Local Government and the Myth That Democracy Is Declining

To maintain voters' favorable opinion and trust, municipal leaders need to keep some things in mind.
October 22, 2018
Voters walk through a polling station.
Voters walk through a polling station in Dallas. (AP/LM Otero)
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

The columns that appear here in Better, Faster Cheaper spotlight some of the substantial accomplishments in state and local government that improve service delivery, quality of life and voter trust. These successes help refute claims by some national commentators that American democracy is in decline, a refrain that's become even more common in the wake of the recent contentious battle over filling a Supreme Court seat.

During this enormously difficult time, the vastly different perceptions of local and national government performance came into vivid profile for me as news and video from the confirmation hearings overlapped with two other events. One was a Harvard Kennedy School convening of 35 mayoral chiefs of staff hailing from both parties and a range of ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Over two challenging days, these officials thoughtfully discussed the issue of racial inequity with attention to how they might respond with effective policy changes.

The second event involved a program sponsored by the United Way of Central Indiana in which I and three other Indianapolis mayors -- two Republicans and two Democrats -- took on the issues of poverty with a common language and a common purpose. Both of these events demonstrated to me that, at least at the local level of government, diverse voices still can come together and that bipartisanship can succeed in addressing really difficult issues.

I'm certainly not alone in these perceptions. Two-thirds of those surveyed last spring by the Pew Research Center had a favorable opinion of local government, almost twice the favorability finding for the federal government. However, Pew also found that less than half of Republican and Democratic voters have positive views of elected officials who compromise. These numbers are presumably driven by national, not local politics, meaning local officials must prove to voters that thoughtful compromise and respectful dialog produce good results.

Reading through these poll results, I thought about my time as mayor of Indianapolis and, later, working as deputy mayor of New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg made daily efforts to weave together the interests of thousands of differing views, visiting different communities while at the same time insisting that city employees focus on performing basic city services well, which itself generates trust. As a Republican mayor, I made my highest priority improving the quality of life in struggling communities -- the very communities where I received the fewest votes -- since generating progress in these areas was not only the right thing to do but fundamental to the overall success of the city. The effort required creating a broader narrative for more affluent voters about the importance of these efforts.

Thinking about Bloomberg's work, the 35 chiefs of staff and my 20 years in local elected offices leads me to suggest that this favorable opinion by voters will continue and preserve respect for democratic processes if local officials demonstrate the following values and precepts:

To the victors do not go the spoils: Municipal officials are always going to respond to the political party or interest groups that elected them, as they should. Still, these same officials must resurface streets in wards that opposed them, incorporate the views of disparate groups in land planning, and assign police officers based on need, not political alignment.

Politics is the means to the end, not the end. Individuals who genuinely care about their communities use the political process and the power of democracy to secure leadership positions to produce public value and help those most in need. The electoral victory is an important step, but just a step.

Choose your battles carefully. Municipal leaders should limit their involvement with polarizing issues not germane to day-to-day governance. They should focus on accomplishing what makes a difference to people.

Widen the context. City officials possess a wonderful advantage: They preside not over a single, homogenous district but rather over a diverse area. Cities are homes to people from all income brackets, faiths, ethnicities, professions and family types. Officials who not only go to community meetings but also take the time to listen to voters in their restaurants, homes, festivals and malls can understand context. For each important discussion, local officials should require themselves to invite to the table someone who represents an opposing view. Looking for the voice of those not present in the room is a critical job of local officials.

Be transparent. Well-visualized open data that can be understood at the neighborhood level inspires confidence. Open data is not about outbound tweets concerning local successes, but rather should help set realistic expectations, show what is working and what is not, and serve as a platform for engagement.

Get the essentials right. Government cannot retain credibility if it fails to provide effective services, wisely spend tax dollars, and provide reliable social and physical infrastructure. Reducing the time residents must wait for a permit or a court proceeding, for example, is about more than efficiency; it's about treating residents with respect.

Far from declining, democracy thrives at the local level of government, where the rubber quite literally meets the road. Almost three-quarters of voters say the quality of candidates running for local office in recent elections has been good. Good means inclusive, considerate and responsive -- the kind of leadership that hopefully will inspire higher levels of government to act to begin earning back the trust of voters.