Note: This is an excerpt of the article, which was originally published in the State and Local Government Review. The piece has been edited for conciseness. Two out of the seven themes discussed in the article are excluded from this piece due to space. You can find the full article here.
This essay offers a perspective on a new and reinvigorated research agenda for the study of U.S. local governments. It reports on the ideas and reflections of a set of local government scholars with different vantage points and varied substantive interests. Seven paramount themes or directions for a research agenda were identified, all of which contain numerous threads and thrusts: local government finance and economic development, local government management, intergovernmental relations, collaboration, public engagement, social equity, and institutional design. The essay offers some reasons for optimism about the future of U.S. local governments while also identifying cause for concern.
A Post-Coronavirus Research Agenda
After completing a productive series of sessions to gain insights from local government officials about the impact of the pandemic, the editors of State and Local Government Review asked Ann O’M. Bowman to convene a group of scholars for a podcast “to identify topics that should be included in a new and reinvigorated research agenda for the study of U.S. local governments”. In December 2020, seven scholars who have studied local governments throughout their academic careers convened for a ninety-minute Zoom video teleconference to take on the challenge of developing this refocused and fresh research agenda. Having amassed a substantial body of scholarly research from different perspectives and on disparate substantive topics, the group represented a broad cross-section of local government scholars. The discussion that follows presents the views and assessments of the participants in the podcast—the co-authors of this essay.
Local Government Finance and Economic Development
With regard to finance, one of the primary issues identified during the podcast was the financial sustainability of local governments, particularly with own-source revenues that are controlled by local jurisdictions. Echoing the concerns of local officials, the point was made that local governments often face problems generating sufficient revenues from their own sources regardless of the type of tax levied or the fee imposed. The pandemic and recession of 2020 have only served to worsen the fiscal stress faced by local jurisdictions. As a result, we expect to find local governments accelerating their exploration of creative financing options and approaches.
Another issue related to local government finance is what the future holds for local economic development. In the words of one scholar, “Things are going to get better after the pandemic, but things are not going to be the way they were prior to the pandemic.” The most evident change is the tenuous link between the worker and the workplace. Though it is too early to say it may revolutionize economic development, the potential is there, especially for rural local governments. It may become less important to attract new business to the locality than to attract new residents. Incentives may center around “placemaking” by investing in amenities that attract and retain residents by offering a lifestyle that is consistent with their tastes. The key, of course, will be the broadband and high-speed internet infrastructure necessary to support the mobile worker. Some states facilitate county and municipal broadband service while others create barriers, primarily through preemption. Amid this period of change, there is a role for scholars to play in informing practitioners about viable ways forward, about accommodating the so-called “new normal” in local government finance and economic development. Many of these options for the future will inevitably involve state government in their resolution.
Local Government Management
The compelling issues related to local government management revolve around human resources, decision making, and service delivery. Local public servants, both those on the frontlines and those who are behind the scenes, work with high levels of stress and limited resources. This concern is particularly acute for “invisible street-level bureaucrats,” who interact with the public via technology like Facebook, Twitter or other services like “311/911” lines, and “are constantly being bombarded with problems and complaints.” Relatedly, social media managers often fail to engage in self-care and the twenty-four-hour nature of the job often can cause serious work-life imbalances. As the pandemic lingers, burnout is a likely consequence for many public servants, but those on the frontlines, both virtually and in person, deserve our attention. The impact on long-term morale in the public workforce is worthy of sustained study.
Performance management was the subject of much research over the past decade. With the intent of improving organizational performance, local government administrators engaged in, among other things, data-informed decision making. This focus is likely to widen post-pandemic because of a growing interest in studying the impact of racism and sexism on administrative decision making. While the field has a history of discussing race and gender in the context of representative bureaucracy, there is not enough research on how racism and sexism can influence and directly shape administrative decisions.
The service delivery discussion during the podcast centered on two issues that have received intense scrutiny during the past year: disparate policing and election administration. Problems with policing, especially the disproportionate impact on communities of color, are not new but they have been amplified during the pandemic with the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in May 2020. Demands to defund the police or reallocate some public safety funding to alternative support functions have made their way to city council agendas in many communities. Still, it is important to make a distinction between actual policy changes and the symbolic gestures that have been described as performative wokeness. Election administration, a county government function in most states, gained unusual prominence in 2020 as a result of contentions by some in the Republican Party that aspects of elections were poorly managed and in some instances, intentionally biased, even corrupt. Despite the lack of evidence to support these claims, they received significant media attention and contributed to eroding confidence in public institutions. Election administration will likely be the basis for spirited debates in state legislative chambers as issues such as mail ballots, ballot drop boxes, and rules for recounts are reconsidered. Both topics, disparate policing and election administration, are ripe for research.
