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USA_smallPopulation: 313,914,040

HDI ranking: 3/187

HDI score: 0.937

Reverence for local democracy in the United States is an enduring feature of its political landscape. Also distinct is the extent to which local government varies within states and between them and how much choice municipalities have selecting their local institutions (UCLG, 2008).

Local governance at a glance

  • Local governments derive power from the states, making local government oversight a state government function. Local government structures in the USA are quite diverse and the number of local governments to population size varies considerably in different regions (UCLG 2008).
  • According to the 2012 US Census, there are (US Census, 2012):
    • 3,031 County bodies;
    • 19,522 Municipal bodies;
    • 16,364 Town or Township bodies;
    • 37,203 Special Purpose Special Districts; and
    • 12,884 Special Purpose Independent School Districts.
  • Municipalities, counties, and townships are considered general purpose local governments with general grants of power. Counties are administrative bodies with elected governments responsible for a significant amount of service delivery. Townships are found in twenty eastern and mid-western states, either as independent local governments or a third level of local government between municipalities and counties (UCLG, 2008).
  • There are two types of dominant local government systems.
    • The mayor-council system has a council or board elected by citizens and a chief elected official at the head of the local government with administrative authority. The majority of larger cities and 38% of municipalities have this system.
    • The council-manager system has a council or board elected by citizens that makes policy together with an elected official, or mayor. In addition, a professional administrator, or manager, is appointed by the council to run the day-to-day operations of the government. Fifty-three percent of municipalities are structured in this manner and it is most common in smaller municipalities and Midwestern, Western, and Southern states (UCLG, 2008).
  • Special purpose local government bodies also carry out local government activities. These entities, such as school boards, have specific and narrowly defined mandates and independent powers, including revenue raising and elections to their governing bodies (UCLG, 2008).
  • The District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, is under the authority of the federal Congress. Citizens elect the Mayor and the City Council, but the District does not have a full vote in Congress (UCLG, 2008).
  • Mostly found in New England, local governments can employ town meetings at which voters convene to make basic policy and select a board to carry out these policies. More rarely, towns may follow a representative town meeting structure in which voters elect citizens to represent them at the town meeting. All citizens may attend the meeting, but only elected representatives may vote (UCLG, 2008).
  • The Commission structure, another rare system, consists of members of a board of elected commissioners who serve as the leaders of specific departments and meet collectively to serve as the legislative body (UCLG, 2008).
  • There are 561 tribal governments recognized by the federal government. With a few exceptions, state government power over reservations is limited to arrangements made under federal law. State systems of property, sales, and income tax as well as other regulations do not apply to the territory within reservations (UCLG, 2008).

Civil society actors include

  • The National Civic League (NCL) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes civic engagement and inclusive community building and problem solving. The organization provides information and models on local government organization and practice. The NCL awards the All-America City Award yearly to recognize ten communities for outstanding civic accomplishments.

Capacity building institutions

  • The National League of Cities (NLC) works to help city leaders build better communities through partnerships with 49 state municipal leagues. The NLC acts as a resource for more than 19,000 cities, villages, and towns.
  • National Association of Counties (NACO) researches, publishes, and distributes information for and about counties in an effort to increase public understanding of counties as well as represents counties as a unified voice to the federal government.
  • The U.S. Conference of Mayors is the official non-partisan organization of cities with populations of 30,000 and greater. The organization promotes the development of effective national urban and suburban policies, strengthens federal-city relationships, ensures federal policy meets urban needs, provides mayors with leadership and management tools and creates a forum where mayors can share ideas and best practices.

Fiscal control

  • The majority of revenues for general purpose local governments are raised from local sources. Local taxation composes about 60% of county and municipalities incomes and 73% for towns and townships. The public school sector has 54% of local funding from state governments. Other special districts raise funds from fees and external sources such as utility charges and local taxes (UCLG, 2008).
  • Property tax is the largest source of locally raised revenue. In some states where property taxes are limited, sales taxes have replaced them as a source of local revenue (UCLG, 2008).
  • Local governments’ highest expenditure is in education, though municipalities also spend resources on public safety, environmental regulation, utilities, and housing (UCLG, 2008).
  • Local governments with major responsibilities including planning, zoning, education, police and fire services, utilities and public infrastructure tend to have significant local discretionary power overall (UCLG, 2008).

Key initiatives for participatory local governance

  • While the US Constitution does not include provisions about local government, the institutional foundations stem from the principle known as Dillon’s rule, a number of provisions for what has become known as home rule, and from other provisions in state constitutions and city charters (UCLG, 2008).
  • Dillon’s Rule created in 1868 is a widely applied common-law rule that states that municipalities are “creatures of the state” and can only exercise powers provided to them by the state (UCLG, 2008).
  • The Home Rule provisions allow most states to grant local governments general purpose authorities. Cities in “Home Rule” states are able to enact laws as long as these laws do not contradict existing state statutes. Forty-eight states had granted home rule to municipalities by 1990 (UCLG, 2008).
  • Twenty states have provisions in state law for initiative, referendum and recall of locally elected officials and provisions for referenda are common in cities all over the country (UCLG, 2008).
  • While participatory budgeting is rare, most states require local governments to conduct public hearing before local budgets are adopted (UCLG, 2008).
  • The Community Action Program under the Economic Opportunity Act passed in 1964 provided incentives for neighborhood associations to develop in order to facilitate locally driven solutions for local problems. Several cities including San Antonio have developed formal systems of neighborhood participation in the local government structure. Los Angeles created a system of neighborhood councils in the early 2000s (UCLG, 2008).

Challenges for participatory local governance

  • The US Government Accountability Office’s 2012 “State and Local Governments’ Fiscal Outlook” Report found that local governments continue to face near-term and long-term fiscal challenges that increase over time. Local governments face a gap between revenue and spending in the face of reduced tax receipts and decreased federal funding (GAO, 2012).
  • As a result of lowered housing prices and property tax receipts, local governments have had to reduce expenditures resulting in larger class sizes in public schools, shortened school days, cuts in service delivery including public safety and trash collection, and privatized certain service delivery functions (Pew, 2012).
  • Local governments face rising health-related costs from local expenditures on Medicaid and the cost of health care compensation for local government employees and retirees (GAO, 2012).

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List of sources (in order of citation):

United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 2012. “International Human Development Indicators: United States of America.”

United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), 2008. “Gold Report: United States of America Country Profile.

United States Census, 2012. “Local Governments by Type and State: 2012.”

U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2012. “State and Local Governments’ Fiscal Outlook Report.”

The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2012. “The Local Squeeze: Falling Revenues and Growing Demand for Services Challenge Cities, Counties, and School Districts.”