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Local Government is the Solution, not the Problem 

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

By David Hamilton
March 2, 2018

Nearly thirty years ago, seizing upon the lingering malaise that had gripped the country, newly elected President Reagan proclaimed a resonate challenge in his Inaugural Address of 1981: “In the present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.” It was a radically new approach and garnered much enthusiasm as his administration proceeded to change the public’s view of government and its policies. Rising to this clarion call, numerous books and articles promising a new “entrepreneurial spirit” appeared in rapid succession including “Reinventing Government,” by Osborne and Gaebler, opening with the bold question, “Is government dead?”

Similar sentiments followed with President Clinton’s 1996 Inaugural Address when he proclaimed that the “era of big government is over.”  Grover Norquist intensified the rhetoric as Congress passed the Bush tax cut package by stating, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

Regardless of party, national leaders repeatedly conveyed a powerfully pervasive message that government was flawed and oversized. Although the pronouncements came from the political realm, their assumed authority instilled a negative popular belief. More importantly, these general condemnations conveyed an implicit attack on public administration at all levels of government, where the important work of serving the public has been conducted under a cloud of incited hostility. As Barbara Tuchman has written; “Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power, even more so.”

The main problem with these and other simplistic slogans is their failure to grasp the contextual complexity of the issue. Although America may well be a country devoted to smaller government, in practice, we have created a country with large numbers of governments. The 2012 Census of Governments identified 90,107 within a mixture of jurisdictions at the federal, state and local levels. Which of these governments were our leaders addressing and which ones were ‘the problem’ or too big and if so, deserving of being “drowned in the bathtub?” These populist notions have remained largely unchallenged in the public’s mind, arguably, to the detriment of the profession of public administration. This second in a series of monthly articles, presents an attempt to rebuild understanding of the value of government, focused where the American experiment first began, at the local level.

While state and federal governments are important, they have at best an indirect impact on the public from an historical perspective, they were never the primary focus. In 1839, Alexis de Tocqueville travelled from France to begin a series of writings that became his classic work, “Democracy in America.” He had come to the new and evolving country to observe and learn. One of his key pronouncements clearly stated the unique genesis of American government. “Contrariwise, in America one may say that the local community organized before the county, the county before the state, and the state before the Union.” In America, government started in reverse order from the hierarchical model of European monarchies and was built from the bottom up. To the world at that time this was new and today it remains the basis of how we are governed, as Kingdon described, by “pervasive localism.”

Fast forward to today where over 90,056 local governments serve Americans every day. The 2012 Census of Governments includes five classifications within two distinct categories based on their overall scope of authority.  According to their Government Organization Summary Report, general purpose governments include 19,519 municipalities, 16,360 townships, and 3,013 counties which perform a “number of functions which include financial administration, police protection, highway administration, hospitals, etc.” Special purpose governments have 12,880 school districts and 38,266 special districts which “perform one function or a very limited number of functions that include “public education, mosquito abatement, water and sewer services, transit authorities, etc.” The report stated that 14 million Americans were employed in local governments. The 2012 Census of Governments map of The Many Layers of American Government shows their location by county, with dark blue being the highest number scaled to white for the lowest number.

But at the local level, two largely unnoticed administrative processes have to been in play long before the condemning pronouncements were uttered; consolidation and cost containment. First, according to the US Census’ Statistical Abstract, there were 81,780 local governments in 1982, a significant reduction in the number of entities based on a high of 155,067 in 1942. The decline was mainly due to school district consolidations over the forty year period. Second, according to the US Census of Government: Summary Report of 2012, the overall payroll of local governments had increased by 9.6 percent since 2007, roughly 2 percent per year. This was significantly lower than the federal government at 16.9 percent and all state governments at 13.4 percent. As these trends demonstrate, local governments continue to adapt and serve, led by sound management principles imbedded in public administration.  Subsequent articles will delve more deeply into the details of its value.


Author: Dr. David Hamilton is a strategic leader experienced in managing county and city governments. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration degree from Hamline University focused on the administrative challenges created by rapid-growth in Edge Counties and metropolitan areas.  He heads his own consulting firm guiding governments and organizations in community visioning, strategic planning and capacity building and serves on the Executive Council of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA, based in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Contact: [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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