The purpose of this paper is to investigate to what extent the initiatives of local governments to launch modernisation processes are facilitated by local autonomy, which is increasingly important in both the theory and practice of public policy and management.
Local government reforms are distinguished according to the institutional structure at which they are directed and local autonomy is assessed as a multidimensional concept. Drawing on a multilevel analysis of the Swiss case, this paper combines data stemming from a survey conducted at the local tier with secondary data from the regional tier.
The main empirical findings are threefold. First, when local governments undertake managerial or political reform initiatives, their autonomy with respect to higher levels of government matters. Second, it is not local autonomy but rather the perception of structural problems that is the force driving territorial reforms. Third, it is not the autonomy enjoyed by local governments vis-à-vis local factors, but rather the pressures stemming from that context that may lead to reforms.
By adopting a comparative approach to local autonomy, this paper shows that local governments which have sufficient latitude for local policy making are likely to take initiatives to improve service delivery in accordance with local preferences.
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