Is It Time for a Set of 'Localist Papers'?

In the Federalist Papers, the Founders articulated their goals for a new system of government. Today's local governments need something similar to be ready to deal with the challenges they face.
January 2, 2013 AT 11:00 AM
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

Williamsburg, Va., was the perfect backdrop for the recent "BIG Ideas" conference sponsored by the Alliance for Innovation. The colonial setting stimulated much interesting discussion among the 100-plus participants--all of them people who spend a great deal of time thinking about local government. We were challenged by the event facilitators to consider the future of local government "as seen through the lens of the ideas which gave birth to the American experiment in republican and democratic self-government."

The perceived need among the Founding Fathers, embodied in the Federalist Papers, for a more effective centralized government, rational political leadership and a set of guiding principles that could bring harmony to a divisive and polarized body politic are as much hallmarks of our governmental environment today as they were in the late 18th century.

Given these similarities, I invited a handful of fellow conference attendees to think about whether we would benefit from development of a set of 21st-century "Localist Papers," modeled on the Federalist Papers, and how such a set of documents might envision the structure, role and responsibilities of today's local government.

There was consensus that the United States could benefit greatly from a set of clear and compelling topical essays that would articulate the role of local government within our modern federal system, focusing more on the purpose and structure of local governance than on its relationship with the federal government. To be successful, these Localist Papers would need to be both descriptive and prescriptive.

The Federalist Papers focused primarily on governmental design and not necessarily on the policies that would emerge as a result. Although the Founding Fathers had great foresight, they could not have contemplated fully the long-term effects that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights would have on our day-to-day governance. As a result, we find ourselves hard-pressed to reach consensus on how to address many of the challenges we face today, such as the divisiveness among political party factions (the Founders didn't want any) and the role of the states.

While the Founding Fathers went out of their way--by establishing a series of unique checks and balances--to create through the Constitution a system that would preclude the threat of dictatorship, over the years this system of redundancy has led to governmental inefficiency. Efficient service provision requires an efficient delivery structure, and it is the role of local government to separate out the untidiness of policy development from the provision of services. Our state and federal governments would do well to take a long look at the number of institutions and agencies we have created with an eye toward separating out the why and the how.

The first role of local government is to provide a forum through which a community can decide what is important as a way of agreeing on a desired level of service responsibility. A set of Localist Papers could advocate a vision for our local governments as organizations that could articulate their community vision, innovate and collaborate with other communities to achieve their goals. Rather than dictating the relationship among our federal, state and local governments, these new documents could advocate a set of broad, national concepts or ground rules that then could be tailored to address the varying needs and desires of its constituents.

Another challenge for a set of 21st century Localist Papers would be to match the political and social identities of the thousands of local governments throughout the United States with the scale required to deal with the issues that are most important, including jobs and the economy, safety, education, health care, the environment, infrastructure and quality of life.

Enabling our local governments to succeed in the 21st century may require us to embrace local-government structures that are even more varied in size, scope and complexity than they are today. Given the already politically divisive nature of our governance, we must ask ourselves whether this is a vision that we can realistically achieve. A guiding set of Localist Papers, crafted for our modern age, might help us answer that question.