Service provision in rural areas Concepts from Vital Rural Area

Key words: service provision, ICT, Vital Rural Area, service policy, multifunctional facilities.

1. The importance of rural service provision – an introduction

This article identifies and discusses a number of crucial aspects and dimensions of rural services. The main purpose is, based on the literature on the topic, to examine selected conceptual models and to develop them in the context of Vital Rural Area, a collaborative network of European rural areas that participate in the EU-supported INTERREG program. The contribution of the article is a new categorization of services. The article elaborates on the constraints and opportunities of ICT for the provision of services in rural areas, and it addresses the question of how service provision in rural areas can be sustained through collaboration between the public, private and voluntary sectors. Eventually, the purpose is to deliver inputs to the activities of the Vital Rural Area and other similar collaborative projects.

No matter where people and business enterprises settle, they anticipate the provision of certain categories of basic public and private services. Service provision is regarded as essential for the mere functionality of a modern family life. Elementary commercial and public support for categories of small and medium sized business typically located in rural areas is also considered self-evident in most countries and regions and essential for the economic viability outside the bigger towns. A certain level of public service provision is crucial in order to reduce social deprivation and in order to increase social inclusion (Berry, 2004), and this objective is a chief raison d’etre for maintaining a strong public sector representation in rural areas. Hence, the service production and provision is found to reduce rural-urban differences (Moran el al, 2007).

OECD explains the importance of having a vibrant service sector from the perspective that, first, it ensures quality of life for rural citizens, and second, it is necessary for the development of the rural economy (OECD, 2010). OECD further states that: “The availability of an appropriate mix of private, public and voluntary services in all communities is an increasingly important factor in building a competitive and sustainable economy” (OECD, 2010, p. 57). Thus for OECD, the economic side of service provision is a major consideration, and every part of the economy should be fine-tuned for the benefit of people and businesses. In terms of policies, it is therefore considered essential to unlock the potential of all territories (OECD, 2010). According to OECD statistics, the service sector accounts for about 70% of the economy, and in rural areas the sector’s share of the economy is only marginally lower. In the future, OECD expects the service sector to increase even further, also in rural areas. Simutaneously however, the formats of rural service provision are expected to be under pressure. For instance, Hindle and Annibal (2011) warns that significant reductions in funding in the UK necessitate new approaches to maintain and enhance services.

In earlier times the rural population was regarded as a fairly homogeneous population group, and yet in many respects different from the urban population. Today, the aspirations related to quality of life for rural citizens are converging with the aspirations of urban citizens (OECD, 2010; Moseley and Owen, 2008). The literature on rural lifestyles tends to state that the distinction between these two groups of citizens has become less weighty over time. This has consequences for the demand of rural services, which in scale and scope becomes still more similar to the demand of services in urban areas. The supply formats of services may, however, still be different in rural due to smaller and more dispersed populations, longer distances and limited availability of delivery infrastructure. The“unit cost of delivery” is, under these circumstances normally higher(Hindle and Annibal 2011, p. 7). A Scottish study on co-location of rural services states that: “In rural areas, more flexible and innovative routes of service delivery may (…) be required” (Moran et al, 2007, p. ii).

According to Mosely and Owen (2008) service provision “has floated up the urban hierarchy” (p 111), and many categories of services are increasingly located at edge-of-town locations or along important roads between towns and the surrounding countryside (Osti, 2010). Simultaneously, opening hours for some shops have increased in rural areas due to a 365/24/7 culture (Moseley and Owen, 2008), while other services, such as GP home visits have become less prevalent, and public transportation has limited its frequency as a response to higher car ownership. As pointed out by Johansen (2009) and Skerratt and Hall (2011), the debate in rural communities often lacks precision in respect to the functionalities and the importance of rural services, and the implicit benefits and values are not sufficiently investigated so as to be able to outline future challenges and solutions. The focus in the following discussion will be based mainly on Moseley and Owen’s (2008) approach which includes a clear acknowledgement of the challenges for rural services.

Rural service provision is a complicated patch work quilt, and service provision in rural areas is certainly a contented and constrained terrain, with numerous policy challenges. In order to examine the field, this article first creates an overview of types of services relevant for rural areas, and then addresses the challenges to maintaining current service levels, taking into consideration The socio-economic and socio-demographic development  in general, especially the economic downturn following the financial crisis. There will be a special emphasis on the rapid development of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), regional variations in Access and Adaption, possibly preserving and enhancing a “digital divide” (van Dijk, 2009). Van Dijk (2009) demonstrates the clear differences in computer use and internet access related to age, education level and employment status, and these parameters are known to vary also between rural and urban settings, with rural areas as the more disadvantaged locations.


2. Methodology

The study forms part of a research contribution in connection with Vital Rural Areas, a transnational EU-supported Interreg project. The project includes 13 local areas in Norway, UK, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany. In an experimental set-up, Vital Rural Area activates a long range of local actors from both the public and private sectors. Obviously, the public partners in Vital Rural Area are responsible for service policies, and they have yearlong practice in the fields. Private partners joined into the project as well in their capacity of knowledgeable beneficiaries and best-practice testers. Vital Rural Area as a collaborative platform represents a wealth of insight into the interlinking of policies with citizens needs and capabilities of large and small private service providers, and that has been utilized intensively for this conceptual study.

