Skip to main content

Local Government

Local Government

Federal-decentralized systems

Unitary—decentralized systems

Napoleonic-prefect systems

Communist systems

Postcolonial systems

The role of local government


Local government may be loosely defined as a public organization authorized to decide and administer a limited range of public policies within a relatively small territory which is a subdivision of a regional or national government. Local government is at the bottom of a pyramid of governmental institutions, with the national government at the top and intermediate governments (states, regions, provinces) occupying the middle range. Normally, local government has general jurisdiction and is not confined to theperformance of one specific function or service.

This simple definition obscures wide variations in local governmental systems and operational patterns, and it should be supplemented by a system of classification for both description and analysis. In the past, local governments have been classified largely in terms of their formal structures. Thus, in the United States great stress was laid on the question of whether a local government had a mayor with broad executive powers or a mayor who was little more than a presiding officer of the city council (the strong versus the weak mayor “plans”); whether the council members divided among themselves administrative responsibility for the several aspects of local government (the commission plan); or whether the council employed a professional excutive agent to administer the city’s affairs and be accountable to the council (the city manager plan). Similar emphasis was placed on form and structure by authors attempting cross-national comparisons of local governmental systems. A perusal of the publications of the International Union of Local Authorities (e.g.,The Structure of Local Governments. .. , Humes and Martin 1961) or of the contents of The Municipal Yearbook will indicate the dominant concern for structure. The Yearbook, for example, provides details on the organization of local government, but only in 1963 did it begin to provide data on local elections.

The formal structure of local government, important as it can be to the character of a system, is not the only nor even the most significant determinant of the style of local government. The quality and character of a local government are determined by a multiplicity of factors—for example, national and local traditions, customary deference patterns, political pressures, party influence and discipline, bureaucratic professionalism, economic resource controls, and social organization and beliefs. That a local government is located in a nation controlled by a communist party may be an infinitely more important fact than the structural forms it has. That an American city is located in the South, where Negroes occupy an inferior social position, may explain far more about the local government than its structure. The existence of a huge economic enterprise within a given municipality may be more determinative of the style and policies of a local government than its organization. And, it might be added, this may be as true in a totalitarian regime as in a democratic one.

There are hundreds of thousands of local governments in the world, and we lack sufficient information about their operational characteristics to make completely confident generalizations about the nature of local government or to isolate the most critical variables that shape it. In the process of moving toward surer understanding of the phenomenon it is useful to pursue answers to three basic questions about any local government. First, to what extent is there local self-government? For example, do the people of the community have an opportunity to participate in government through meaningful elections and to have access to public officials to express their opinions by organized and individual activity? Second, to what extent does the municipality have relative autonomy and discretionary authority to act? That is, is there a deconcentration of authority from the central government to the locality with little or no local discretion, or is there decentralization of authority with relative discretion to undertake programs on local initiative and with relative freedom from strict supervision and restriction from the central government? Third, is the local government a vital and significant force in the lives of the people? Is the government an institution with the will and the authority to undertake activities that deeply affect the lives of people, or is it so marginal an aspect of life that the citizenry is scarcely aware that it exists?

To facilitate discussion of local government in terms of these broad questions, five broad categories of local governmental systems may be postulated: (1) federal-decentralized, (2) unitary-decentralized, (3) Napoleonic-prefect, (4)communist, and (5) postcolonial. The meaning of each category will become clear in the discussion.

Federal-decentralized systems

Those federal systems which decentralize much authority to the regional governments that compose the federation also tend to be the nations that allow the broadest range of discretionary authority to local government. This is not true of all systems that are called federal, however, but only of those with actual decentralization. The Soviet government is formally organized along federal lines, but such decentralization of authority to the districts as exists occurs under strict central government controls; it is made abundantly clear that the sub-units of the Soviet system (the “republics” and their subdivisions) are in reality agents of the central government and the Communist party. In federal systems with much decentralization (for example, Australia, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States) the degree of autonomy of local government varies considerably from country to country, but in all cases a considerable degree of local independence prevails.

