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Local Government

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Detroit residents ask questions during a meeting with city officials, 2013.

Local Government, a political subdivision of a national government, or, in federal systems, a subdivision of regional government. Local governments perform functions that vary greatly from one area to another, depending on the existing governmental system and prevailing cultural values. Usually, they perform those functions that the central government considers are more conveniently and perhaps more effectively administered at the local level; those functions that must, to some degree, necessarily be administered locally; and, in some nations, optional services of government that may be preferred by citizens in particular areas and that are furnished for the convenience of local residents. Governments that extend beyond the locality, such as provincial, departmental, or metropolitan area governments, will be considered briefly in this article, but the emphasis will be on truly local governments.

A sharp distinction cannot always be made between field or branch offices of central governments and actual local governments. However, the latter typically possess a definite set of boundaries and have some discretion over policy making and some taxing power. In modern complex societies, local governments do not administer many functions independently. They ordinarily are involved in a complex pattern of intergovernmental relations with other local governments and with regional and central governments.

Local government exists in some form everywhere, except in certain rare primitive societies that have no discernible government at all. Local government is also one of human society's oldest institutions. The clan and the primitive village represent types of local governments.

Ideology and Tradition

The amount of attention paid to local government in political ideology differs considerably from one political culture to the next. In general, those nations that depend heavily on the British tradition place the greatest emphasis on the idea of local government, particularly local self-government. In the United States during frontier times, vast distances, relatively sparse population, and slow means of transportation and communication made relatively autonomous local governments almost a necessity. Necessities tend to become virtues in political ideologies, and the idea of autonomy for local units has long been emphasized in American ideology.

In France local government, particularly the commune, was seen as an instrument for bringing democratic equality to the people during the French Revolution. This has remained the case, even though Napoleon and his successors reestablished a tradition of central decision making that had been characteristic of France under the monarchy. Even Communist ideology allows for local government.

Thus the relative importance of local government depends heavily on tradition, which in turn influences the prevailing ideology. Because many Americans consider local government particularly important, strong efforts are made to keep it involved in the process of decision making, even in cases where this makes for inefficiency. The national government rarely chooses to use its authority to supersede local governments with regard to a particular function. Hence, local government remains particularly important, not so much out of necessity but because the national government voluntarily restricts its activities in deference to the prevailing ideology.

In France and in nations that have copied French systems, local government tends to be viewed as a series of administrative units. Fundamental policy is determined centrally and distributed throughout the system by the prefects of the departments. Rather than emphasizing local decision-making autonomy, the French system has developed feedback devices that enable local views to be heard in Paris. For example, the mayors of large French cities commonly are also members of Parliament.

In Japan regional and local governments were important during the long period of feudalism, but centralization was emphasized in the modern government established after the Meiji restoration of 1867. The extremely rapid changes that took place in the following decades probably helped to weaken commitments to earlier practice, and local governments were given little autonomy or popular loyalty in the first half of the 20th century. The constitution adopted after World War II sought to reestablish an emphasis on local governments, and efforts were made to strengthen these institutions. However, the tradition of centralization reasserted itself. Although political leaders for local government were elected, popular interest in and loyalty to local governments remain relatively low.

In the West German Federal Republic, local government is probably of greater importance than it is in any of the other nations of continental Europe. Germany has a long tradition of autonomy in local government. The primitive German tribes had a form of democratic local government, and the free cities of the Hanseatic League represented a late medieval example of the city-state. The German states were not brought together into a single nation until 1871.

Considerable autonomy for local government was often possible in essentially rural nations with slow rates of social change and high levels of consensus on public policy. Urbanization, however, has tended to discourage such autonomy. In France, Italy, and Japan, for example, moderate or conservative governments, which dominate at the national level, often are dependent on political support from rural areas and small cities. They are reluctant, therefore, to extend greater amounts of autonomy to local governments in large cities dominated by the political left. In the United States since the 1860s a similar pattern has prevailed in many states where the Democratic party has been dominant in the largest cities while the state government has been in the hands of the Republican party.

Forms of Local Government

Four forms of local government account for most practices. Each represents the evolutionary development of earlier forms and continues to change. The four prototypes developed in Britain, the United States, France, and the Soviet Union.