Vital Rural Area has been in operation since 2009, and the project is due to be finalized by the end of 2013. During this period, the project partners have organized and attended several workshops, conferences and study trips. Documentation has been collected in many formats – web-documents, videos, presentations, case studies, tools etc. The debates on the conferences are well accounted for, and they touch upon the involvement and empowerment of local communities to a large extent. Representatives of private companies and voluntary organizations invited into the project meetings have continuously delivered their opinions on policy matters. This material is also a foundation for the study and for other research contributions.

Further, interviews have been undertaken with actors in project management and in the partner organizations. The interviews have been performed as semi-structured face-to-face, skype or telephone interviews with key personnel. They have kindly supplied additional written material. Eventually, in connection with the study, the researchers have undertaken a literature review, which has inspired the service models presented in this paper. The OECD papers on the new rural paradigm, especially OECD (2006a), have served as starting point. Since focus is on statutory services, and since the most steady partners of Vital Rural Area are indeed public authorities, the points of view referenced will largely be from within the public sector, here municipalities, regions and inter-municipal/regional collaborative bodies.  

Accordingly, Vital Rural Area is a reference point for the study, and basic conceptualizations are provided from the project. However, that scope of the paper is broader, as it addresses, reflects and develops the issue of developing the service related policy measures into a guiding framework for policy makers.


3. Categories and agency of services in rural

By definition, the service sector encompasses the economic activity concerned with the exchange and consumption of goods and services. It is also known as the ‘tertiary’ sector, the ‘first’ being agriculture and other ways of extracting resources from nature and the ‘second’ being manufacturing and construction. Here and inspired by Moseley and Owen (2008) services are categorized as follows:

  • ·         Social care
  • ·         Education and training
  • ·         Retail service
  • ·         Health care
  • ·         Postal and delivery services
  • ·         Passenger transportation
  • ·         Emergency services
  • ·         Business advisory services
  • ·         Leisure and recreation facilities
  • ·         Financial services.


The term sector is also used so as to describe whether the economic or societal agent in question is privat or public or whether the service is provided through voluntary work, by civic organizations or (in a less formal way) by the local community. Sometimes this civic/voluntary/community action is called the third sector (Evers, 1995).The third sector seems to have grown in importance lately, especially following what is seen as the transition from New Public Management (NPM) to Collaborative or Network Governance (Cooper et al, 2006). These years, the development of public services is often expected to take place through collaborative innovation (Sørensen and Torfing, 2010), rather than solely and entirely through privatizations or as part of a public statutory obligation. The collaborative philosophy and the related approaches of network governance are regarded as particularly essential in smaller communities (Skinner and Joseph, 2011). As an often mentioned example, local action groups are in charge of implementing the EU LEADER program (Böcher, 2008). There is a conviction that such voluntary groups are well suited for all kinds of practical and viable initiatives with some incentives and financial support, and there is a confidence that they can handle the provision even fairly advances services (Eggers and Singh, 2009). In this sense, the contributions from the third sector can be seen as beneficial for living quality and social cohesion (OECD, 2006b). From a more pragmatic observation the local delivery mechanism compensates for the lack of extensive urban services (Skinner, 2008).

Within the broad and overall definitions, there are a number of academic discourses and models of crucial importance for the service policy discussion in rural areas, and they shall be elaborated in the following.


4. Functions of services in rural areas 

Intuitively, services in rural areas are there to support the daily lives of the citizens and enterprises. However, in a thesis on planning, Been (2012) expanded the perception and identified four types of functions for rural services with schools as a specific example. Been’s distinction builds on and elaborates a discussion of various functions described by Smith and Sparks (2000) in a survey of the conditions of small shops in rural Scotland. The approach can also be applied to other types of services. The functions are:


  • ·         The primary function, which is the directly delivered or produced service. In case of a village school, the primary function is obviously to teach basic skills and to prepare the children for further education.
  • ·         The economic function, which is the impact on the local community in terms of offering employment to local residents, where the wages are to extent re-circulated into the local economy and subsistence.
  • ·         The social function, where the service facility is also a meeting place. Parents meet and chat “at the school gate” when they bring their children. The school facilities are locations for organized events and meetings. Similarly, the local shop is often mentioned as the most important meeting place in a village.
  • ·         The symbolic function, which is the signal value for the local community of having a functioning unit of service such as for example a school or post office. To many both residents and potential in-migrants, the school in particular is a symbol of local prosperity, independence and viability.

As indicated by Been (2012), service functions do not necessarily need to embrace all functions at the same time. Some primary functions, for example basic road infrastructure, may not be particularly symbolic, it is just available. However, an easy access to a highway may have symbolic value. On the other hand primary structures, for example village retailers, can be kept alive to ensure the existence of a meeting place, even if they play a minor role in the supply of goods, and even if the economic contribution is marginal. The importance attached to the functions can vary over time, for example if the facility is in risk of closure.

To illustrate the nature of the functional points of view, a study on multi-service outlets in England, (Moseley et al, 2004) concludes from a number of governmental reports and publicly funded studies, that services such as schools and village halls still enjoy numerical stability, and that this is largely due to the persistence of combined functionalities. Hargreaves (2009), also documents that, following the UK Labour government’s “presumption against closure” in 1998, the number of small rural schools have only declined slightly. Other services like public and community transportation and childcare show modest growth tendency, while the number of village pubs, post offices, food shops and GP surgeries continues to fall. Decline is also observed for small town hospitals, banks and police stations. The studies by Moseley et al (2004), Osti (2010) and Møller and Agerholm (2012) show fairly uniformly that rural service provision is in a critical situation where the development proceeds towards depletion. However, the speed and nature of the development depends on the extent of remoteness of the rural areas under consideration as well as the national context.

