Decentralisation and public services: a case of public sector restructuring
TRACE - Trade Unions Anticipating Change in Europe - is a EU-funded project coordinated by the ETUI-REHS Education department on behalf of national trade union confederations and European industry federations affiliated to the ETUC - the European Trade Union Confederation. The focus for everyone is on restructuring, adapted to the needs of different countries and sectors. The results of the overall project will contribute to the European trade union response to the ongoing debate at EU level on restructuring and employment.
EPSU’s part of TRACE is entitled “Change in the Public Services in Europe and Trade Union Responses”. Through TRACE we have organised a series of seminars and a network around the theme on decentralisation, involving both the EPSU Local and Regional Government (LRG) and National and European Administration (NEA) Standing Committees. The report consists of 5 sections as follows (and 2 appendices enclosing the list of participants and graphs on local expenditure and tax revenue in the EU for the period 1999-2004):
1) Introduction to the Trace project
2) The EU framework on public services, administrations, restructuring and social dialogue
3) What is decentralisation all about? Terminological issues, employment trends, risks and gains for trade unions
4) A checklist on what can trade unions do at national and EU levels
5) Final remarks on anticipating change and meeting peoples’ needs
The key findings are as follows:
Decentralisation echoes both negative and positive experiences across Europe. In the framework of the project, decentralisation was taken in its widest sense, meaning shifts of responsibilities -political, administrative, fiscal- between central and regional/local levels of government. It is not a new phenomenon but has taken on a new momentum in many EU and candidate/applicant countries over the past years.
While decentralisation can potentially improve public services taking into account the need for proximity and the wider European and international environment, the ongoing reforms are mainly driven by budgetary considerations rather than improving local democracy and quality of public services. The risk of delegating some essential services to a lower level of government to alleviate central budgets without taking a prospective analysis of changing local needs and resources is clearly problematic.
Not all regional or local authorities are facing the same economic situation and a national system of wealth distribution is essential to avoid territorial fragmentation. In other words, decentralisation often requires centralisation.
Some serious risks of outsourcing have been identified in some countries in cases where financial transfers to regional and local authorities do not match the level of new responsibilities.
In terms of employment, in some cases, decentralisation has led to a decreased number of civil servants. This does not however mean an overall reduction of total public sector workers, at least at local level. Clearly here the importance of the role of trade unions, in the absence of an overall framework for public sector workers, becomes all the more crucial to negotiate common standards and avoid inequalities between employees.
Decentralisation requires good trade union cooperation at all levels (geographical and branch levels). In some cases, decentralisation (or indeed recentralisation) has impacted on trade unions’ own structures (e.g. mergers). There is overall little information and consultation of employees and trade union representatives on decentralisation. There is also often a difficulty to identify the right employer/interlocutor, either because of the unclear mandates between local and central levels or simply no identified employer.
The debate on decentralisation is not seen as a EU topic, even though there are explicit recommendations made at the OCED and EU levels to decentralise public services at national level (the latest example can be found in the Communication on social services of general interest; decentralisation is also part of the EU accession criteria). The EU employers both in local/regional and national administrations are currently discussing decentralisation of public services as well as decentralisation of HRM and pay bargaining in the public sector.
In this respect, a coordinated EU level discussion and social dialogue on decentralisation - and in general restructuring in the public sector - could encourage wider debate and provide a forum for evaluation and assessment. In terms of EU instruments it reinforces our calls for improving workers’ information, consultation and negotiating rights in the public sector and an overall framework on public service principles and objectives to achieve social and territorial cohesion across the EU. (November 2006)