Why Municipalities Merge and What It's Worth: Territorial Reforms in 21st Century Switzerland

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Project title
Why Municipalities Merge and What It's Worth: Territorial Reforms in 21st Century Switzerland
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Project description
Many of the most urgent problems requiring political action, such as the climate crisis, mass migration, or public health, escape the reach of existing governance structures. A common response to this mismatch and its corresponding functional pressures has consisted in shifting the scale of political authority away from nation states and towards international institutions and subnational regions (Tatham et al. 2021). The most fundamental changes in the territorial structure of government have occurred at the local level, the one closest to citizens’ daily lives. Local government landscapes in many countries have been fundamentally restructured and consolidated (Baldersheim and Rose 2010; Kuhlmann and Bouckaert 2016). Yet, despite the prevalence of these local reforms worldwide, we know little about their causes, what makes them acceptable to citizens, and what their consequences are - especially when they are decided on “bottom-up,” involving citizens and local communities. This is an important omission given the key role attributed to political communities’ desire for autonomy in theories on multilevel governance (Hooghe and Marks 2016). This research project investigates the causes and consequences of territorial reforms in Switzerland. Since the new millenium, Switzerland has experienced the most fundamental change to its territorial structure in the modern era, through an unprecedented wave of municipal mergers which decreased the number of municipalities by 25%. Taking stock of this experience with a unique database of all municipal merger projects voted on by local citizens in the 21st century, the project provides a comprehensive assessment that emphasizes the role citizens’ preferences play for municipal merger processes and their outcomes. The project develops an original theoretical approach by linking merger processes to their effects. It argues that the heterogeneity in citizens’ preferences across municipalities and political communities’ desire for autonomy impact why municipalities merge and what effects these mergers have. There are two core focus points of the project. First, it systematically identifies the municipal-level drivers associated with municipalities’ participation in a merger project and the conditions under which citizens accept such fundamental institutional change - thereby uncovering what contributes to the success or failure of merger projects. Second, it examines how the effects of municipal mergers on local economic performance, administrative capacity, democracy, and social cohesion vary as a function of the contentiousness of the merger process and the heterogeneity of citizens’ preferences. Empirically, the project combines the data on Swiss municipal mergers with a variety of secondary data sources to quantitatively study merger drivers and it uses state-of-the-art causal inference techniques to study merger effects - both at the municipal and the individual level. This quantitative study is complemented with an in-depth qualitative study of typical cases of mergers based on document analysis and interviews with involved actors. This allows to uncover the mechanisms which link merger processes and their effects. This project has both scientific and practical relevance. The focus on citizens’ collective preferences regarding territorial reforms contributes to multilevel governance theory by showing how political communities’ desire for autonomy materializes and how it shapes the effects of territorial reform processes and to debates on size and democracy by testing a key proposition - namely that governance is more challenging in heterogeneous communities. Through its focus on citizens’ preferences, the project also contributes to debates on the democratic legitimacy of territorial reforms as well as to current research on the place-based determinants of political attitudes and behavior. Beyond the academic context, the project’s findings will be of key interest for policy-makers to refine their current and future policies concerning local government reforms and it will provide insights on how to improve the democratic acceptability of governance rescaling at and beyond the local level.
Dewey Decimal Classification::300 - Social sciences, sociology & anthropology::320 - Political science
Dewey Decimal Classification::300 - Social sciences, sociology & anthropology::350 - Public administration & military science
Territorial reform
Municipal merger
Local government
Democratic legitimacy
Public administration
Polity size
Institutional change
Project Start Date
Expected completion date
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