The general development of decline has adverse welfare effects as well as severe social consequences. Moseley and Owens (2008), Moseley et al (2004) and Moran et al (2007) mainly consider services as for the quality of life for rural residents. Contrary to OECD, they leave out considerations about services for rural businesses and thereby the linkage with the rural economy. Taking into consideration how serious the situation is for any rural area in terms of service provision, there is a plea for a wider integrative attitude, where services for business and citizens is seen more in tandem than as separated fields.

5. Modes of delivery of services in rural areas

There is another important conceptual distinction between serviceproduction and serviceprovision. Service production includes a totality of the value chain – the case of a school both administration, educational development and the teaching activities of all kinds. When addressing service provision, the idea is that the value chain can be split up, so that some operations are centralized while others which require the co-production with the costumers need to be provided locally. In the example of the schools, the mere core activities such as the teaching in class may be undertaken in a feasible way locally, while the single community cannot host the more comprehensive administrative and development functions.

The subdivision of services along the value chain is a subtle process that can, potentially, be done in many ways. Berry (2004), for examples identifies services as a mixture of the following components: information, expert inputs, social ingredients and the physical component. In Table 1, Berry’s ideas are tested with library and medical services and senior citizens’ lunch clubs as examples. Table 1 includes in italics suggested developments into a digital direction.

As illustrated with the library services, information can be delivered in written form, available only on the spot as a catalogue, but digital services broaden the availability from at home. The expert advisory services may be delivered verbally, but the availability of the staff has also a social function. As illustrated, the interaction with other users is a side effect, but it may be transferred to electronic formats as well, where the development of social media is also an issue in rural communities. Eventually, the books on the shelves are very physical, but even in this case the digital development opens up for other ways of acquiring the materials. As illustrated, medical services can be analyzed along the same lines. Lunch club functions can also be analysed in terms of information, expertise, social and physical functions, but replacement by digital devices is less prevalent.   

Table 1.  Specifies of the services








Library service

Library catalogue.

Direct access to search functions material in digital format.


Questions to qualified librarian, advice given.

Dialogue with automated system, “wisdom of the crowd” (recommendation, ranking systems).

Interaction with other visitors and staff, reading clubs. Dialogue with other users and staff (as under “Expertise”), through social media.

Books, CDs, DVDs etc. on shelves.

Could partly be replaced with downloadable and streamed digital materials.

Medical service

Printed booklets, handouts, medical records etc, produced by the single doctor, hospital etc.  Access to on-line sources in greater variety, access to medical records.

Questions to nurse, paramedic or doctor.

Teleconferencing, possibly also dialogue with automated diagnosis system.

Interaction with staff, relatives other user of medical services.

Dialogue with other users and staff (as under “Expertise”), through social media, support associations and patient communities.

Physical examination and treatment in specialized facilities.

Partly to be replaced by tele-conferencing (video-links) and tele-metrics, self-monitoring, even robotic surgery.

Senior citizens’ lunch club

Information on venue and menu. Traditionally printed, mailed, pinned at meeting place(s).

Shared on website, social media, pushed to mobile phones.

Organizing, shopping for and preparing the meals, providing diet advice etc.

E-shopping, access to a recipes bank. Automatic diet calculations and communication with users with special needs.

Having lunch with peers, neighbors, exchanging news and gossip.

Hard to make electronic/virtual. During, after event photos and comments can be shared on websites, social media.

Having lunch with peers, neighbors, exchanging news and gossip.

Hard to make electronic/virtual. During, after event photos and comments can be shared on websites, social media.

Source: Adapted after Berry (2004)

This model illustrates the immensely dynamic prospects of the adaption of new technologies. Generally, the development implies a move from the physical and social interventions towards expert and information. However, the promptness to adapt differs between demographic and socio-economic groups, and thus across spatial localities (van Dijk, 2005), where the composition of the population in rural areas tends to slow down the transformation process.


Box 1: Distance interpretation in health and social services

Many rural communities are faced with a population of immigrants or refugees who don’t speak the national language well or at all. The provision of interpreting services for encounters with social workers or health services can be complicated and expensive, especially if the interpreters have to travel a longer distance to be present. In order to address this problem, the Danish rural municipality Vejen has tested the use of the video-conferencing system for distance-interpretation at a job center and at the municipal integration unit. The results were overwhelmingly positive; not only was the investment in equipment and infrastructure paid back quickly, all involved parties: civil servants, clients/citizens and interpreters found tele-interpretation easy and a better solution that conventional interpretation. Tele-interpretation will therefore now be applied for a wider range of services in Vejen.



6. Ownership, funding and provision

Overlapping ownership, funding and provision complicates the discussion about efficient rural service provision. In many cases, services such as leisure activities are provided by voluntary organizations, but funded partly or fully by public bodies. Sometimes ownership of buildings and infrastructure is at public hands, while the operations are outsourced to private enterprises (Skerratt and Hall, 2011). Retail services are private, but add-on services such as for example postal services may have a public element in it. Delivery of goods to the elderly can be included in the social services which may be either public or lie in civil organizations (Skinner and Joseph, 2011).

