NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Efficient Local Government Service Provision: The Role of Privatization and Public Sector Unions

Rhiannon Jerch, Matthew E. Kahn, Shanjun Li

NBER Working Paper No. 22088
Issued in March 2016
NBER Program(s):Environment and Energy Economics, Industrial Organization, Labor Studies, Public Economics, Political Economy

Local governments spend roughly $1.6 trillion per year to provide a variety of public services ranging from police and fire protection to public schools and public transit. However, we know little about public sector’s productivity in delivering key services. To understand the productivity both over time and across space, we examine public bus service, which represents a standardized output for benchmarking the cost of local government service provision. There is significant dispersion across transit agencies in the operating cost per bus mile with the highest being more than three times as high as the lowest among top 20 largest cities by population. We estimate the cost savings from privatization and explore the political economy of why privatization rates are lower in high cost unionized areas. Our analysis finds that the full privatizaton could result in cost savings of $5.7 billion in 2011 and that the gain in economic efficiency from more closely aligning bus fares with production costs would be worth at least half a billion dollars.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22088

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