How do municipalities contest the policies of higher authorities?

Screenshot 2022-09-13 092753

Imrat Verhoeven, Michael Strange, and Gabriel Siles-Brügge.

Cities offer sanctuary to refugees against the wishes of national governments. Local governments oppose fracking initiatives from state governments. How do local governments contest perceived policy threats from supranational, national, or regional governments? In a recently published paper, we develop a new typology to make sense of the global phenomenon of ‘municipal contestation’.

Public contestation of government policy is often seen as the domain of social movements. But what happens when municipalities challenge higher authorities? The phenomenon has so far fallen between the field of public policy, which tends to be interested in more consensual forms of governance, and social movement theory. The scant attention to municipal contestation has focused on the most radical forms of action initiated by alliances of progressive local governments and social movements – for example, the ‘new municipalism’ associated with Barcelona. We argue, however, that new attention is needed to understand where municipal contestation cuts across radical and more institutionalised forms of behaviour.

Varieties of municipal contestation

Repurposing a typology of different social movement ‘flanks’, we argue there are three ideal typical forms of municipal contestation: conservative, moderate and radical. Conservative contestation sees municipalities accepting the existing rules and discourses while attempting to change the worst aspects of a policy through negotiation or deliberation with the higher authority. Moderate contestation involves a municipality seeking to block or redress the unwanted policy through lobbying and protest. It might also see collaboration with non-governmental players, such as social movement organisations or NGOs, and a use of existing institutions to gain strategic advantage. Finally, radical contestation sees municipalities responding to policies by seeking to replace them with alternatives, including through protest and prefiguration: acting as if the municipality has a competence in a policy area where it does not. The boundaries between municipalities and their social movement allies are also more deeply blurred. The municipality seeks to transform dominant institutions.

The dynamics of municipal contestation

Municipalities don’t just exist in a vacuum. They strategically adapt to the behaviour of other players, moving between ideal typical forms of contestation.

Where a municipality feels it can no longer sustain more ‘normal’ relations with a higher authority and wishes to go beyond merely attempting to change unwanted policies, it may move towards moderate contestation. Moving away from the institutional status quo entails breaking out of a municipalities’ habitual behaviour and often also initiating collaboration with social movement organisations and other non-governmental players. However, breaking out involves reputational risks and straining relationships with higher authorities.

A further move to radical forms of contestation, where the municipality does not just seek to block or redress the policy but fundamentally transform it, might be easier to countenance once the municipality has already engaged in moderate contestation. It may involve more intense collaboration with social movement organisations and other non-governmental players. Radical contestation and prefiguration are, however, time-consuming and resource intensive. They will also entail greater tension in the municipal-higher authority relationship. They may therefore be difficult to sustain for extended periods.

Studying municipal contestation systematically

This typology and its dynamics can be applied to different institutional settings. Our article takes a first step towards a more systematic and comparative research agenda relating to municipal contestation, providing insight into how it varies across jurisdictions and time. What factors, such as formal and informal rules and discourses, are more conducive to conservative, moderate or radical forms of municipal contestation? Are municipalities able to sustain moderate and radical forms of contestation more effectively in some settings? The answers to such questions will be of interest to those seeking to understand patterns of political contestation at a time where political institutions are increasingly being challenged.

Author biographies

Imrat Verhoeven is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. He tweets under @ImratVerhoeven. Institutional web page:

Michael Strange is a Reader in International Relations at Malmö University in Sweden. He tweets under @DrM1Strange. Institutional web page:

Gabriel Siles-Brügge is a Reader in Public Policy at the University of Warwick in the UK. He tweets under @GabrielSilesB. Institutional web page:

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Verhoeven, I., Strange, M. and Siles-Brügge, G. (2022), ‘The dynamics of municipal contestation: responses from local government to perceived policy threats from higher authorities’, Policy & Politics.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Policy & Politics, the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

A future research agenda for transformational urban policy studies

Lessons from policy theories for the pursuit of equity in health, education and gender policy

New pathways to paradigm change in public policy: combining insights from policy design, mix and feedback

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s