Transferability of experience across national borders in terms of creative solutions for ownership, funding and provision is seriously hampered due to the differences in legal and organizational matters and traditions. In Germany, for example, care for the elderly is largely embedded in the voluntary sector, financed by labour market contributions, while in Norway and Denmark, these tasks are public services funded over the taxes (Alber, 1995). The differences might affect the possibilities for collaboration and coordination across borders and exploiting experience from one country in another.

In Table 2 the list of 10 specific services (Moseley and Owen, 2008) is used to investigate the scope of ownership, funding and provision. As illustrated, there is a significant ambiguity as to define whether the services are private, public/statutory or voluntary. In rural settings the boundaries are even more contested than in areas with other features.

Table 2. Examples of types of rural services by ownership, funding and provision

Involvementby sector





Social care

Home service for the elderly for example cleaning and gardening may be private, but can be supported through indirectly by tax deduction or directly by price subsidies

Child care facilities and care for the elderly may be publicly funded and regulated, but in many countries provided by private or voluntary organizations. Citizens may be asked to pay a fee for the services that fully or partly cover the costs

Visitors service for the elderly, mentor schemes for youngster etc. are often voluntary services, free of charge

Education and training

Specialized professional training, private schools can be owners and providers on a commercial marked, and the services sold for a market price

Public schools, higher education, vocational training can be publicly provided and financed, but parts of the may be outsourced to private actors

Training of leaders and instructors in sports- and other associations, basic training for volunteer social work

Retail service

Supermarkets, farm outlet, specialized shops are normally private.

Public agents may facilitate supplies to particularly disadvantaged segments of citizens. Subsidies, for example rent subsidies, helps survival  of the last shop in remote areas

Shops run by volunteers on non-profit basis. Charity stores.


Private GP and hospitals. Medical specialists. Commercial therapists, healers etc.  Some of this may be funded publically.

Hospitals, clinics, GPs .Some of this may be outsourced to private actors.

Health groups, voluntary caretakers.

Postal and delivery services

International delivery companies, local (carrier) services.

National postal services. May be embedded in retail stores or other commercial outlets.

Not relevant

Passenger transportation

Taxi services. Bus, train and ferry services – operated on an entirely private or contract basis, depending on degree of privatization.

Bus, train and ferry services operated by responsible public authority, possibly with price subsidies to ensure access.

Occasional transport of elderly disabled people and children (to church, to sports facilities, on excursions). Internet-based co-riding services.

Emergency services

Road assistance. Ambulance service operating on contract with responsible public authority.

Ambulance service, fire brigade operated by responsible public authority.

Voluntary fire brigades, coast guards etc. Training and equipment provided by public authorities.

Business and  advisory services

Private, commercial business consultants and law firms

Local or outreach social workers, and business centres

“Legal Aid”, free legal advice (by trained lawyers). Voluntary advice services, Citizens Advice services

Leisure and recreation facilities

Fitness centres, gaming, tourism industry operating on a commercial base

Parks, public swimming pools (example of activity with public funding and user payment), summer entertainment. Some operations may be outsourced to private or voluntary bodies

Sports clubs, leisure associations


Financial services

Commercial operation: banks, insurance etc.

Not relevant, unless integrated in postal services

Not relevant



However, it is not only the ownership and funding that determine the conditions for service provision in a rural context. By categorizing in three provision modes, Mosley and Owen (2008) address the service mobility aspects:

  1. Fixed outlets from where the service is delivered. The staff is not mobile, the clients are expected to move. Service outlet can be single-service or multi-service;
  2. Outreach service as mobile delivery agents, where staff is mobile, while clients are not. This could be mobile services, home delivery and peripatetic delivery;
  3. Electronic service provision. The access could be both at fixed service points, at home by broadband or wireless, or by mobile devices such as telephones and smartphones.

These observations can serve as starting point for the identification of pressing challenges, but also new potentials for rural service, as demonstrated in Table 3. There is hardly one single way of provision and delivery of rural services. Recombination of the three modes may lead to both improved service quality and efficiency.

Table 3. Example of fixed, outreach and electronic service provision. ICT developments in italics

Involvementby sector

Main ways of delivery

Social care

Fixed outlets for example childcare facilities.

Outreach services or example to the homes of the elderly.

Some social functions to be based on (mobile) phones and web, for example monitoring and communicating with the elderly.

Education and training

Fixed outlets in classroom.

Mobile specialized training units in trailers.

Moving towards e-learning and collaborative web-based learning.


Fixed shop outlets.

Peripatetic delivery at market days, market spots. 

E-shopping, with pick-up service or doorstep/workplace delivery as a more asynchronous mode of retailing.


Fixed health centre.

Outreach GP services. Temporary health containers.

Tele-medicine and peer-to-peer advice.

Postal and delivery services

Fixed outlets, increasingly integrated with other services, for example shops and banks. Centralized mailboxes.

Outreach delivery.

Monitoring the status of the delivery.

Passenger transport

Outreach service, but also stations and stops as meeting places.

Electronic delivery time-tables, tickets, travel card systems.

Emergency services

Mainly outreach service, in remote areas for example helicopters.

Call-in and communication systems modernized through ICT-rollout. Navigation and coordination benefits from GPS- and GIS-technology.

Provision of information and advice

Fixed outlets in service sections.

Outreach services, for example to SMEs or in schools.

