Behind the Numbers: What does ‘efficient government’ mean, anyway? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Behind the Numbers: What does ‘efficient government’ mean, anyway?

Flickr user J Stephen Conn (cc)

“Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Have we finally reached the point where we will actually do something about local government fragmentation and inefficiency here in Illinois? It’s certainly possible: Governor Bruce Rauner’s Local Government Consolidation and Unfunded Mandates Task Force and the Transform Illinois coalition are holding public meetings, discussing reform proposals and generally bringing some long-needed energy to this issue. To build on these efforts, I asked my students this spring to investigate selected types of special purpose districts in Illinois, analyzing the services provided, financial conditions and efficiency of service provision, and their work offers policy makers guidance on where to direct local government reform efforts going forward. Some conclusions from their work:

First, there is no “one size fits all,” best approach to take, and forcing mergers or consolidations statewide seems unlikely to bring the efficiency gains we seek. In fact, many special purpose districts are small, but their mission, while narrow, is clear; their financial conditions are reasonable; and the prospective efficiency gains from consolidation, dissolution or mergers seem limited. For example, Aviva Rosman and Cecelia Black argue that the state’s 59 special purpose road districts could not easily transfer their responsibilities to their respective rural counties, which are not obviously more efficient providers than the road districts themselves. Similarly, Alex Warofka, David Simpson, Dhathri Chunduru, Sophie Cohen, and Laura Ravinder write that despite some colorful examples, many street lighting districts provide a well defined service at a cost no higher than that of neighboring municipalities.

Second, a careful analysis of selected districts does reveal some opportunities to increase efficiency, lower costs and/or improve district accountability. For example, Sean Wiley argues that some downstate cemetery districts could consolidate within their own counties, spreading fixed capital costs over more residents and lowering per-capita costs of provision. Alternatively, some cemetery districts could turn to joint service agreements or even mergers with municipal or park district governments, which often provide landscaping and similar services for other parts of their jurisdictions.

Finally, better reporting and oversight should help identify instances of over-taxation (consistently collecting more in tax revenues than is spent), mission creep or confusion (providing services that are also provided by other districts), and outright inefficiencies. For example, Natalia Antas, Mauricio Banuelos, Becca Mason, and Kayla Phelps write that the state’s river conservancy districts provide a wide range of services, some of which are also provided by soil and water conservation districts and sanitation districts. Yet little public information about the activities and responsibilities of these districts is available. In a few cases, river conservancy districts appear to be acting like water utilities or tourism bureaus, raising questions about the true mission and need for the districts as distinct units of government.

Overall, these essays (and the longer studies on which they are based) suggest that transforming local governments can generate significant benefits, but the gains are not uniformly distributed across or even within types of districts, and policy makers should choose their targets wisely if they are truly and finally going to do something about the weather.

Behind the Numbers posts by University of Chicago Harris School students:

Behind the Numbers posts by Transform Illinois partners:

Paula R. Worthington is a senior lecturer at Chicago Harris at the University of Chicago, where she teaches masters-level classes in state and local public finance and cost-benefit analysis, advises small groups of students for practica projects with varied public sector and nonprofit clients, and develops programs in municipal finance. She has been voted the school’s best teacher in a non-core class nine years, 2006-2012 and 2013-2015. Worthington also serves as a member of the MPC’s Regional Planning and Investments Committee.

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