Decentralization foundation is in the concept of effective residency (public engagement and societal assets), autonomous (grassroots-based development), and sustainable livelihood of the residents. Department for International Development (DfID) in a report on decentralization and political accountability argues that decentralization encourages democratization and reinforces governance by giving citizens more influence in policymaking (DfID, 2002: Para.7). Local government is one form of decentralization that is popular and practiced all over the world. The United States is one of the countries where local governments play a crucial role in the development of the nation. This paper aims to illustrate the types of local governments in the United States as well as discussing the problem of political accountability. It goes on to examine the factors which intensify the issue of political accountability.
Types of Local Governments in the United States
The make-up of local governments in the United States is based on the constitutions of every state. Nearly all states are split into two layers of administration namely county and metropolis. Some counties are further split into several townships (Kemp 18). There are numerous diverse ranges of metropolitan governments which are usually based on the demands of various intensities of population concentration. The states are allowed to have a diverse range of structures of local governments as per the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This provision (in the Constitution) rests the discretion for the formation of local governments to the individual state law, instead of federal law. The United States Census Bureau is the body charged with the task of conducting Censuses for the Central Government in five years period. The bureau categorizes the local governments into county governments, sub-county general function governments (municipal governments, township governments as well as New England towns), special district governments, and school district governments (U S. Census Bureau, 2001).
County governments are structured local authorities mandated by the individual states constitutions and statutes and instituted to provide wide-ranging administration in an area commonly identifiable as a first-tier geographic component of a state. This type comprises governments structured in Louisiana as parishes, in Alaska as boroughs, and as counties in other states. The sub-county general-purpose government encompasses municipal and township governments. Municipal governments are planned local governments mandated by the state constitutions and statutes to administer a definite region based on population statistics. Township governments are mandated in the statutes of respective states to administer an area based on sub-divisions of the county. New England towns’ government is deeply rooted and structured around the historical aspects of its formation and it is characterized by public assemblies whereby voters air their views on public policy. School districts governments are well-thought-out local governance units with adequate administrative and financial autonomy which are entrusted with the provision of public education at basic, secondary, and/or higher levels. The other form of local government in the United States is the Special districts which are structured local bodies that do not fit in the four categories mentioned above but are mandated by the constitution of the respective state with the provision of one or a restricted number of selected utilities.
Factors Influencing Public Accountability in Local Governments
Accountability is the compulsion to explain and being answerable for the carrying out of responsibilities to those who are assigned such responsibilities (Cutt & Murray 48). Public accountability is all about what the general public desires and what the government officials accomplish. In contrast to profitable organizations, local governments are confronted with the enormous task of balancing conflicting interests, setting performance standards, and inspiring their workforce to respond to citizens as “valued clients”. They have to struggle to provide service, responding to the needs of the citizens while navigating smoothly and balancing conflicts with other public priorities and vested interests. The main purpose of political decentralization is to match authority and answerability by vividly distinguishing who is responsible for what. In the United States, it is evident that officials are sufficiently accountable to the American public (as the citizen preferences are seen to be fairly represented in policies and projects undertaken by the local government. This can be attributed to the strong institution present in the country). However, there are instances in which public accountability in the local government has been a problem which is provoked by various factors. Fragmentation of metropolitan government and politics brings about a sharp inconsistency among community resources and revenue-raising efforts in the local governments. The fragmentation leads to an imbalance between resources and demands for services in suburban communities and the central cities. Political accountability in local politics is largely affected by the vested interests of various stakeholders in the politics of local governments. Persons with interests in a certain project influence its undertaking and the number of resources assigned to it. This in turn breeds corruption and misappropriation of resources in the local governments. As observed by Cutt & Murray (52) public accountability is also affected by the personal values of the local government officials entrusted with conducting the affairs of the local government; if the officials are gullible and greedy they will ensure that public accountability is obstructed to enable them to carry their hideous schemes. The officials can also draft policies favoring their interests or favoring entities in which they have vested interest. Lack of public interest in local politics also gives the local authorities’ officials room to undertake shoddy and corrupt deals diverting the resources meant for the public projects. Increased public interest on the other hand keeps the officials on their toes. The ability of the public to punish or take action against negligent government officials also affects public accountability as it eliminates impunity. Access to information regarding the local governments also affects public accountability in local politics as it enhances transparency in the management of public affairs.
The paper explored the topic of local governments in the United States and specifically looked at the types of local governments as well as the factors which aggravate the problem of public accountability in these governments. It emerged that there are five classifications of local governments operating in the United States. The paper observed that the local governments are clustered into five categories namely; county governments, municipal governments, township governments, New England towns, and Special district governments. The paper notes that the extent of public accountability in local governments in the United States is recommendable though factors like fragmentation of metropolitan cities, vested interests, personal values of officials, access to information, and level of public interest exacerbate the problem.
Cutt, J. and Murray, V. Accountability and Effectiveness Evaluation in Non-Profit Organizations, New York: Routledge, 2000.
DfID, Decentralisation and Political Accountability, Department for International Development (DfID), 2002.
Roger L. Kemp Forms of local government: a handbook on city, county, and regional options. New York: McFarland, 1999.
U S. Census Bureau. 2002 Census of Governments; Volume 1, No. 1, Government Organization. Web.