In order to improve the efficiency of government spending, it is necessary for the decentralized irrigation management to gain support from local institutions. Efficient institutions take on several distinct configurations in different irrigation districts. In this research, we upgrade Tang’s (1992) framework focusing on incentives, to a framework that includes institutional incentives and coordination. Within the framework, we then classify 5 institutional variables: water pricing reform (P), government funding (F), coordination by administration (C), having formal monitors (M) and self-organized management (S). This article processes the data obtained through a field survey (2009–2011) in 20 of China’s southern counties, where they implement the “Small-scale Irrigation and Water Conservancy Key Counties Construction (Key Counties Construction)”, a national project supported by the central government. Next, it applies Data Envelopment Analysis (DEA) to measure the efficiency of government spending and uses Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to extract efficient institutional configurations. It concludes that there are generally three types of institutional configurations able to improve the efficiency of government spending, which are respectively: “government funding combined with coordination by administration”, “water pricing reform combined with self-organized management and coordination by administration or water pricing reform combined with self-organized management and government funding and formal monitors” and “self-organized management”. Among these, the second configuration is a mixed governance structure with multiple institutions coexisting, and this configuration occurs in the most efficient key counties. For that reason, it is viewed as the mainstream irrigation management approach, and we expect it to be the development trend in the future. Although Chinese irrigation policies are formalizing effective local institutions, they are still not sufficient. Future policies are needed to 1) promote institutions of government support for water laws in order to build stable expectations for both water user associations (WUAs) and farmers, 2) guide water pricing reform by ensuring farmers’ water rights and regulating water markets, and 3) provide opportunities for hiring professional monitors and crafting formal rules.