Being transferred into web- based solutions, mobile applications, including social media - the degree depending on the level of professionalism, for instance high for legal advice, and low for life-style related questions.

Leisure and recreation services

Fixed outlets, such as sport ground.

Outreach in nature, mobile facilities.

Apps and communication devices to assist and enhance the experience in nature.

Financial services

Fixed outlets in branches or in multi-service units.

Web-banking (increasingly based on smart-phone apps


7. Challenges to rural service provision

According to OECD (2010) the rural service provision is a matter of substantial economic and governmental challenges. There are at a range of interwoven aspects. For the citizens, rural services come in a more limited variety and depth of provision.  There is a more limited choice. There is a lower overall level of activity and demand in rural regions, which again makes it hard to achieve a critical mass and economical provision.

      In addition, the demand for services is affected by the distances, which impose additional travel cost, high levels of unproductive travel time for the citizens. Distance and low population levels result in low density of services which demotivates intensive use in a vicious circle. On top of this development problems of economic sustainability arise as a response to general developments in demography and preferences. The changing demography towards an ageing population is skewing the service offer away from younger peoples’ expectations. They tend to measure the service provision with urban standards.  It is becoming a more intricate challenge to combine the provision for the elderly with advanced services for younger age groups and prosperous in-migrating families.

      On top of such barriers comes the decreasing willingness for the majority of (urban) taxpayers to provide high levels of subsidy for rural services. The financial crisis and focus on public spending is adding pressure, and there is growing demand on available public revenues. There is a political emphasis on “value for money” and evidence of efficiency.

      Other problematic aspects are connected to the rapidly changing logics in many aspects of the economy. For example, rural areas envisage less than optimum digital capacity in spite of the fact that technologies are available and implementable. Grimes (2003) remarks that digital equality for rural areas requires distinct governmental intervention or new types of collaborative originations. Likewise, the upkeep and development of service provision is also depending on new types of private-public-voluntary partnerships.

From a strict economic calculation, many services are not feasible in rural areas, and therefore it becomes a governmental issue to maintain a certain standard. The determination of standards is a political issue where rural voices are not always present to any significant extent. “New public management” (NPM), a philosophy of significant popularity in numerous European countries, strives to save tax payers’ money and to raise service quality at the same time (Sørensen and Torfing 2010). More recently, local governmental ideology has tended to move somewhat away from the more rigid and centralizing versions of NPM, but the pressure on the public finances still exists.   

In terms of private service provision, there is an intrinsic complication for example in the retail and banking sectors, where national and international corporations and supply chains move in. For rural areas a centralization of ownerships may limit the choice and weaken the communication networks (OECD, 2010). However, in a market economy, the concentrations on some categories of services tend to open new gaps in the market, which may, in some perspective of time, may be covered by types of providers and business models not yet seen. 

This changing rural situation requires the introduction of policy models that strengthen the capacity of rural areas to adapt. Public goods and services – the bedrock for rural community development – can play a role in unlocking the rural regions competitive advantage. Technology is an important driver for the renewal of service provision in rural areas. Through creative technology development and usage there might be a chance for citizens and businesses in constrained and remote localities to maintain and enhance their quality of life and their economic prospects. But is a question how to identify the best solutions that are not only innovative, but comply with network and collaborative approaches, which are particular for rural policy making and service provision.   


8. Multiservice units and cross-sector collaboration

Even if under pressure, there is a plea for both the existing and new rural services. The recombination of existing goods and services in efficient and convenient (for the citizens) ways requires an innovative agency at all levels.

Multi-service outlets can be defined as premises or facilities housing two or more different services at the same time provided by or involving two or more agencies or actors. In a study in rural England, Moseley et al (2004) conclude that multi-service outlets represent an indisputable opportunity for rural service provision. According to Moseley and Owen (2008) the services in rural England are normally delivered either at fixed outlets (single-service outlets or multi-service outlets), by outreach service as mobile delivery agents (mobile services, home delivery and peripatetic delivery) or electronically. The advantages to the service suppliers of multi-service outlets are that multi-service outlets lead both to cost saving or sharing and to additional income generation, increased clientele, synergy, and flexibility (Moseley et al, 2004). From the consumer perspective multi-service outlets are considered a good option for people with mobility problems, as they are convenient ‘one-stop shop’. Besides, they become community focal points and hubs and thereby enhance social capital (Moseley et al, 2004; Moran et al, 2007). Disadvantages from the consumer perspective relate to the risk that the service quality is lower, and to the fact that clustering a variety of services in one location possibly withdraws the services from other locations. As an answer to this, Moseley et al, (2004) expose that supporters of the multi-service outlet approach need to be very alert and consistent in the definition of services qualities. Critiques refer to the hazard that citizens involuntarily become participants in a “post-code lottery” where they face a variability in service delivery which they cannot affect and respond to themselves (Mosley and Owen, 2008).

