National Audit Office: Administrative reform has not significantly affected the availability of municipality services in areas distant from the centres

Priit Simson | 8/16/2021 | 11:00 AM

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TALLINN, 16 August 2021 – Although the administrative reform moved the centre of the local self-government a further away from home in many places and rural municipalities and cities have attempted to restructure service, the availability of local services in areas further away from the centres of municipality has not suffered significantly. At the same time, the reform carried out four years ago also brought about partial solutions where the provision of more essential services such as schooling continues to require relying on neighbours and dependence on them is even increasing. In such cases, whether the goals of the reform have been achieved is questionable.

The risk that the services of municipalities would be excessively concentrated in larger centres has not materialised to date, and it is generally not necessary to travel to the centres to receive municipality services. “The level of local self-government services is not dependent on the location of the employee’s desk,” concludes the Auditor General Janar Holm, pointing out that the option to use various flexible solutions is available. The overview of the National Audit Office, in the preparation of which the experience of ten local self-governments was studied further, shows that e-services combined with on-site services should satisfy the majority of the needs. Most of the representatives of the communities interviewed also confirm that combining e-services with on-site services is sufficient.

There are regions in Estonia where, despite the merger, there is no significantly greater potential to better serve the population, the initial analysis of the outcome of the administrative reform shows. There are local self-governments (for example, Rõuge and Toila) where dependence on neighbours in organising educational services has increased following the reform. This is a development contrary to the objectives of the reform and an indication that a local self-government corresponding to the area of function of the residents has not been established. Yet, in the run-up to the reform, the organisation of education was highlighted as one of the areas that a city or rural municipality should be able to organise independently. In the opinion of the National Audit Office, regions with a partial territorial solution are characterised by the lack of a larger central settlement, and dissatisfaction with the results of the reform is also greater there.

The merger agreements of rural municipalities entered into in the course of the administrative reform have so far prevented major changes in the restructuring of services, but what also stood out was that preserving the present situation in its current form has, at times, received unreasonable attention in the agreements. The need to preserve various positions in service centres established in former rural municipality centres has often turned out to be smaller than expected, which has led to the necessity to reduce the number of positions. In particular, this has been the case with support functions, for example the activities of information secretaries.

The network of libraries, schools and other rural municipality institutions had generally remained the same in the observed areas. This was also the case even if institutions had been merged or consolidated under a single management. However, the authors of the overview found that merger agreements often put the emphasis on the preservation of institutions themselves, rather than on maintaining the services offered by them. This seemingly insignificant difference has led to unforeseen disputes, and so the cuts in the management costs of institutions that were considered reasonable have not been made in some places.

The National Audit Office finds that the investment plans of merger agreements were unrealistic and unclear. The investment plan appended to the agreement was part of the pledge to get communities to agree to join. However, the volume of the plans was inflated, and new local self-governments have not been able to implement the plan. There are also no financial means to cover them or the investment is unreasonable from the point of view of the new local self-government. For example, in Saaremaa, this leads to 12 out of 46 objects being left uncompleted. It was also revealed that merger agreements have mostly not been amended to adjust the plans, nor has the failure to make investments been discussed with the communities. For future potential mergers, the Ministry of Finance should specify the rules related to the plans.

The overview revealed that according to local people, time expenditure of administration has increased. The increase in time expenditure is felt in communities for example when applying for grants for society activities, resolving issues related to the maintenance of public space, proceedings of permits related to construction activities. The representatives of local authorities are also not denying this. Processes are more standardised and fewer exceptions are made in the new local self-governments to ensure quality. Thus, local self-governments find that greater time expenditure in larger local self-governments is accompanied by the improvement of service quality, for example decisions are more thoroughly considered and legally sound.

The National Audit Office points out that although engagement does not mean that everyone’s opinion can always be considered, the engagement of communities tends to be formal. The communities analysed found that their interests were less represented in the decision-making process than before. “There is no point in establishing regional councils and rural municipality district councils and other engagement bodies if there is no motivation to have a substantive dialogue and engagement is merely fictitious,” Auditor General Janar Holm commented on the conclusions of the overview. “The possibility of a substantive dialogue would be greater if councils were given real power to decide on something, for example in the provision of society grants or management of local infrastructure.” The overview indicates that the studied regions are more satisfied with engagement where the intention to engage regions has been substantial and efforts have been made to establish a system of engagement.

Background: In the autumn of 2021, it will be four years since the administrative-organisational changes were carried out in 2017, the aim of which was to significantly reduce the number of municipalities, meaning that municipalities have been operating within the new administrative boundaries for one period of council activities. In this overview, the National Audit Office has presented the first interim summaries of how the organisation of services has been changed following the reform, whether essential services are available and whether communities are involved in the decision-making of the new local authorities. The experiences of ten local authorities were studied in more detail: Hiiumaa, Järva, Lääneranna, Põhja-Pärnumaa, Rõuge, Saaremaa, Setomaa, Tartu and Toila rural municipalities and the city of Pärnu. The focus was on areas where the distance to travel to the centre of the new local authority is significantly longer than before.

 

Priit Simson
Head of Communications of the National Audit Office of Estonia
+372 640 0102
+372 5615 0280
priit.simson@riigikontroll.ee
press@riigikontroll.ee
http://www.riigikontroll.ee/

  • Posted: 8/16/2021 11:00 AM
  • Last Update: 8/16/2021 10:54 AM
  • Last Review: 8/16/2021 10:54 AM

The report studied after-merger changes in ten self-governments in more detail.

National Audit Office

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