This variation extends deeper than the countryby-country comparison, for there is often much variation among individual states or provincial-regional governments as to the forms and authority of local government. For example, the closeness of supervision by administrative agencies of regional governments varies widely from fairly extensive reporting and oversight to almost none, except in cases of flagrant corruption. Likewise, certain states in the United States grant “home rule” to municipalities by statutory or state constitutional provisions that permit municipalities to alter their forms of government at will and that grant local authority to “make all laws and ordinances relating to municipal concerns,” or broadly the “powers of local self-government,” while in other states the municipality has to appeal to the state legislature for specific permission to undertake a particular program.

The idea of “home rule” as local independence is an ancient doctrine, but as a legal concept it originated in the late nineteenth century when American state legislatures interfered, often corruptly, with the functioning of local government. Gradually, home rule has extended, with varying degrees of effectiveness, to most of the states. Home rule does not grant total autonomy by any means, since legislatures through general law and the courts through interpretation still restrain local government. Nevertheless, the concept contradicts the principle of municipal inferiority that previously stood as a basic rule of law. In the late nineteenth century Judge John F. Dillon stated the classic principle of the status of the local government by saying that municipal corporations were completely creatures of the legislature which could control or even destroy municipalities at will. In the famous Dillon’s Rule he stated:

It is a general and undisputed proposition of law that a municipal corporation possesses and can exercise the following powers, and no others: First, those granted in express words; second, those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers expressly granted; third, those essential to the accomplishment of the declared objects and purposes of the corporation—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any fair, reasonable, substantial doubt concerning the existence of power is resolved by the courts against the corporation, and the power is denied. (Dillon [1872] 1911, vol.1, sec. 237)

American courts no longer follow Dillon’s Rule rigidly, although its fundamental precepts are still frequently drawn upon even in home rule states, when local and state jurisdictions are in conflict. Litigation and the threat of litigation are important restraints upon local independence.

In the United States all local legislative bodies and most chief executives are directly elected. Local government organization varies enormously —from the town meeting, where all registered voters may participate in basic decision making, to the highly bureaucratized governments of many large cities where mayors combat the inertia of professionalism and pluralistic stasis (see Sayre & Kaufman I960; Dahl 1961; Banfield 1961). In some cities powerful political party machines control decision making by the formal officeholders; in others business elites have great power; in still others authority is widely dispersed to independent boards and commissions which are relatively invisible to the voters and partially beyond the control of the council or the mayor (for example, Los Angeles). Although it has commonly been thought that American small communities are highly democratic in the sense that the public has easy access to and much control over their representatives, research on local governmental operation suggests that this is not necessarily true (see Vidich & Bensman 1958; Presthus 1964). For example, survey research in American cities concerning the citizen’s “subjective competence” (that is, a person’s belief that he can exert significant influence upon his local government) indicated that two-thirds of the respondents felt a high degree of confidence in their political effectiveness, but there was no evidence of significant variation in terms of the size of the community from which the respondent came. Indeed, insofar as there was a variation, it favored the larger as opposed to the smallest cities (see Almond & Verba 1963, p. 235).

Swiss municipalities also have a wide area of local autonomy, although there are variations among the Swiss cantons (states) in this respect. The German-speaking cantons usually permit more discretion than do the Italian- and French-speaking ones. A high degree of local self-government prevails, particularly in the rural communities; in nine out of ten communes the municipal deliberative body is an assembly of all electors. In larger municipalities elective councils are employed, and under certain conditions a referendum may be used to submit questions to the vote of the people.

Other federal systems permit somewhat less local autonomy. In Australia, for example, local actions are subject to review by the state governor and ordinances are effective only after their approval by the governor, although there remains a general autonomy for the locality within the limitations of its local charter and the supervision of the state departments of local government. In Canada a considerable sphere of local autonomy exists, but not as much as traditionally prevails in the United States or Switzerland. An illustration of this is found in the decision of the provincial legislature of Ontario to form a new unit of metropolitan government in the Toronto area in 1953. The premier of Ontario warned that the legislature would act if the local communities failed to create some orderly method of coping with the problems of the metropolitan area, and when no action followed the legislature created a new governmental unit covering both the center city and its suburbs. While such action would be legally feasible in most (although not all) states in the United States, American political traditions of local independence make it nearly impossible to do this.