Accordingly, multi-service outlets are to a high degree depending on the local outlet manager. In order to become an attractive business opportunity it takes flexibility and inventiveness from the manager’s side in the fostering and replenishing phases (Moseley et al, 2004). A degree of community ownership and commitment can be vital for the success of a multi-service outlet as well (Moseley et al, 2004; Moran et al, 2007). Multi-service outlets must also be placed in the adequate premises, and ICT should be adequately integrated. Attitudes of non-stakeholders, who are not local, also proved to be of utmost importance for multi-service outlets, such as for example suppliers of goods and policy makers at regional and national levels (Moseley et al 2004). Accordingly, in order to acquire an external bargaining power, internal partnership capacity building and mutual commitment becomes vital. In essence, multi-service outlets can be seen as examples of local partnerships for service provision, which are inviting otherwise incompatible mates. In relation to this, OECD also emphasizes the importance of co-design and co-delivery for the upholding of rural services (, and the organisation stresses the importance of avoiding a ‘silo effect’ (OECD, 2010). Since non-stakeholders often make the decisions, partnerships are a way forward: “In rural areas with fewer choices of service providers, governments need to seek partners for the delivery of public services. Investor-owned firms are less likely to engage in rural service provision, so that the role of provider is likely to fall largely to the government or the voluntary sector” (OECD, 2010, p. 114).

Moseley and Owen (2008) also underline the importance of cross-sectoral briding. For the sake of a sustainable multiservice unit, growth of partnerships should ideally include two or more sectors and, at the same time, different levels (local, regional and national). The authors claim that there has been a withdrawal of the public sector from being a direct service supplier to instead defining and procuring services and monitoring them, and they describe this as an arm’s-length involvement. Thus, contractors from the private, voluntary/community sectors deliver services on behalf of the public sector – with new opportunities as well as vulnerabilities.


Box 2:Multifunctional centres hosting public services

The concept of multifunctional centres has been known and applied for a long time, especially in the UK. With support from Vital Rural Areas, Dutch municipality Achtkarspelen has developed the concept by establishing a virtual service desk in a village support center, one of the meeting places of the village. Here citizens can gain access to personnel at the town hall, 15 km away via webcam and broadband internet. The service is being developed to include contact with the police and banking services.



In some countries and areas in Europe and in particularly very sparsely populated areas with skewed in- and out-migrating (Thissen et al 2010), the public sector tends to withdraw entirely. It is then up to the community sector to uphold services after the state has declined to pay for them. This might lead to an accelerated decline. However, in other areas, characterized by processes of counter-urbanization, the private sector increases its activities (Mosely and Owen, 2008).

Partnership is a way to address complexity. However, partnership development is a manifestation of a growing involvement of volunteers working at the local level in a range of sometimes incompatible activities such as lobbying and protesting, researching and planning, local fundraising activities, operational management, or actual service delivery. Further, volunteers may involve themselves community enterprises that sell goods and/or services. Community enterprises are claimed to be positive for client groups neglected by the standard market (Moseley and Owen, 2008). They are also essential for as local capacity building. The increased importance of the voluntary sector in rural service provision, however, leaves a new role to the governments as facilitators rather than providers. According to Moseley et al (2004) local authorities might put an effort into influencing the large corporate stakeholders, so that they as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) assist would-be entrepreneurs and to foster matchmaking and in other ways stimulate positive synergies from partnership.

There are constraints of the partnership development as the unique solution to service provision in rural areas. Moseley et al (2004) explain that it can be difficult to stitch partnerships together due to a possible co-finance perspective and a need to make compromises on specifications and standards. Problems of partner withdrawal or demise are also mentioned as a pertinent constraint. It is important to work for a dynamic between top-down and bottom-up initiatives: “That challenge – how to fuse top-down and bottom-up dynamics – is not confined to the domain of rural service delivery, but it may have particular resonance in that context where no single agency has a brief to take such an overall perspective.” (Moseley et al 2004, p. 388).

Collaborative innovation across sectors must be considered a new discipline (Sørensen and Torfing, 2010) in which rural actors are not yet ready and trained to any significant extent (Jæger, 2009). For the future, user-driven innovation where the locals are invited into the definition of services and into the implementation of projects with public providers have significant perspectives. However, a knowledge gap is claimed to exist with regard to innovation within the public sector (Sørensen and Torfing, 2010), in particular in non-standard settings and under fluctuating circumstances. The only way to overcome the organizational and competence deficit seems to be with highly involved citizens and local enterprises.


Box 3: Applying LEAN to municipality governance

Within the framework of the inter-municipal collaboration in the Leiedal region in Belgium, four small municipalities have been using LEAN approaches to develop more efficient and less costly services. Under normal circumstances, very small municipal administrations are perceived as being less efficient, as they cannot rely on range of specialized skills and competences. The four municipalities employed a critical review of administrative procedures, and they were redesigned and codified efficiently. Now, a small number of civil servants are fully capable of delivering services, such as for example planning and building permissions. The LEAN procedures have helped to map all procedures in detail and to provide a foundation for a speedy and efficient process, where the municipal staff is empowered to undertake what is needed on the spot.



9. Discussion – the role of ICT for future service provision in rural areas

Alternative delivery mechanisms, such as bringing services to users through the internet, are likely to become more important, as ICT is claimed to be the most perceptible driver of change for rural areas. ICT can help confront the present dominance of economies of scale philosophy and. As claimed by Pil and Holweg (2003) scale economies has been immensely dominant as a way of thinking, planning and decision making, and inarguably size provides cost efficiency. But sometimes small-scale operations can provide new significant advantages, which is relevant for rural economics. Smaller units allow companies to locate hot spots and tap into local knowledge networks; they make it possible to respond more rapidly to customer needs and to trends in regional demand; they enable companies to monitor potentially disruptivetechnologies; and they help hold down labor costs while developing managerial talent”(Pil and Holweg, 2003, p 33).  Shifts in technology can be the means that make small scale more profitable. Christensen and Raynor (2003) mention a range of cases, where technology disrupted the previous thinking about scale: micro steel plants which took over large markets, the printing technology that made every home a potential publisher and printhouse, the portable diabetes blood glucose meters that liberate people with the decrease from big hospitals. ICT catalyses many new scale developments.

