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The Importance of Studying Small Municipalities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Ford
August 1, 2017

It is not surprising that much of the research conducted on local government focuses on larger municipalities. Larger municipal organizations employ more staff, have more complex structures and arguably face a more diverse array of management challenges than smaller municipalities. However, both the practical and academic side of public administration should pay more attention to smaller cities and towns. Why? The thousands of smaller municipalities across the United States possess many attributes that make them ideal subjects for informing public administration theory and practice.

First, about 15 percent of the United States population lives in municipalities with fewer than 10,000 residents. Over half of the Unites States population, 56 percent, lives in municipalities with fewer than 100,000 residents. Not devoting research energy to these places means public administration scholars are ignoring potential governance insights that are affecting huge numbers of Americans. Public administration is a normative science, and smaller communities need good governance as much as large ones.

Second, smaller municipalities operate in a fundamentally different governing context compared to larger municipalities. I learned this the hard way while teaching budgeting and financial management. I was discussing knepperbest practices for setting up finance departments when one of my mid-service students laughed out loud. I asked what was up, and he explained in his small town he was the finance department. It was a reminder than many research supported management practices do not translate into the small municipality context. Important emerging subject areas such as network governance and government by contract, for example, often do not apply in rural regions where the nonprofit and private sectors lack the size and capacity to compete for contracts and/or partner in service delivery.

Third, smaller municipalities face unique challenges which must be addressed for these places to thrive. Here in Wisconsin, for example, many smaller rural communities are dealing with a brain drain that threatens their tax bases, quality of life and overall ability to provide adequate services to citizens. Smaller municipalities are also struggling to deal with the national opiate epidemic, changing immigration and tourism patterns and declining state financial support. Many of the tools larger cities can use to address similar issues simply to do not exist in smaller more rural municipalities. Hence new tools, tools based on research and tailored specifically to smaller places, are needed.

Fourth, smaller municipalities offer an ideal testing ground for public administration theories simply because there are so many of them. In Wisconsin, for example, a study of the 85 municipalities with over 10,000 residents offers limited potential for statistical inference compared to a study of the over 1,700 municipalities with less than 10,000 residents. The structural and demographic diversity of smaller municipalities further enhances the potential for quantitative studies yielding valuable insights for our field.

Finally, smaller municipalities are part of the fabric of American life and worthy of greater attention from scholars who often reside, work, and study in larger cities. Public administration is a field constantly in pursuit of greater relevance, and increasing focus on smaller places is a way to demonstrate how our field can be of practical significance to governments large and small.

So, how exactly do we as a field go about increasing attention to smaller places? The easiest step is recognizing and disseminating existing research on smaller municipalities. A cursory search of Google Scholar shows such studies, though much less numerous, do exist. It is important that our professional publications work to translate this body of research to public administration practitioners. Slightly less easy is increased celebration of survey and interview research techniques. If we want to better understand smaller municipalities it makes sense to ask those working in these municipalities about their challenges. Though such non-experimental methods may be less sophisticated than those currently en vogue in academic public administration they are no less important. It also makes sense to develop and incentivize formal research partnerships between public administration scholars and smaller municipal governments. Such partnerships can turn the rich array of small American municipalities into research laboratories of mutual benefit to scholars and practitioners.

As stated, there is nothing wrong with our field’s strong focus on the administrative issues facing federal, state and larger municipal governments. But smaller more rural government organizations face challenges too. Public administration scholars can help address these challenges through a renewed dedication to studying the governance of smaller municipalities. Taking the small practical steps discussed above can help advance public administration theory, broaden the scope of our field, and demonstrate the relevancy of academic public administration across our country’s diverse cultural landscape.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an assistant professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He has published over two-dozen academic articles on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. Prior to joining academia, Michael worked for many years on education policy in Wisconsin.

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4 Responses to The Importance of Studying Small Municipalities

  1. Matthew Knickerbocker Reply

    August 10, 2017 at 9:08 pm

    Thank you for this very informative piece. I manage a town of 19,000 residents, and even though it’s larger than the 10,000 threshold you discuss, it is a classic, New England Yankee “do everything by the seat of your pants” type of town. I often struggle to translate public admin best practices to our too-small staff.

    • Michael Ford Reply

      August 23, 2017 at 9:00 am

      You are very welcome. Much of my research on this is focused in the midwest but I do plan to take it national because these challenges are not unique to a region. Thank you for reading.

  2. Robert L. Morrison Reply

    August 2, 2017 at 11:48 am

    Michael: Although here in PA we have over 2530 local governments for 67 counties, I did not realize nationwide they were so numerous for the United States population. It would be nice to hear you in a webinar setting discuss how you can make these smaller governments more efficient and streamlined.
    You cannot get much more streamlined than having a small government with a financing director of 1. The problem becomes how efficient and service oriented are you to the government supervisors and to your citizens. My feeling has always been that regionalization of small governments to share services to create a good return on investment (ROI) for everyone is one solution.
    My background has always been making government more modern oriented and efficient where the streamlining gave you better service for the same or less tax dollars. I did this as a CIO for many years leveraging modern computer techniques to replace manual disjointed tasks.

    • Michael Ford Reply

      August 23, 2017 at 9:03 am


      Thanks for the feedback. I agree that consolidation of services and functions by region is a possible solution. I also think technological tools provided by umbrella organizations (like the league of munis) is a way to improve services without breaking the bank. Thanks for your interest!

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