The local government system of the West German Federal Republic also has variations in local powers and procedures among the provincial governments (Lander), yet the overall independence of local governments is considerable. The degree of independence does not match that in the United States or Switzerland, however. The burgomaster (roughly equivalent to a mayor) is a professional administrator and occupies a very strong position in the local government; significantly, he is not only a local official but a federal and state official as well, since the city performs certain functions for the higher jurisdictions. The -supervision of local government from higher echelons is also fairly rigorous, and this has increased as the practice of the state’s delegating certain functions for local performance has grown. It is perhaps suggestive of the representativeness of German local government that a far higher proportion of German respondents to an opinion survey indicated that they believed they could “do something about an unjust local law or regulation” than those who felt any competence to correct an unjust national law (Almond & Verba 1963, p.185).

The vitality of local government in the federal-decentralized countries varies both within and among countries. In the United States the role of local government expanded greatly with the maturation of industrial society in the first half of the twentieth century; protective, regulatory, welfare, planning, economic promotion, cultural, and other activities were initiated or expanded. But the extent of expansion varies greatly with the size of the city, the area of the country, and even for adjacent cities. In the largest cities, where the functional expansion has been greatest, the hugeness and impersonal nature of the government probably make government appear to impinge less on the lives of the citizens than it does in fact. In smaller rural or suburban communities, local government ranges from the moribund to the fairly vital. Like-wise in other nations the degree of vitality and impact of government varies widely. In the Swiss communities where a town-meeting style of government prevails, the sense of involvement and the level of participation are high. The English-speaking Commonwealth federal systems appear to have a range of variation in the vitality of local government that compares generally with that in the United States.[see Federalism.]

Unitary—decentralized systems

Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries are examples of nations with unitary (that is, non-federal) governments which have a considerable degree of decentralization of autonomous power to localities. Although in all cases there is supervision by the central government, and although localities can take only such actions as authorized by the central government, local governments in these nations do have fairly wide responsibilities and make independent decisions about them. The independent status of the English city has a long history, as evidenced by ancient royal charters of cities. The first charters were just agreements by the king to recognize certain concessions that local leaders had bought or bargained for, but in time the charters became regularized and the basis of a considerable area of local discretion. As early as the fifteenth century merchant guilds and borough councils originated the rudiments of local self-government. Parliament remains the supreme source of local authority, but the practice of permitting local prerogatives is so firmly established that curtailment is always resisted and comes only after great deliberation. Nevertheless, there has been a considerable diminution of local independence since the nineteenth century. Although the functions of the municipality have in some respects been enlarged with the coming of new problems and public policies to meet them (for example, public housing), an extension of the central government’s concern for formerly purely local matters has taken place simultaneously. Particularly in the fields where the central government has provided a percentage of the cost of programs through grants-in-aid, central government departments have greatly extended their control over local decisions. Centrally established minimum standards of performance have unquestionably raised the efficiency of local government, but at the same time they have curtailed the independence that once existed.

British local government is representative self-government. The local council is directly elected, although the local executive is not. The mayor (or chairman in certain local bodies) is chosen from among the council members, but he is not the chief executive in the same way that an American mayor is. The British mayor is more a ceremonial and presiding official than an active executive leader, and to the extent that he is the latter it is the result of his personal qualities or his political position. The major operating element of the British local council is the committee system, into which noncouncil members are co-opted as experts on aspects of policy covered by the particular committee. Although the council must ratify all committee actions before they are valid, the committees are the active elements in the process rather than the council as a whole. The town (or county) clerk also plays a significant role in local government in his relationship to the committees. It is he who prepares information for the committee and sets the agenda, but he is not a British parallel to the American city manager, for he is not directly given the function of overseeing administration. Traditionally clerks are not trained in administrative management but in the law, although their apprenticeship in local government necessarily emphasizes administrative matters, and as the problems of local government become more complex it increasingly falls to the clerk to provide expertise and to coordinate the diverse elements of local government.