Osti states that ICT “…. has affected all the traditional spatial delimitations, including that between rural and urban” (Osti, 2010, pp. 296-297). The Demos report ‘Beyond digital divides?’ also describes ICT positively as a leapfrog technology (Demos, 2005), which is capable of rubbing out distances. The report states that: “ICTs enable the transportation and exchange of voice, video and data at speeds that often make distance irrelevant. They support asynchronous communication that can be picked up by the recipient at a time of their choosing, enabling people with busy lives to access and share information more effectively. The internet is unprecedented in the flexibility of scale of communication that it can support. Previously, different patterns of communication – one to one, one to many and many to many – all had media that were particular to them – but today, the web can do it all, through websites, email, wikis and blogs” (Demos, 2005, p. 11). Hollifield and Donnermeyer even write that“….access to information technologies will be necessary for rural communities to attract and retain businesses and, therefore, remain economically viable”(Hollifield and Donnermeyer, 2003, p. 135).Evidence on impacts in the longer term of modern ICT is not consolidated, and a recent study from rural USA (LaRose et al, 2011) shows that a few years after the introduction of broadband service to a rural area, still no impact on individual economic activity was found. ICT is a prerequisite, but social investments are needed to ensure creative implementation.


Box 4: Getting rid obesity through an ICT supported community project

The small Norwegian island municipality of Finnøy is faced with an ageing population, with expected increase in the occurrence of obesity and related diseases. Obesity is a threat to personal wellbeing – and to the municipal finances. In response to this challenge and in collaboration with the larger Rogaland region Finnøy has started an initiative to promote a healthier lifestyle.  The main selling point has been an objective of losing one ton of weight for the population totally. Citizens were recruited to participate in conventional ways, for example through schools, club, medical services etc. However, and very important for the success of the project, a purpose-designed web site was used to ensure an open, ongoing monitoring and propagation of the progress of the initiative. Here the participants could information on for instance walking trails in the area, easy exercises and low-fat recipes, and they could compare their own achievements with those of other participants.  



When scrutinizing the potential of ICT in rural areas, Salvesen and Renski (2003) provide a useful typology of different modes of communication. The concepts of synchronous and asynchronous delivery illustrated in Table 4 are applicable to many types of service provision.

Table 4:Modes of communication related to rural service delivery





Face to face meeting

Requires transportation

Requires coordination

Intense, personal

High cost

Leaving handwritten message

Requires transportation

Eliminates coordination

Displaces in time

Reduces cost


Telephone, video conferencing

Eliminates transportation

Requires coordination

Displaces in space

Reduces cost

Email, telephone message

Eliminates transportation

Eliminates coordination

Displaces in time and space

Low cost

In order to overcome diseconomies of scale, the challenge is to develop methods of rural service delivery that fall into the low cost and reduced cost categories. This is a challenge that involves both ICT but also remodeled organizational mechanisms and new business models.

In many countries government initiatives have, as a start, been targeted to accelerate take-up through online centers and e-gateways at suitably equipped village halls and schools (Moseley and Owen, 2008). The intention is eventually to reduce costs associated with physical distance, improve quality of life and services through telework, education, health services delivery etc. In order to sum up the potentials of these emerging technologies, Moseley and Owen (2008) elaborates an overview of possible consequences from greater application of ICT, as summarized in Table 5.


Table 5. Some possible rural service consequences of ICT developments and applications


Current or imminent ICT development

Possible positive rural service consequences


·         Remote diagnosis, consultation, care and monitoring

·         Better administration of appointments, prescriptions, etc.

·         Less travel and time spent waiting by patients and staff

·         Expanded patient choice and flexibility in appointments – spatially and in terms of time

Education and training

·         E-learning

·          Video conferencing

·         Improved interaction of tutors and students and further learning opportunities

·         Replacement of practical vocational training and teacher advice

·         Increased cross-spatial student collaborations

·         Simplification of administrative work with increased self-service

Financial services

·         ‘Universal bank’ delivered via networked rural post offices or other outlet

·         E-banking

·         Reduced financial exclusion of village-bound people



Postal and delivery services

·         E-commerce generally

·         Increased business for mail and package delivery firms


·         Spread of online auction sites such as eBay

·         E-commerce generally

·         Increased accessibility to goods and services

·         Spurring of the rural voluntary enterprises

·         Development of pick-up systems using existing village outlets

·         Increased awareness and sales of rural products

Information and advisory services

·         Advanced ICT systems for management

·         E-government

·         Access governmental services from home and from business premises

·         Access to voting and other democratic and participatory processes

Public transport

·         Rise of teleworking

·         GPS technology and live public transport information accesses

·         Customized public transport

Emergency services

·         Ambulances with video and patient monitoring equipment

·         Improved paramedic/consultant liaison en route to hospital

·         Deterrence of criminal activity

Leisure and recreation

·         Easy access to films, music, books, cultural manifestation etc

·         Enjoying activities in virtual social networks

·         Increased outdoor leisure value 


Source: Adapted after Moseley and Owen, 2008, p. 116).

