- Is Regionalization Right for You?
- Kinds of Regionalized Services
- Regionalization General Best Practices
- Helpful Resources
Councillors or Selectmen
The legislative branch of municipal government will play a key role in allowing regional collaboration to happen. These elected officials will need to advocate that regionalization discussions should be held and ultimately approve any agreements brought forward. Councilors and Selectmen are key stakeholders and need to engage in the process.
Councilors and selectmen can help establish goals and objectives they hope will be achieved by any regionalized activities. They can encourage and require that their respective regional planning agency(ies) conduct feasibility studies and evaluate the potential for success and verify based on these analysis’s that identified projects are viable opportunities.
Councilors and selectmen must understand the politics associated with a proposed project and support providing potential sources of funding or resources to advance regionalization projects. They should require that a formal legal agreement be developed by a solicitor and that an administrative structure to manage and evaluate effectiveness be in place and authorize these agreements once presented to them.
Include Key Stakeholders
Shared service projects may arise through ideas at all levels of government – from management, to staff, to legislative bodies. While there is no right order in which to engage stakeholders, it is important to keep in mind that management, staff and legislative bodies should be included at appropriate times throughout the entire planning and implementation process. Many attempts at working collaboratively have failed because the process did not include adequate stakeholder involvement.
Keep in mind that it is crucial to obtain the support of municipal stakeholders. Municipal leaders – either mayors, boards of selectmen, fire chiefs or department heads – should be supportive of a project and will be crucial to engaging other communities in a project. These officials have the ability to either vote for a project or stall its development and, similarly, can help bring on more supporters or engage such people as opponents. Moreover, intermunicipal agreements require approval from each municipality’s chief elected official.
Involving staff is equally important, although it may be difficult to work with people whose jobs or duties may be affected by the shared service project. However, engaging such staff may help reduce possible objections and diminish the likelihood of false perceptions forming through the planning process. In short, working with a diverse team of stakeholders provides the opportunity to address potential concerns promptly so that these issues do not undermine the program later in the process.
Establish Publicly Agreed Upon Goals and Objectives
Stakeholders working on a shared service project should establish publicly agreed upon goals. This does not mean that the planning committee must advise the general public of its vision from the very beginning. Instead, stakeholders at planning meetings need to be honest about their individual intentions and agree to common goals. Some attempts at new approaches to service delivery have failed because it turned out that stakeholders were not in total agreement about the specific project goals or even the need for regionalization. While it is impossible to know every stakeholder’s private intentions or motivation, establishing common goals and objectives will help identify areas of disagreement and make it easier to move forward with a project. It is particularly important to establish consensus on project goals before the project goes public and dissatisfied stakeholders can discredit or campaign against the project.
Use Your Regional Planning Agency Resources
The Commonwealth’s 13 thirteen regional planning agencies are an invaluable resource of information, often acting as providers of technical assistance and host agencies for member municipalities. As the creators of the website, the RPA staff is well-suited with both the substantive knowledge regarding individual municipal services as well as information related to regional collaboration and shared service projects. Regional planning agency staff includes experts in a broad range of municipal services, including transportation, public health, energy, procurement, public safety, land use, housing, environmental affairs, public works and emergency preparedness.
Among other services, regional planning agencies provide member communities with technical assistance for shared service projects in the following areas: identification of grant opportunities and grant writing, project identification and management, drafting legal documents, and creating governance models and assessment comparisons. Moreover, some RPAs act as host agencies for member municipalities and employ staff with the qualifications to perform certain municipal services for a fee. Local leaders interested in learning more about sharing services should contact their relevant regional planning agency for more information.
Local leaders are often under pressure from various stakeholders – municipal employees, residents, and state government – to quickly produce effective solutions to local problems.
Those leaders who are seeking innovative regional solutions to such problems may find themselves under increased pressure to ensure that any solution involving shared services is particularly effective and, more importantly, favorable to the residents of the municipality. Given Massachusetts’ long tradition of home rule and local control, such leaders often cannot find examples of successful regional solutions and may find themselves creating projects for the first time. Such projects are often under increased scrutiny and serve as “test cases” for future shared services endeavors.
Thus, a critical piece to successfully sharing services is to find and implement the right project at the right time. Many times community leaders come together under a banner of a regional coalition of communities. Coalitions create a forum for ideas to be discussed and debated and create a natural buy in since recommendations come from the communities themselves.
Use Existing Regional Plans to Identify Projects
Existing regional plans are a good source of potential projects and, in many cases, the need for a specific project has already been established as part of the regional planning process. Moreover, multiple stakeholders contribute to the creation of a regional plan, and a regionalization project that is recommended in such a plan can gain significant support by its recommendation in a regional plan. In addition, an initial study may have already been done as part of the regional plan, therefore proving that the project could work, although a feasibility study may still be necessary.
Massachusetts’ thirteen regional planning agencies are excellent sources of existing regional plans and include plans related to priority development, open space and recreation, transportation, scenic byways and comprehensive economic development.