Tension between many states and their local governments was another of the recurrent topics that emerged during the podcast. It is not uncommon for local jurisdictions to chafe under the dictates of state governments, but COVID-19 sharpened the conflict. Disputes took the form of mayors and sheriffs versus governors over which level of government would decide coronavirus restrictions such as mask mandates and business closures and eventually, re-opening the economy. In some states, it was local officials who took the lead in imposing restrictions; in other states it was governors. Partisan politics played a role in the conflicts, but at their core, the disputes were about the meaning of home rule, a subject that has occupied legal scholars but deserves more attention in the future from social scientists.
If home rule is akin to local self-government, then the policy authority of local governments will be a central focus of a reinvigorated research agenda. That agenda should include preemption by states of local authority, especially authority that appears to exist under home rule. Preemption of local property tax bases and rates, along with other revenue sources (i.e., food and beverage taxes) has been well chronicled. Some recent local efforts to increase minimum wages and guarantee paid sick leave have also been met with state preemption. Post-COVID-19, state preemption of local broadband deserves immediate attention as it affects the ability of persons to work from home as well as economic development efforts in rural local governments. Given the precarious nature of local government finance, more research into state-local fiscal policy and practice will be needed.
Although collaboration was the focus of approximately 7 percent of the articles appearing in SLGR over the past decade, it is likely to become more prominent in the near future. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic appears to have stimulated new collaborations among an array of entities at the local level. Developing an effective response to the pandemic brought together organizational units within a local government that had seldom worked with each other in the past. Collaboration also occurred across local governments due to the nature of the problem and the multijurisdictional focus of agencies such as regional public health units and emergency management teams.
Local governments’ ties with the nonprofit community have grown more varied and extensive over time, and this has only gained momentum during the pandemic. Beyond government, nonprofit organizations themselves joined forces to strengthen their initially disjointed responses to the COVID-19 crisis. In light of the fiscal stresses confronting localities, working across boundaries and borders is poised to become standard procedure. This surge in collaborative behavior leads to an array of research questions about the effectiveness and durability of these networks.
Similar to collaboration, public engagement was not often the main focus of articles published in recent volumes of SLGR, but that too appears likely to change. The summer of 2020 was characterized by an outpouring of citizen activism in cities throughout the country. Long beset by relatively low turnout in local elections and limited citizen involvement in public hearings, cities and counties have pondered ways to engage the public. Now, in many places they need ponder no more—the public is engaged. The protests that occurred as part of the Black Lives Matter movement became a persistent presence in many cities beyond the summer. Notable was the composition of the protesting public, especially the mobilization of younger people. If this activism is sustained, and assuming that local officials are responsive, it has the potential to change local government in fundamental ways both in terms of policy direction and service delivery. What might be labeled “empowered democracy” could unleash a period of significant change, one that will require extensive research. Important questions about political incorporation lie ahead, and “the extent to which these new voices will be incorporated into the governing coalitions in cities.” Having just seen the impact of urban areas and communities of color in the 2020 election, scholars would be wise to consider how the interests of these voters will be reflected in governing coalitions.
Local democracy is at the heart of American democracy, as Americans are asked to participate in elections at the local level with regularity. A number of questions about local public engagement should drive research. To what extent will the activism seen in the 2020 presidential election, where voter turnout was higher than at any time since 1900, animate future local elections? Will issues such as police brutality, redistribution, and racial and ethnic inequality, so prominent in 2020, play important roles in future local political campaigns, or will they fade as national media attention to them passes? And will the activism of 2020 engage new types of local candidates, and prompt a growing number of local ballot initiatives? Research indicates concrete differences between Republican and Democratic mayors regarding redistributive policy preferences, suggesting that local politics may be nationalizing. Will this trend continue? Although management, public finance, and economic development will remain high on the list of local priorities, especially as the coronavirus-induced economic downturn wreaks havoc on local budgets, urban politics may assume an activist tone not seen since the 1960s. Local politics researchers are well-positioned to detect and study these potential developments, and to advise local leaders about the implications of shifting local politics.
This article was written by Ann O’M. Bowman, Domonic A. Bearfield, Stefanie Chambers, Beverly A. Cigler, Arnold Fleischmann, Janet M. Kelly, and Timothy B. Krebs. The full article can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1177/0160323X21991639