Local Government

The Role of Local Government Explained

All states Opens in new window, whether federal Opens in new window or unitary Opens in new window, include local government. Though central governments receive the bulk of the attention in comparative politics, much day-to-day governing takes place at the local level. Think about the extent to which local government decisions affected what you did today.

Bus fares, placement of stop signs and crosswalks, assignment of policing duties, and many other things that may have had an impact on your outings today were likely decided at the local level. One of two central tasks of local government is to provide local services such as schools, roads, water, and sewer.

Local government’s second task is to implement and enforce decisions of higher levels of government. These decisions can take the form of unfunded mandates, where the local government did not make the policy but is expected to cover the costs of implementing it.

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There may also be a sizeable commitment of funds from higher levels of government to assist local officials in these activities. Though enforcement of laws and administration of government programs is often more effective at the local level, the central government often has an easier time raising money for such supervision.

Local governments have powers to make such decisions because it is practical for them to do so. There are only so many issues a central or provincial government can, or should, try to tackle.

Whether to place a stop sign on the corner of First Street and Russell Street in a village of 1,500 people is not one of them. Making decisions at the local level can also give those decisions more legitimacy Opens in new window. Although residents’ participation in local government meetings is often shockingly rare, at least in the United States, there is a sense that the local officials know best and have the best interests of the community in mind. Such comments are rarely made about higher levels of government.

Because there are certain advantages to local governance, even unitary systems allow local governments to make a number of policy decisions and to enforce many others the central government has made. Thus, a unitary system Opens in new window does not imply feeble local governments. What local governments in a unitary system do lack is sovereignty Opens in new window, certainly compared with the ability to control its own affairs that the central government in that unitary system possesses.

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