Since the early nineteenth century local governments in the Scandinavian nations have been allowed a fair degree of autonomy. The list of powers for local government is extensive, and while regional appointees of the central government who are in some respects similar to the French prefect oversee local operations, the actual supervision is not strict and does not compare with that in nations with prefectoral systems. In Norway all actions involving expenditures must be cleared with the provincial governor before they can be carried out, which on the surface suggests that Norwegian local government may be less autonomous than that of Britain. In fact, however, Norwegian municipalities have somewhat more discretion, since the supervision is not strict. Norwegian local government is vital, has broad scope, and is a very important aspect of the nation’s political-governmental system. Local government is a common recruiting ground for higher political office, and local forms and practices have been used as modes for creating regional institutions and practices. Denmark also has close supervision of fiscal matters, but the check on local government that this might imply is not apparently onerous. Local government is democratic, has a fairly wide range of discretion, but is somewhat less autonomous and vital than Norwegian local government. In Sweden local government activities are divided between those that are “free” of super-vision, except on legal challenge, and those that are “regulated.” Generally speaking, the free functions are those concerned with municipally provided utilities and cultural-recreational activities, whereas the regulated ones include a long list of functions extending from welfare services to town plan- ning, local courts, and school administration. As in Norway and England there is extensive use of committees of the council for conduct of business. Finland’s local governments have somewhat less discretionary authority and are subject to closer supervision, but the general pattern appears to be not markedly different from that in other Scandinavian nations.[see Parliamentary government.

Napoleonic-prefect systems

The peculiarity of this style of local government is that the central government places in sub-regions of the nation an agent of the national government to oversee, and if necessary to counter-mand, suspend, or replace local governments. The system is a direct survivor of the ancient institutions by which France attempted to create a centralized nation out of a scattered system of feudal fiefs, small cities, and ecclesiastical domains. The office of intendant, conceived by Richelieu in the early seventeenth century, was a means of extending the king’s authority into the hinterland, where the thirty intendants were known as the “thirty tyrants.” Animosity toward the office resulted in its dissolution in the French Revolution, but Napoleon restored it as the office of prefect, and it still flourishes in France today. In varying forms the office is commonly found in southern Europe and in Latin America, just as British forms are found in English-speaking nations.

In France the basic unit of local government is the commune, of which there are some 38,000, and each is under the supervision of a prefect of a departement (of which there are 90) or under the intermediate control of a subprefect of an arrondissement (more than 300). (In some areas superprefects also provide regional supervision.) The commune is typically a small community, since most of France is rural, although cities are also organized as communes. There is a high degree of local interest in commune politics, and council elections are often heatedly contested. The mayor, who is chosen from the ranks of the council, has a wide range of executive authority; and although he is legally accountable to the council, he nevertheless is a powerful political force in the municipality. Initiative in fiscal matters and other policy issues is in the mayor’s hands. The mayor and the council operate under the eye of the prefect or subprefect, however; and all commune actions are subject to review by the prefect, who may refuse to approve or may even dissolve the local council or remove the mayor. There are, on the average, some three hundred dissolutions per year, although a major cause of this is irreconcilable disagreement within the council rather than conflict with the prefect.

It should not be assumed, however, that French local government is actually controlled from Paris. Prefects and subprefects have a considerable area of discretion, and they often find it wise to strike a political balance between themselves and the mayors, who are not entirely without weapons to deploy against a demanding prefect, for national political forces are often just barely beneath the surface of local politics. Many mayors are influential national political figures, and local politics is a common basis for a political career. Despite this countervailing force against centralization, local government in France remains far more subordinate and dependent than in such countries as the United States and England. Police and education, for example, are largely beyond local control; fiscal controls and subventions are deployed by prefects to bring commune policy in line. Interest and participation, however, run high in France. A British observer, granting that in England local government had more autonomy than it does in France, nevertheless found in France more interest in local matters and more vitality in local government (Chapman 1953, p. 221).

In other Mediterranean countries and in Latin America, where the prefectoral system prevails, there are many variations on the French pattern. In Spain and Italy, for example, there is considerably more centralization than in France. In Spain central government controls are rigorously applied to the more than nine thousand municipalities; the mayor is appointed by the central government, and he is the strongest force in local affairs. Portugal has a similar system of central control. In Italy the prefectoral system was a convenient device for extending the powers of the fascist system into the hinterland, and interestingly one of the consequences of the fascist interlude is that the prefect has greater power today than in the prefascist era (Fried 1963, p. 261). Local councils are popularly elected, but the mayor and the councils are well aware of the power of the prefect, who uses his position not only to provide general administrative supervision but to pursue political objectives as well —such as the curbing of the power of communists when they take over a local government. In rural areas particularly, local government is not a vital or popular institution; it is often considered by the people to be an element of nature to be endured— like drought or disease—not something from which benefits are likely to be derived.

