Toomas Mattson | 3/1/2012
The audit carried out by the [Estonian] National Audit Office indicates that the state should identify the reasonable service level, which local authorities should guarantee for their people – it should establish service standards. The ability to provide services could then be the basis for making justified changes in administrative arrangement, which is a precondition to improving the quality of services.
The National Audit Office found that several areas of activity of local authorities are set out in laws only as formal requirements (for instance, local authorities have been given declarative instructions to deal with certain issues or assigned the obligation to prepare a procedure that regulates a certain area), and there are areas for which no requirements have been established at all. The audit indicated that less than one-half of the local authorities (7 of 15 auditees) had created formal preconditions for the provision of services in all or most of the areas. There are differences in the provision of services on small islands, because the local authorities over there also perform several functions of the state. The National Audit Office selected 15 small and remote local authorities for the audit and analysed the eight most important areas of activity of local authorities.
The National Audit Office could not evaluate the correspondence of actual service provision to reasonable quality or real life, but only the existence of formal preconditions (i.e. whether or not the relevant procedure had been established, etc.). Airi Mikli, Director of Audit of the Local Governments Audit Department of the National Audit Offices, admitted that the National Audit Office could only carry out a formal analysis due to the fact that in 20 years the state has not established any requirements for the quality of the services provided by local authorities or the officials who provide them in most areas, which means that it is impossible to objectively assess whether or not local authorities are able to perform their functions. The current situation, where the functions of local authorities and the state have not been clearly distinguished, is also a problem, and it does not comply with the Constitution. The Supreme Court also pointed this out in 2010.
The National Audit Office is of the opinion that a reasonable service level, which local authorities must guarantee for people, should be identified. Once the ability to provide services has been analysed, it would be possible to make justified changes in the administrative arrangement, which is obviously necessary for the improvement of service quality.
Director of Audit Ari Mikli added that the establishment of requirements should be coordinated and their performance should be analysed by the Minister for Regional Affairs, who so far has not shown much initiative for doing this. The Minister for Regional Affairs should show some initiative and involve the ministers responsible for the areas affected by this process whilst coordinating all activities himself.
The analysis would indicate which local authorities are able to provide quality services and which are not. The expenses of developing a service must be considered when the reasonable level is identified. It is obvious that the development of expensive services calls for a critical number of consumers. The lack of specialists is a particularly serious problem in the provision of public services in smaller and remoter local authorities. The National Audit Office admits that it is difficult to provide the same services to people living in densely and sparsely populated regions, which is why it is necessary to discuss whether it would be reasonable to change the organisation of local government in such a manner that all local authorities would not have to perform the same functions, but they would be determined in consideration of regional aspects and options. The quality of services could be improved by their provision at the county level or in cooperation between local authorities, which is relatively rare among local authorities, and by the establishment of quality requirements for specialists.
The National Audit Office emphasises that it is extremely important that the recommendations made to the Minister for Regional Affairs are implemented in the coming years, which may change the organisation of local government. Several audited local authorities also agreed that the current situation must be changed. The auditees themselves offered very different solutions to improving the quality of services. Local authorities are in favour of the creation of competent centres in counties. Some of the solutions offered, such as mandatory cooperation between local authorities or adding a second level to local government, require political agreements and amendment of laws.
The National Audit Office selected 15 smaller and remoter local authorities for the audit (Piirissaare, Tudulinna, Lohusuu, Kasepää, Lavassaare, Kõo, Põdrala, Õru, Ruhnu, Mustjala, Mõniste, Laheda, Meremäe and Mikitamäe municipalities, and Mõisaküla town) and analysed the existence of formal preconditions in eight areas of activity: spatial planning, organisation of childcare, provision of basic education, provision of social welfare services, waste removal, organisation of public water supply and sewerage, road maintenance, and transparency of the activities of local authorities.
Head of Communication Service
Development of public services may require changes in the organisation of local government