British System

In Britain, Parliament grants specific charters and powers to local governments. Local legislative bodies and executive officers are popularly elected, and the central government has relatively little involvement in local decisions beyond determining the scope of local powers and taxes. The principal tasks of local administration are carried out by a professional bureaucracy, but each agency or department usually is headed by a committee of the local governing body. Variations of this pattern appear in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the Republic of South Africa.

U. S. System

In the United States the local government pattern is descended from the 18th-century English system. It is, however, much more varied from one part of the nation to another than is the case in England or perhaps any other country. The executive function may be centralized or decentralized, and the selection of personnel may be based upon patronage or a merit system. The former predominates at the state and county levels, and the latter in middle-sized and large cities and metropolitan counties. The great variety of government types and their structures reflects a determination to maintain the viability of local government in the face of changing technology and life-styles.

French System

In France, the central ministry of the interior tends to dominate local government policy making through the prefect (préfet), the chief administrative officer in each of the nation's 90 departments (départements). Municipal governments are called communes, whether they are rural or urban. Except for Paris, all are similar in structure, each having an elected mayor and council. Ordinarily the commune meets only four times a year. It adopts an annual budget, but finance is primarily controlled by the ministry of the interior, as are the most important substantive functions, particularly education and police. The local council has greater authority over items that are more definitely local in character, such as parks and recreation and street maintenance. The French system is particularly strong in countries with a tradition of strong central government. It is found in parts of western Europe, the Middle East, and South America, and in Japan, Mexico, and many African nations.

Soviet System

The Soviet Union operated as a federal system of government with 15 republics. These, in turn, were subdivided into a variety of local governments, each headed by a council (soviet). The councils were large—sometimes numbering several hundred members—and operated through a system of committees. Councilmen need not be members of the Communist party, and they tended to be drawn from a wide cross section of jobs and professions. The councils had considerable decision-making authority on local matters, although all policies had to operate within the constraints established by the Communist party. The local party leader, therefore, served a coordinating function similar to that of the prefect in France. The Soviet pattern had been copied in many Communist countries on either a two- or three-level basis. In China the provincial governments serve essentially the same functions as did the republics in the former Soviet Union.

Intermediary Governments

Nations usually have a level of government between the central government and the true local government. This level is often considered a local government, but it is regional in character. Ordinary citizens probably view it as operating at a distance from them and as an entity over which they are likely to have little influence. Examples of such regional units of government are the province in Canada; the state in Australia, India, and the United States; the department in France; the county or county borough in Britain; and the republic in the former Soviet Union. A regional government is likely to have numerous important responsibilities—for example, in the areas of intercity highways, public transportation, education, welfare, health, and prisons. It may possess a certain amount of autonomy, at least in theory, from the central government, as is the case in a federal system. More likely, its powers are determined entirely by the central government. Most regional governments have some voice in or legal domination over the truly local units.

Below the regional governments, but larger in area and population than the typical local units, there may exist one or more layers of subregional governments, such as the arrondissements and cantons of France and the hsien of China. These vary greatly in policy-making authority and tend toward being primarily administrative units of regional governments.

Urban Governments

The structure of local government may be basically the same regardless of population density or may differ considerably between rural and urban areas. In either case, however, the governmental structure for the largest city of the nation is likely to be unique. This is true, for example, of the governments of London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, and New York.

In the United States large urban units are commonly and legally called cities. In England, however, a city is traditionally the seat of a cathedral, and the normal legal term for an urban place is borough. If the urban place covers geographically all or most of a county, it is known as a county borough, and the functions of the two governmental units will be fused into a single structure. This type of fusion is uncommon in the United States, although the governments of some American cities are combined with those of the county—for example, Denver, Honolulu, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco. In France the commune serves as the urban local government.

Huge metropolitan areas commonly have governmental structures quite different from those of smaller urban areas. Many such areas have the population and the wealth of whole nations. Furthermore, at least in Europe, the nation's largest metropolis is commonly also the national capital, which gives the governing authorities particular reason to be interested in its government.

Governments of large metropolitan areas often are organized so that certain elements of a function are carried out on an area-wide basis, while others are managed by local governmental subdivisions. Thus water supply might be handled for an entire area, but water distribution would be a local matter. The government for metropolitan London performs essentially regional functions, and within this area the cities and boroughs handle truly local functions. The same system operates in metropolitan Toronto. Only a few large metropolitan areas in the United States have an area-wide government—notably Miami, Nashville, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles.