In Latin America extensive supervision of local government by officials similar to the prefect is common. In some countries the local mayor is appointed by the central government, and in others he is elected, but his actions and those of locally elective councils are subjected to extremely close control by the central government. Brazil, with its federal system, does not conform to this, however, and it has relatively little central or state government oversight of the details of local government operations. An essentially prefectoral system is also used in Japan, where, significantly, a large measure of the authority of the supervising administrator lies in his discretionary authority to grant subsidies to local government.

Communist systems

The local governmental systems of communist nations are, in general, examples of deconcentratiori of authority rather than decentralization. That is, the local governmental unit is an agency of the central government, and it functions as an integral element of the hierarchical administrative system of the state. The area of local independence is narrow and extends only to minor matters, whereas control devices are extensive and are rigorously applied. Local officials are well aware that their decisions must conform to an overall design of higher authorities, and they know, too, that to divert budget funds to other purposes without permission may mean dismissal or even imprisonment. These systems are unique in that local governments are given a role in economic activities infinitely more extensive than in capitalist nations. Finally the discipline of the Communist party is a means of controlling policy in detail. As a supplement to and a check on the administrative system, the Communist party with its rigid discipline controls the key positions in government. Indeed, the Communist party’s roleis remarkably similar to that of the classic American local government party machine. Where a classic American machine acquired complete control, the formal distribution of authority was unimportant; what mattered was the internal discipline of the party through which decisions were made from the top to the bottom of the government (McKean 1940). The critical difference between the two situations is that the American boss system depends upon local insularity to maintain control, whereas the communist system utilizes the local party to carry out the program of the national party leaders.

Local government in the Soviet Union is subject to very intensive control, but the minute and stifling controls of the Stalin era are no longer used. The ponderous apparatus needed for detailed Supervision of local operations from Moscow became so expensive and inefficient that in the 1950s efforts were made to decentralize to a limited extent. In the 1930s the rigidity of controls was such that a local bakery’s request for a supplemental flour allotment was passed to higher and higher authority until it finally reached the desk of the premier, and he approved the request himself (Granick 1960, p. 162). Documents captured by the Germans in 1941, in the town of Smolensk, also reveal the manner in which the party was used to assert tight control by Moscow over local operations (Fainsod 1958).

The decentralizing tendencies of the 1950s and 1960s did not necessarily increase the degree of local self-government. As before, the locality elects large local Soviets in which there is much discussion of local affairs, but apparently the decision-making power remains with the executive committee of the soviet rather than with the soviet members themselves. Local leaders are, however, permitted a wider range of discretion for which ultimately they are held responsible to their superiors. Evidence that the new policies did not involve a total change is the story in Pravda following the departure of Khrushchev from power. Khrushchev favored reinforced concrete blocks over bricks for construction and, as word of his attitude filtered down the hierarchy, local managers shut down brickworks regardless of local demand. Khrushchev’s successors promised in Pravda to grant to local Soviets power to “decide all local issues”; if this becomes a reality it will involve an enormous change in the traditional balance of political power in the U.S.S.R.[see COMMUNISM,article on SOVIET COMMUNISM.]

The Chinese commune is a striking experiment in devising local institutions to serve the purposes of a dedicated communist regime. The communes are at once instruments of economic planning, educational and cultural activity, and governmental control. In order to increase manpower, women are freed from child care and household work through provision of nurseries, common eating facilities, and “service centers” for clothing repair and other household chores. Millions of Chinese eat in public mess halls in both agricultural and urban communes. Local marginal industries are organized and operated by the commune. It is claimed that more than 500 million Chinese were in communes in 1960, but this probably includes many paper organizations. Nevertheless, the commune is potentially an impressive device in its totality of involvement of the citizen’s life, the opportunities it offers for political control through propaganda, police, and tight party discipline, and its potential for economic production where man power so greatly exceeds all other forms of capital. It is an attempt to resolve China’s age-old problem of balancing local initiative and central control—this time consistent with the requirements of an industrial revolution under rigid totalitarian control.

