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Local Government: the Forgotten Civil Service

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

By Patrick Mulhearn
July 21, 2019

Sanitation pumps are all around us. These hidden engines quietly pump our sewage to the treatment plant and make every toilet flush do what it’s supposed to do.

Until they don’t.

Late one recent night, an automated warning in the Sanitation Department notified staff that communications to a sanitation pump had ceased. By midnight, staff had arrived at the pump station and discovered that the floor of this subterranean site was awash in rapidly-rising raw sewage. By 3:30 a.m. the sewage had come within three steps of breaching the station, which itself is adjacent to a beach along a national marine sanctuary.  The environmental damage from such a breach would be catastrophic, and the economic impacts of a sewage leak at the beach during peak tourist season grave.  

That never happened, though, and the next day the beach was adrift in inflatable rafts and beach-camping families oblivious to the disgusting cocktail that almost ruined their vacations.

We are all aware of frontline government employees and interact with them daily: teachers, firefighters, and law enforcement officers are all part of our everyday experience. We read about Federal government scientists, economists, Congressional staffers, attorneys and special agents, and most of us have some sense that they’re out there doing what they do hopefully to our benefit.  

But what about that Planner III buried in your local Planning Department? Your Chief Building Inspector? How about that Sanitation Engineer?

Hidden Government

These are the hidden cogs of the bureaucracy and they only become apparent if they’re not working. If your roof permit gets lost or buried or the pump station overflows sewage on your street, its relevance to our fundamental expectation about government—that it works—is suddenly revealed.

According to the most recent United States Census Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll there were around 14 million local government employees in the United States. If we exclude the most prominent members of local government (e.g. public safety, education workers), we have around five million analysts, records managers, typist clerks, engineers and their like facilitating our daily business.

The farther an activity is from the quotidian the more arcane it becomes to people. Things like environmental regulation or trade policy are difficult to embrace for people just trying to get through the day. But the landscape of our daily lives is our expert purview: we know the street we drive down better than anyone else, and we’re certain that the pothole down the street is the most cavernous in town. Failures of these personal pieces of our daily infrastructure become freighted with emotion, and when they fail the responsible party needs a reckoning.

It is at this point that the vast majority of us engage with local government: when it goes wrong. One study of bureaucrats in the Netherlands found that three times as many frontline employees in service delivery or policy-making received verbal abuse as opposed to law enforcement. While the environment in the United States is different from the Netherlands, it’s not absurd to assert the possibility that a planning technician staffing the building counter in some suburban jurisdiction suffers as much daily verbal abuse as a law enforcement officer.

But for the rest of us things just work. The roads are drivable, the traffic signals are timed and our sewage ends up at the treatment plant. Pondering the various services local government delivers directly to each of us every day is a dizzying haze of regulation and support—and it could be argued that it’s all the boring confusion of local government that creates this fog.

Everything from transportation infrastructure to social service programs have been delegated to local governments but their functions are so complex it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who.

Forgotten Government?

This is especially true of county governments.

Think to yourself for a moment and recall how many county elected officials are on your local governing board. Can you name your county representative? Could the average American?

County government doesn’t exist for most people even as it has become more responsible for providing direct services to our communities. And it’s not just rural communities that are relying upon counties for municipal services, as Schneider and Park note county governments, “Are the front-line government for the large proportion of suburban residents who live in unincorporated areas of metropolitan regions.” County government is law enforcement, environmental regulation, social services, health services, planning, transportation—all the features of a municipality but functioning in relative anonymity.

This month the National Association of Counties (NACo) is meeting for their annual conference, where a host of county-oriented policy priorities will be refined. NACo is one of the few national advocates for county issues, and as municipal service provision falls more under county purview their work to promote county priorities has become incredibly important. 

These are the agencies that we expect to just work, and while Gallup tells us that local government is the most trusted level of government it’s easy to forget that local government is more than police officers, fire fighters and teachers. Let’s also remember the humble sanitation engineers.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors.  He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and may be reached at [email protected].

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