Rural Governments

Villages are conceived, essentially, as small trading centers serving their immediate rural hinterland. The recognition of the village as a social, economic, and political unit is almost universal. Although operating on a modest scale, the village frequently has many of the same powers and responsibilities as an urban government. However, it usually is organized under a separate set of laws and has a different terminology for official titles and governmental functions. In India the villages are organized under the control of the state or other regional government, but a special central government agency deals directly with them.

In places where rural governments differ from those in urban areas, the emphasis is commonly on finding an area of sufficient size, wealth, and population to serve as a practical governing unit. In many cases, a single rural unit consists of an agricultural area, villages, and even cities. Nations have been moving away from the use of the smaller rural areas, such as the rural district in England and the township in the United States.

In the United States, New England was organized with the town as the basic unit of government. As with the French commune, these towns have not been classified as rural or urban areas in determining their structure, although most of them have remained essentially rural in character. In other parts of the United States the county became the basic rural unit, and in most cases cities also were included within the counties. The American county is more genuinely a local unit of government than the English county, which is regional in character. In the American South, counties have always been small in area, representing a grouping of several plantations. In the far West, population was sparse, and counties had to be large in area.

The township was developed as a more local unit than the county in the eastern and midwestern sections of the United States. It evolved in New York as a local rural governing unit and spread westward roughly to the Mississippi River. For purposes of land description, the midwestern states were surveyed into so-called congressional townships of 36 square miles (93 sq km), which became the basis for rural township government. With improved communications and the expectation of extensive governmental services, the townships became outmoded except where they attained virtually the powers of municipalities and became viable suburban governmental units.

Special Function Units

In addition to the general-purpose local governmental units, other units, often called special districts or authorities, exist for special functions. In the United States such districts outnumber any other kind of local government organization. Most common are the school districts, but special authorities frequently manage such services as water supply, fire protection, soil conservation, public transportation and utilities, and public health. These special districts normally are organized so as to fit the function to the appropriate area and need. Often financing is facilitated because debt limitations on general local governments can be avoided. Special districts tend to be run by professional administrators, who normally are removed from political pressure.

Local Government Organization

Since prehistoric times, most local governments have had some kind of executive head. The tribe or clan had a chief. The modern equivalent may be a prefect, mayor, manager, or chief administrative officer. Most such officials are elected in democratic nations and even in many nondemocratic nations. Hereditary positions, common in medieval times, remain only in some parts of India and Africa.

Every local government has a governing body—a council, board, commission, or committee. It is a legislative body, usually elected, which performs the traditional legislative functions of debate, criticism, information dissemination, investigation, and legitimation of the law. Some innovative proposals emerge from local legislative bodies, but normally their functions are passive. Local legislators act on and react to proposals and actions by the executive branch or interest groups.

Chief Executive

In Canada, Ireland, the United States, and Germany, many local governments—particularly municipalities—have an appointed chief executive, called the manager, chief administrative officer, or Stadtdirektor, who is a career administrator. Typically, he is chosen by a majority vote of the council or other governing body and serves at its pleasure. Special districts often choose their chief executives in this fashion. Where the chief executive is elected, the term is usually short, perhaps four years, and the official usually serves only one or two terms. In some cases, however, he seeks repeated reelections and makes a career of the office. This is common in the large French cities.

County government in the United States provides examples of the relatively rare situation in which there is no chief executive officer for the governing unit. This is so because the county originally was conceived as performing only essentially routine functions as an agent of the state government. As the United States became urbanized, the counties increasingly performed municipal functions in addition to traditional activities, and coordination and leadership became necessary. Urban counties generally do have a chief executive officer, who usually is chosen by the governing board.


The routine of administration is carried out by a bureaucracy. A hereditary class or caste may perform this function, as in parts of Africa and India. Frequently, administrative jobs are filled under a patronage system by and for the benefit of the dominant political party. The patronage system operates widely in Communist countries and in many jurisdictions in the United States.

Under a merit system the predominant consideration in filling jobs is ability to perform tasks as determined by training and testing. Ordinarily, employees are recruited locally. An exception is the prefect in France, who hires some local employees through the national civil service. In Ireland a local appointments commission chooses the highest ranking local civil servants, whereas the number of positions, pay, and qualifications are nationally controlled. In Britain the national government prescribes standards for certain local positions, and some states do so in the United States.