The report by Demos also goes into detail on the complexity of ICT development in rural areas and the related advantages and disadvantages. The future divides are likely to be less digital and more social (Demos, 2005; van Dijk, 2009; Velaga et al 2012). It is not so much a questions about who will get fiber connection, the broad bandwidth and innovative wireless technologies and who will not, although the discussion will remain somewhat important, since citizens without home access risk exclusion from key services (Demos, 2005). The report states that: “We are undergoing a transition in which many of our activities are, at least partially, entwining with ICT to produce a state of techno-dependency. Those who struggle with the transition are people on lower incomes, people with disabilities and people with literacy problems. These obstacles have a particular resonance in rural areas, as incomes tend to be lower, and public access points fewer and farther between” (Demos, 2005, p. 19). The report further underlines: “If you need ICT to get an education, a job, book a doctor’s appointment, or fill in a housing benefit form then not having useable internet access becomes an obstacle to productive engagement in the world” (Demos, 2005, p. 20). The Demos report, however, also refers to surveys conducted in England show that there is a lack of understanding of the benefits of ICT and that many people are not interested in using the technologies (Demos, 2005, p. 19). This is in line with the findings in van Dijk (2009), who distinguishes between different levels of ICT mastery, where many people only possess the most marginal ICT competences, while few possess proficiency relevant for the obtaining of the optimal benefits. Following this, van Dijk points to the fact that large gaps are likely emerge in the future adaption of ICT. There seems to be an educational and demographic gab, that will be enlarged in a rural context. ICT in rural areas in not simply about “…reaching a wire to each household” (Demos, 2005, p. 20).


Box 5: Ambassadors for bridging the digital gap

Following a decision by the Danish government to make some basic services digital-only, the municipalities are faced with the challenge of securing access for all citizens to relevant and sometimes crucial information. For instance, all citizens must have a digital mailbox by 1. November 2014, where communication about tax issues, social benefits, use of public service, etc. will be delivered. An expected positive effect is a diminished need for visits to public offices and face-to-face services. In order to help citizens without or with only little digital literacy getting started with using the new channels of communication, the small municipality of Vejen has recruited 100 Digital Ambassadors who are training fellow citizens and colleagues to benefit from the system. The ambassadors are employees with dense contact to citizens, but also volunteers, typically recruited from organizations working with and for the elderly. The result has been a significant increase in online contact between the citizens and the town hall.


10. Conclusions and recommendations

This article exhibits the complexities of the provision of services in rural areas. It also demonstrates that the provision of services is a matter of constant change due to political, economic, and technological shifts, and as a response to demand from the local citizens and businesses. It is clear from most of the evidence in the field that service provision in rural areas is constrained, but there are differences and variation, for example in terms of location in the rural-urban hierarchy. The study points at some essential conclusions for rural areas that are participating in the transborder Vital Rural Area project and wider. The following emerging focus point can be observed, areas for active intervention and policymaking:

De-standardization. Service provision is likely to be in urgent need of redefinition in a rural context. That may cause developments with quite significant deviations from agreed national standards and “normal” provision methods. The development may possibly also open for wider interpretations of existing statutory requirements and the launching of new statutory regulations that can accommodate for wider flexibility. It is crucial to determine whether de-standardization or “floating standards” will imply lower quality of service in rural area, or just different standards, where the same goals are reached in other ways. 

Integration. In order to obtain economies of scale and in order to make services attractive to the users, an integration of services is likely to become more prevalent. This study points at the need to take into account the four functionalities when considering multi-service units: primary, economic, social and symbolic. Integration requires not only a commitment by citizens. Success requires the inclusion of governmental administrations at other levels than the local. It is also necessary to rethink business models where some tasks and functions are solved by other people and organizational bodies than usually the case. Monetary and non-monetary recognition have to follow as part of the new business models.

Mobilization. New service provision, and not the least changed standards and integrated functions and sites, will require preparation, which often takes a long time. There is significant evidence that such processes are facilitated by a broad mobilization of the locals in all phases of planning and implementation. The coordination of service facilities is a task to be handled, and this is particularly challenging when provision relies fully or partly on volunteers. It is evident that the allocation of costs and benefits is an area of potential local disputes. If the citizens shall account on a continuous service provision, legal construction of partnerships and formalization of agreements may be unavoidable, and a mere expression of commitment to participate in the provision of service is hardly enough.

Digitalization. ICT is potentially a chance for the maintenance and development of viable service provision. Much of the technology is already developed and available, but social structures and organizations that can enhance the appropriate and innovative use of them are still often insufficient. Rural areas need to be linked to urban institutions and competences, and agreements and concepts are still in their preparatory stages. It is not fully clarified whether it is really possible to take full advantage of the recent advances in ICT without closing the “digital gap” between generations and social groups. Thus, the challenge for rural areas is double: providing a universal access to fiber broadband (in-house) and web applications for mobile smartphones and motivating and, at the same time, educating the population to make the best of the opportunities.

Innovation. The framework conditions and regulatory tradition differ very considerably across the European space, although there are some convergence as a result of the EU legislative force. It makes less easy to develop service models that can be use universally. There is a need for a continuous local creativity, and room for varation. The constraints on many rural areas are so grave that innovations are needed urgently. It is essential to envisage that innovation comprises technical solutions, but not only. For an implementation and acceptance, innovation also include organizational and communicative changes and capacity building 


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