Yugoslavia offers a significantly different kind of communist local governmental system. Although the party and its discipline remain an important control factor, it is evident that a great degree of decentralization has been introduced. The Yugoslav commune has a bicameral council, one house being a political body elected by area and the other concerned with economic matters and representative of workers and farmers in their respective work units. The economic chamber is somewhat less powerful than the political one, since it acts on a more restricted range of issues; but on all basic economic questions, including the budget, the two chambers must agree. The central government has basic responsibility for the economic growth of the nation, and it grants funds for economic investment; yet the locality has some discretion about the form of development it desires and relative independence in the conduct of local enterprises once established. The municipal council sets basic standards of operation for all municipal economic organizations, and it appoints their managers; but the workers in the enterprises and their elected representatives have control over some aspects of operations. In addition to the workers councils, numerous other elected bodies deal with a broad range of subjects from education to social security. Periodic meetings of all voters who wish to participate allow for discussion of current questions, and under certain circumstances a referendum is possible, although it has been little used. In comparison with other communist systems, Yugoslavia has a high degree of decentralization and vitality. Local discretion and self government are, however, circumscribed by the existence of the party as a “guide” for local action. Yugoslavian leaders stress the importance of local self-government but at the same time emphasize the importance of the Leninist principle of “democratic centralism,” which holds that minority views should give way to strict party discipline when basic decisions have been made. [see COMMUNISM,article on NATIONAL COMMUNISM.]

Postcolonial systems

The creation of new nations from former colonies involves varying degrees of change in local government. In some cases the imposition of a strong single-party political system subverts old patterns almost entirely; in others, where adjustment more than revolutionary change has been the theme, local government patterns have not altered drastically. The legacy of colonialism is omnipresent, however much the new leaders strive for complete breaks with the colonial past[see COLONIALISM]. The pre-existing systems of local government, closely supervised by colonial officials and native subordinate administrators, have often remained as the general pattern of local-central government relationships. The terminology and basic structures of the colonial local government system frequently persist for reasons of habituation and convenience, if no other. Some leaders of postcolonial nations do not have a simple alternative of returning to a precolonial local governmentsystem, both because the colonial powers undermined or abolished the old ways and because the old systems were incapable of dealing with the conditions of Westernized and modernized life. The original tribal and village systems or bureaucratized empires of the past were appropriate to a rural, self-sufficient, and isolated kind of social life or to conditions of minimal central control; but as these nations become urbanized and begin to develop integrated economies, the simple forms of the past are inappropriate. Although some of the ancient forms of tribal ruler ship were allowed to continue by some colonial powers, it was apparent to local residents that the real authority rested not with the traditional chiefs and elders councils but with the administrators, both native and colonial, who supervised local operations. Not the least important of the remnants of colonialism, then, is the simple continuance of the great authority of the outside supervisor; the creation of active local democracy is difficult under any circumstances but the more so when habits of central supervision are generations old.

Local government in these nations is beset by staggering social and economic problems. In the first place, many of the cities of Asia and Africa are not cities in the European sense; they lack the technology, organization, resources, and slowly developed institutions of the Western city and are often massive accumulations of squatters. Also, as new regimes the central governments tend to be politically unstable. Extraordinary poverty, severe difficulties associated with economic growth, and chronic overcrowding in the cities all produce a range of problems not faced in more modernized nations. For example, many Indian cities face a serious problem in dealing with the tens of thousands who perforce must sleep in the streets at night, and a common problem of the local Indian city corporation is the prevalence of beggars who are organized into self-protective groups to defend their rights. Interestingly, in certain African cities the analogue of the American boss system seems to have developed, where local politicians cater to ethnic minorities and attempt to provide assistance to the city newcomers in exchange for voting support. Remoteness of local communities where transportation is difficult means that many parts of the postcolonial nations have a high degree of local independence through default—the central government being unable to assert its potential authority. A few Near Eastern nations have suffered for long periods from a breakdown in local and national bureaucracy so that local services are not rendered and a semianarchic confusion prevails.