The size of the legislative body varies enormously. A few American villages have councils consisting of only two persons, with the mayor voting in case of a tie. In contrast, the soviets in large Russian cities had councils of hundreds of members, and in western Europe councils of more than 100 are common.

In the United States, local government legislatures generally have been shrinking in size. Councils numbering several dozen were common in the 19th century, and some ranged up to about 200 members. The typical citizen was much closer to his local legislative representative than he is today. The efficiency-and-economy movement that dominated American reform politics between about 1890 and 1929 sought to break up the working-class based boss-and-machine system that had developed after the Civil War. The reformers advocated small legislative bodies, particularly in municipalities, and preferred election at large. The objective was to replace the "errand boy" type of representative with someone with broader perspectives. The success of these reorganization efforts has resulted in the predominance of the small governing board. Emphasis is on ease of decision making and concern for community-wide policy rather than on receptiveness to the ordinary citizen. The average American city council has only five to nine members.

Legislatures of regional governments, such as states and provinces, usually rank in size somewhere between those of city governments and the national legislature. The typical American state legislature has about 100 members in the lower house and perhaps 50 in the upper house.

The local governing body generally has only one house. A notable exception is in England, where councillors make up the lower house, aldermen the upper. The two-house system is more common at the regional than local level, but less common than in national legislatures.

Local legislative bodies usually are elected, but the elections are not necessarily competitive. In Communist countries and in most local elections in the United States, one party tends to dominate. In the United States, primary elections for nominating party candidates often are highly competitive, but voter participation usually is lighter than in general elections. In most nations nominations ordinarily are made through political party machinery.


In totalitarian systems the single national party involves itself in politics at all levels, and local political leaders and local decisions must be compatible with the goals of the national party. In democracies the political machinery for the local level is commonly integrated with that for national government. Typically, however, there is less competition for office in local government. Many local governments have been dominated by a single party for decades, while control of the national governments fluctuated among various parties.

Financing Local Government

Local governments have power to tax, but this power is greatly restricted legally. Furthermore, few objects of taxation are immovable and, hence, appropriate subjects for local taxation. In general, local governments have weaker sources and powers of taxation and are dependent for financial help on broader governmental units.


Most commonly, local taxation is based on the actual or potential value or income of land and buildings placed upon it. In Britain this type of tax is known as rates. A related type of tax in the United States, the general property tax, was developed in colonial times, when the value of one's property was a fair indicator of one's ability to pay taxes. Originally, the general property tax was levied not only against land and buildings, but also on anything of substantial value inside a home.

Local governments have tried to expand their sources of revenue by levying other types of taxes, including those on income and sales. Such revenues, however, are limited by the danger of the movement of taxable resources to areas outside of the local jurisdiction. For additional funds, therefore, local governments have sought the assistance of both regional and central governments.

Intergovernmental Payments

Funds from regional or central governments to local governments consist primarily of shared taxes or grants-in-aid. Shared taxes are levied by one level of government, but a portion or all of them are distributed to a lower level on the basis of some formula. There is no guaranteed amount of income, and the revenue received by the local unit depends on the yield of the tax.

The grant-in-aid is, strictly speaking, a gift from a higher unit of government, and there is no obligation to continue the annual payment. In fact, however, such grants normally become claims on the granting regional or central government and may become fixed parts of the local government budget.

Intergovernmental Relations

The amount of central control over local government differs greatly from one nation to another. In countries with emphasis on local self-government, efforts are made to enhance the importance of local decision making. Even where ideology differs, it is often practical to leave many decisions to local governments. In modern, complex societies all governmental levels tend to be involved to some extent in making basic policy decisions.

National-local governmental relationships are generally structured along one of two lines. The first, and most common, is the ministry-of-local-government pattern, with France as the prototype. The other is that of functional relationships. In the former, the ministry supervises local governments and acts as a liaison between local operating agencies and their counterparts at the national level. In the functional plan, relationships are based on types of activities, with no clearly institutionalized process of interfunctional coordination. Because professional administrators and technicians in a given field of activity tend to share a set of values, standards, goals, and procedures, cooperation is commonly emphasized within the function rather than within the level of government.

In nations having a federal or quasi-federal system of government, national-local relations are further complicated by the fact that local governments are the legal creatures of the regional governments. Many issues arise as to the proper manner in which the national government should act in dealing with and helping to finance local governments. But the problems confronting modern governments are so complex that emphasis everywhere is placed on cooperation among all levels of government within the nation.

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