Regionalize New Programs as They Emerge
Whether it is through the passage of new state and federal laws, availability of new funding sources, or advances in technology, change can lead to the creation of new municipal services and programs. There is an opportunity as new programs emerge to structure such programs in a way that encourages or even requires some form of regionalization.
Without a preexisting organizational structure, it can be easier to develop an entirely new program from scratch than it is to consolidate existing programs. Local leaders can avoid collective bargaining issues and other personnel concerns, reduce the potential for staff layoffs, and even change the working culture of a municipal government by regionalizing emerging services.
On the other hand, regionalizing emerging municipal programs may still involve dealing with personnel issues if current employees are being re-assigned to a new program. In addition, municipal officials may have face some resistance if a new program challenges the way things are usually done in a municipality.
Take Advantage of Expiring Service Contracts and Staff Attrition
One of the most important factors in successfully implementing a shared service project is timing. Regionalizing municipal services often requires restructuring staff assignments, which most local leaders either do not want to do or cannot to do because of existing employment contracts and relevant Massachusetts law. Thus, upcoming staff retirements and expiring contracts present a good opportunity to move an existing service in a regional direction. As employees leave through resignation or retirement, opportunities arise for sharing rather than filling the open position. Waiting until employees retire or leave positions may help reduce a community’s resistance to shared service projects and decrease the likelihood that local officials will need to reduce the workforce through unpopular layoffs. Municipal leaders should remain in regular contact with neighboring communities and share information regarding staffing in order to be prepared when opportunities arise.
Furthermore, municipalities may achieve significant savings though joint procurements with neighboring municipalities. Such projects often require realigning existing service contracts and neighboring municipalities usually operate under service contracts that expire at different times. Local officials should reach out to neighboring communities a few months before existing contracts are set to expire and consider working together on a joint procurement or shared service project. The increased negotiating power gained by working together may result in significant cost savings. Finding the right partner may take some time, so municipal officials should remain in regular contact with neighboring communities and work to realign contracts whenever possible.
Know the Politics
Be ready to address “turf” issues by being aware of the history and politics of the communities involved in a shared service project. Intergovernmental cooperation by its very nature involves municipalities having to give up some control and responsibility. Consider which communities may “win or lose” if a particular regionalization effort is implemented. Learn the history of particular communities and research any past regionalization efforts. Speak to local official and department staff about their experiences in shared services projects. Keep up with local politics and municipal events. The effects of these dynamics on interlocal cooperation in Massachusetts cannot be overstated. More importantly, address these issues openly and early so they do not undermine the program as it is being planned and implemented.
Locate Potential Sources of Funding
Cities and towns should seek opportunities to leverage existing resources with other sources of revenue. There is an increased interest by foundations, state governments, and the federal government in supporting projects that will reduce local costs and increase efficiencies. Locating potential funding sources can help move the regionalization discussion from concept to reality. Municipal officials should contact their regional planning agencies to learn more about financial resources such as DLTA funding, the Community Innovative Challenge grant program and State 911 Department funding.
Municipal officials should keep in mind that grant funding is limited and may help get a project off the ground but usually cannot sustain a project long-term. Such leaders should consider other innovative ways to maintain the project, including user fees and utilizing any realized savings to fund the project.
Determine Type of Agreement Needed and Which Laws and Regulations to Follow
Determining the most appropriate type of legal agreement to use depends on a number of factors, but starts with knowledge of the applicable M.G.L.
Seek the advice of legal counsel early on, before deciding which type of legal agreement would best suit a particular regionalization project. The Massachusetts General Laws may directly govern the provision of the service to be shared, and there also may be laws that govern regionalizing the service. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue produced a List of Statutes Providing for Regionalization that can be found online at: http://www.mass.gov/Ador/docs/dls/mdmstuf/Technical_Assistance/region_resource/enabling_statutes.pdf.
Other service provision factors will help guide the decision as to which type of agreement to use. Addressing questions about funding sources, governance structure and staffing (including benefits and retirement considerations) are important to determine if a simple inter-municipal agreement (formal contract, joint service agreement, or service exchange agreement) is warranted, or if a different process, such as a town meeting vote or passage of special legislation is required to implement the shared service.
- Early legal research saves time and effort later in the process
- Knowing the applicable M.G.L.s provides the foundation on which to build the shared service arrangement
- Abiding by M.G.L.s reduces potential liability for the service
Appoint a Joint Administrative Board
It is a best practice to create an administrative board with representation from each participating municipality that will help oversee implementation and governance of a new shared services program. A joint administrative board allows each participating community to have a voice in any decision making process and helps ensure participants remains committed to the project. The board can determine on-going program needs, advise municipalities on budget needs, and provide a means of communication between partner municipalities.
Establish an Evaluation Method to Assess Implementation Process
It is a best practice to create an evaluation method to assess the progress of a new program. A good evaluation will help determine the program’s impact, identify overall strengths and weaknesses to improve program, verifies that program is currently running as planned, provides evidence of effectiveness and what needs further work and provides data to help replicate the program.
One challenge to creating an evaluation method is finding the resources to pay for expertise to conduct a valuable evaluation. In addition, it may take several years for the programs to produce measurable data.