State of Local Government: Political, Inexperienced, and Revenue Limited

Posted on October 13, 2014

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Kent Wyatt is a senior management analyst with the City of Tigard, OR and the co-founder of ELGL. He writes the Local Government Confidential and This Week in Local Government columns.

Last time I highlighted the workforce and demographic changes facing local government as identified by attendees at a recent ELGL and ICMA event. Three other themes were identified by managers when they were asked to describe the state of local government.

  • a contentious political environment,
  • a new normal in revenue, and
  • an inexperienced workforce

All Politics Is Local?


Of the levels of government, local government is the closest to the constituents and the least politicized. Citizens feel that they can hold non-partisan local officials responsible for their quality of life which includes services as clean parks, paved streets, and drinking water. Being the closest to the people also allows us to the opportunity to be responsive to the changing needs and conditions of our community.

Unfortunately, the above scenario is increasingly being challenged by the politicization on the state and federal level is impacting local governments. Previously non-partisan designated elected bodies such as mayors and city councilors are finding candidates running as a designee of a party. One survey respondent highlighted an example where a political party provided an endorsement card for non-partisan school board and city council races. Their influence resulted in some less-than-qualified candidates, who will bring nothing positive to the table.

As for the Tea Party, one manager believes there influence in local governance is creating a need to react to and manage with a new set of local values.  This can be especially challenging from a land use perspective.  Success, however you define it locally, has as one of its core ingredients consensus on the outcomes of the effort and the target that the locality should steer for.  The political diversity that this new wave brings into play makes consensus harder to cultivate. 

State and federal officials are mired in gridlock which can lead to defunding of programs such as the community development block grants or an increase in unfunded mandates passed down to cities and counties.

These political factors leads one respondent to describe the current state as “scary” and “poised to be the last vestige of representation form of government and needs to stand guard against the polarization of gerrymandering politically intense local districts.”

The influence of federal gridlock, thinks one local government manager, has trickled down to the local level thinks,

It is saddening to see how disenfranchised residents are of their local government.  As government on the national scale is shrouded with deceit and mistrust, it is the responsibility of local government to engage with and earn the trust of local residents, as change is obtainable on a local scale.

The New Normal

imagesIf there is a positive from the Great Recession, local government was forced into becoming resilient. Local government made many sacrifices such as cutting programs, downsizing staff, and decreasing training. The sacrifices forced the local level to be nimble, flexible, creative, and tough.  And guess what says one manager, “we are still here: better, stronger, and ready for whatever is next.”

Here’s an anecdote about the various states of local government.

Local government is making a strong resurgence after a really rough recession. The lessons learned are making managers consider their municipality’s financial arrangements long-term. I think sometimes in the effort to get to yes, cities commit the fallacy of forfeiting their ability to remain flexible into the future. Coming from the Midwest which had over a dozen school districts and cities in State receivership, and Detroit too, and then going to the California and seeing the huge unfunded liabilities they have really helped me place a context on local government. There is huge disconnect between the way things were and the way they are now—I don’t think any city feels immune to the business cycle anymore. Cautious optimism is the best way I can describe it.

In our post-recession environment, local government’s ability to generate revenue continues to diminish while the demand for services continues to increase. There is a growing disconnect between the type and amount of services that people want, are willing to pay for and the best way to fund those services.  Many local governments have addressed the current community demands by falling behind in key capital infrastructure investments and routine maintenance.

One manager noted,

My hometown local government is thriving and is listed as one of America’s top 10 places to live. However, there are certain areas that are struggling because the local government is challenged to do what’s best for its citizens with the limited amount of resources it has. So to sum up, local government is doing what it can for the best of its city with what it has.

Two other responses addressed the new normal.

With ever-tightening budgets and political uncertainties at the federal and state levels, rapidly evolving technologies, aging infrastructure, etc., etc., local governments face more challenges now than ever before. At the same time and for the same reasons, local government is also more important in the lives of people who rely on the services provided than ever before. It’s a turbulent time for local governments to say the least, with shrinking budgets and growing accountability. For this reason, transparent and data-informed decision-making is absolutely critical for successful local government management.

Local governments are in an interesting position today. For the most part revenues have slowly crept back to their pre-recession levels, yet very serious budgetary issues still remain for many local governments across the country. These issues were largely precipitated by states balancing their budgets on the backs of local governments. To compound these strains, a looming pension crisis is only adding more stress to local governments. Clearly tough decisions for local governments will need to be made in the near future.

Prior Experience Required


In my previous article, I highlighted the ongoing silver tsunami. A number of managers noted that there is indeed a growing pipeline problem. Complicating that problem is the growing number of professionals who aim to be an assistant city manager and are choosing not to pursue city manager positions. Julie Underwood, Daly City assistant city manager, discussed the trend in an ELGL article and Twitter conversation with Bo Ferguson, Durham (NC) assistant city manager.

The personal attacks on local staff has become a deterrent to becoming a city manager says survey respondents. The political environment celebrates ignorance and mean spiritedness which makes leading in local government the difficult and personally costly.

Most of us have sat through conference sessions on next generation issues but there is growing concern from managers that real action has not resulted from those sessions. Without these new leaders, there is an expressed concern about a pending leadership crisis in the not too distant feature.

Connecting with the next generation is a first step for local government. For example, a survey respondent noted that “with a new generation of workers that demand very different things than their predecessors did, local government employers are forced to change how things are done. This is also true with external service delivery and the customers that local government is now serving. They also want different things than past generations! It’s an exciting and challenging time to be in this profession.”

And a Few More

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As with any survey, we had a number of responses that didn’t fit neatly into a category. These responses were:

The state of local government is strong.  While traditional services are changing, major innovations are unlocking the potential of local government to build great communities.

The current state of local government is dependable, but fragmented. At least in Chapel Hill, NC, local government does a decent job protecting and serving its citizens, but there is always potential for improvement, especially in the realm of communication. With the current age of “government by proxy”, local government could probably be more transparent with its third-party agents and its citizens.

ON a positive, more & more citizens believe that if they get involved, they can make a difference, so we are getting excellent citizens on advisory boards & task force assignments within the City.

Making a visible difference every day

Yet even with this gloomy outlook, local governments are re-energizing. Today’s local governments are embracing technology, quantitative program evaluation, strategic planning/ management, and performance based budgeting methods as a means to attack and get in front of these looming problems. While there are still some foreseeable hurdles to jump, I am optimistic that local governments, now more than ever, are very capable and well equipped to take them head on.

In addition, I see increasing innovation, better citizen engagement and a cadre of talented people in the profession.

Local government is uniquely positioned to address growing challenges to communities. With less support from federal and state governments, municipalities are left to step up and provide for residents. Revenue diversification, economic development, and regional and cross-sector partnerships have never been more important.

This is an exciting time to be part of local government. I believe local government is distinguishing itself from other levels of government, becoming more appreciated and more professional.

The local government of today is ripe with opportunity. There is room for innovation, collaboration, and building strong connections between residents and government. We are on the right track because of great professional managers!

Successful cities are no longer the islands that they once were – they’re finding ways to bring more people into governing. Regional collaboration, convening stakeholders instead of going it alone, constant measurement, and transparency are the names of the game. Local government has a unique position in creating “community” but cities have realized that they cannot place-make or move tough social issues alone.   

It is my belief that local government attracts highly dedicated professionals and is the area of government where the most innovation can occur in the U.S. because cities and towns aren’t as constrained by political affiliations and processes as the state and federal governments appear to be.

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