile services were set up for the population offering the same range of citizen services as at the main site.
The practice of Fehring shows that a successful merger is a long-term process that is not completed with the amalgamation of local governments. Although the step of reorganization due to the amalgamation was challenging, the process succeeded in better and enlarged services for the citizens, not at least through the new mobile citizen service. As part of the development process, all employees furthermore agreed on a common service charter. The jointly developed service proposals are intended to secure and further improve the public service quality in Fehring.
However, such far-reaching changes are only possible if everyone works together and is committed to support the necessary (especially staff) changes. With the overall very positive experience and the involvement of management, staff representatives and politics in the process the practice of Fehring could be a role model for other amalgamated local governments.
Looking back, Carina Kreiner, head of the municipal office, noted that the reorganization of the administration in the merged Municipality of Fehring has been very helpful in enabling quick action, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. With regard to the relation of Fehring with Feldbach, the closest urban city, or with Graz, the capital city of Styria, the stronger and more efficient government structure of Fehring has had no impact so far.
Municipal mergers are usually projected as reasonable and functional, since positive effects are said to outweigh the negative (e.g. improvement of the quality of administration and provision of municipal services). However, it is difficult to evaluate such mergers in retrospect. While the effects of a merger can be evaluated quite well at the level of a single municipality, which can then be put in relation to the overarching goals, as mentioned above, this task is more demanding at the level of an entire federal state. Municipal mergers are also difficult to compare with one another since the starting conditions and influencing factors in each municipality determine the respective merger process. In addition, evaluations always face the fundamental challenge of clearly distinguishing which effects were directly related to the respective merger or which were perhaps only ‘bandwagon effects’. To name a few examples: Was the renovation/new construction of the kindergarten planned anyway or was it only made possible by the merger? Are noticeable improvements in the citizen service office a result of the merger or just the result of inter-municipal learnings from a seminar? In this regard, it is regrettable that although there are many positive individual reports from Styrian municipalities about their successful mergers or scientific case studies on individual mergers, a comprehensive and systematic evaluation of the entire amalgamation process in Styria is still pending.
Styrian Local Government Structural Reform Act (StGsrG, Steiermärkisches Gemeindestruktur-reformgesetz), LGBl. no 31/2014
Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:
Land Steiermark, ‘Gemeinde Report’ (Styrian Government and Communications Office 2016) <https://www.gemeindestrukturreform.steiermark.at/cms/dokumente/11820435_97007261/c3694d57/GSR_StRep_gesammelt_2016_Web.pdf>
KDZ‚ ‘Fehring – Organisation neu ausrichten‘ (consultation project, KDZ 2019)
Kreiner C, ‘Fünf Jahre nach der Fusion – Next Step der Verwaltungsentwicklung in der Stadtgemeinde Fehring‘ in KDZ (ed), Forum Public Management: Krisenfest (2020/1, KDZ 2020) <https://www.kdz.eu/de/wissen/fpm/krisenfest> Website on the structural reform, <https://www.gemeindestrukturreform.steiermark.at