How Many Governments Do We Need?

America’s web of local governments made sense in the 1600s. For efficiency’s sake, it’s time to rethink that structure.
by | August 15, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

Ask LeBron James where he lives now, and you'll hear "Miami, Dude!" long before "Miami-Dade County." Indeed, most Americans think of themselves as residents of their cities and their neighborhoods, not their counties. And more and more, governmental resources are being focused on levels of government that are closest to their constituents. Just last month, for instance, the Obama administration announced a "Strong Communities, Strong Cities" initiative, designed to strengthen local capacity and spark economic growth, with six pilot cities and a proposed competition for economic planning assistance. No counties need apply.

The ever-intensifying drive for greater government efficiency also is raising questions in other countries about sub-national responsibilities and structure. In Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron's Big Society is focusing governance at the local level. Portugal, a country the size of Indiana, has more than 4,500 local governments, a constellation of regions, municipalities and civil parishes that European Union and International Monetary Fund officials see as emblematic of the inefficiencies that have plunged that nation into a debt crisis. They're tackling the problem.

America's governmental structures still reflect the needs and realities of colonial times. New England's counties were laid out so that a farmer could milk his cows, ride to town, do his government business and get home for in time for evening milking. But as Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said 200 years later, "In the law, a page of history is worth a pound of logic." County seats located for travel convenience in horse-and-buggy days — so necessary in Middlesex County in Massachusetts in 1643 — are now an anachronism all across America. Today, driving from Hartford, Conn., I can do day trips to seven state capitals. (I don't have cows.) And if I owned oceanfront property in Kapa'a, Hawaii, more than 5,000 miles from Hartford, I could do most of my business with Kauai County via the Internet — online, not in line.

It's not that counties don't perform important roles. While their functions vary from state to state, counties have long had responsibility for property assessment, vital statistics, road maintenance, poverty relief, elections and courts. Over the years, they have moved into child welfare, consumer protection, economic development, planning and zoning, and water quality. Often they are responsible for social services and education.

But if we were starting over, how would we design local (sub-state) government today? Here's the state of play. Counties together employ as many people as the federal government — about two million. Counties range in size from 87,860 square miles down to 26, and in population from 9.8 million down to 45. Delaware and Hawaii each get by with three counties; Texas somehow needs 254. Çonnecticut and Rhode Island get along without them entirely. Seventy percent of all counties have fewer than 50,000 residents.

But if Walmart can manage 8,500 stores in 15 countries and its real-time global supply chain, all from Bentonville, Ark., why do we need separate administrative units for the more than 2,100 counties with fewer than 50,000 residents? Wouldn't some analysis, redesign and consolidation promote both efficiency and effectiveness? Wouldn't fewer counties reduce stovepiping by definition? And going further, larger and healthier counties would also benefit more from cross-boundary collaboration.

Here and there around America there are already at least 40 consolidated city-county governments, created (at least in part) in the name of efficiency. These include Florida's Miami-Dade County (since 1957) and Jacksonville-Duval County (1968), Indiana's Indianapolis-Marion County (1970), and Kentucky's Louisville-Jefferson County (2003). Each is a patchwork quilt of jurisdictions and responsibilities, each created with a page of efficiency and a pound of politics.

Process improvements ("Better, Faster, Cheaper") will only take us so far. If we are to reduce America's debt, we must change governance structures as well. Taking a leaf from former Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review, I would begin a conversation among the states, counties and municipalities about rethinking the web of sub-state governance across America.

Wherever that conversation takes us, we need most of the frontline staff and their IT support. But, given improvements in communication and management since the mid-1600s, we do not need all the stovepiped support services (procurement, human resources, etc.), extra management layers and superfluous elected officials we have now.

It's time to start redesigning American government.