Although modernization is gradually prevailing over traditionalism throughout the postcolonial world, conflict between modernists and traditionalists is endemic[see MODERNIZATION]. Tradition in religion and in social organization is the enemy of rational bureaucratization and the extension of power by the new political parties of the developing nations; it is a battle between an old man in a gilded chair (the tribal chieftain) and a young man in a swivel chair (Cowan 1958, p. vi). The virtual elimination of the tribal chief as a man of authority, as in Ghana, is one pattern; whereas the retention of chiefs as significant factors, as in parts of Uganda, is another (Burke 1964). Where political parties are extremely powerful, for example, in Tunisia and Ghana, the forces of traditionalism have been hardest hit—although traditional forms have a way of surviving, partly because they tend to rest on kinship relations that are basic elements of the social fabric. In Morocco, for example, orders from the central government to establish local councils to direct local affairs meant that a few dominant families selected their leaders as the new ruling body. Likewise, commands by the Israeli government to resident Arab communities to create local governing councils produced a council of family elders based on kinship patterns.

There is much conscious effort in the postcolonial nations to improve the quality of local government performance, but much of this involves assertion of controls from above to get local action. In Pakistan, for example, the central government in its Basic Democracies Order of 1959 established a system of local government for all of Pakistan and, outwardly at least, encouraged the growth of local democracy. Yet the control of local operations by the central government is very close, and one observer has found that in a given area no less than 85 per cent of all issues on local council agendas were put there by communications from the central government (Rahman 1962, p. 31). Inevitably the patterns of local governmental development in the postcolonial societies differ greatly, but the needs for economic growth and the extension of new national power to the hinterlands and in the rapidly growing cities have the tendency to produce as much central control as the regime finds possible. As a general rule the patterns are more like those of Richelieu’s France than of Jefferson’s United States.

The role of local government

Paradoxically, local government in the twentieth century seems to expand the number of functions it performs at the same time that it faces increasing central government supervision and a narrowing of its independence. As the problems of large and complicated cities and metropolitan areas grow, at least to the extent that financial means to cope with the problems exist, the city has greatly extended its role. Cultural activities expand simultaneously with programs on housing, redevelopment, air pollution control, and the recruitment of business enterprises. Many of the most dramatic and important of these functions are financed in good part by grants-in-aid from higher level governments, thereby decreasing local discretion at least to some extent. Also the expansion occurs simultaneously with a narrowing of distances between the central government and the municipality as the means of communication develop and as areas once isolated economically and politically become an integral part of a national economy and political system. It is therefore sometimes difficult to say whether local governments in a particular nation are now more or less significant agencies of government than they were in a simpler age.

In the case of the smaller communities there is not much doubt that increasing centralization has affected their range of discretion negatively. although the capacity of a central government to control tends to dwindle with distance for the simple reason that remoteness prevents control, the growth of rapid communication tends to undercut this source of independence. Likewise, smaller communities caught up in the sprawl of metropolitan growth suddenly cease to be independent units and become entangled in the complications of overall metropolitan areas. This leads to the development of regional institutions that in some degree may supplant or at least supplement local government, and it also tends to force local officials into governing in part through negotiation with officials from higher levels of government and with those of neighboring municipalities (Wood & Almendinger 1961).

Finally, it is important to note that the role of the municipal executive has grown greatly in the present century, owing to the same forces that have heightened the role of the executive in national government. The technological complexity of the problems being dealt with increases the power of the bureaucracy; and the diversity and diffusion of modern life also tend to lead to a stronger executive since, especially in larger cities, the chief executive seems to be the only functionary capable of controlling the bureaucracy, focusing public attention on key issues, and pressuring the various actors on the city scene to respond to the challenges a city faces.

Duane Lockard

[Directly related are the entries Centralization AND Decentralization; City,especially the article on Metropolitan Government; Local Finance; Local Politics.Other relevant material may be found under Community.]


Adrian, Charles r. (1955) 1961 Governing Urban America. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Alderfer, Harold f. 1964 Local Government in Developing Countries. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Almond, Gahriel a.; and Verba, Sidney 1963 The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton Univ. Press.

Banfield, Edward c. (1961) 1965 Political Influence. New York: Free Press.

Burke, FRED G. 1964 Local Government and Politics in Uganda. Syracuse Univ. Press.

Chapman, Brian laing 1953 Introduction to French Local Government. London: Allen & Unwin.

Chapman, Brian laing 1955 The Prefects and Provincial France. London: Allen & Unwin.

Cowan, L. GRAY 1958 Local Government in West Africa. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

Dahl, Robert a. (1961) 1963 Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Dillon, John f. (1872) 1911 Commentaries on the Law of Municipal Corporations. 5 vols., 5th ed. Boston: Little.

Fainsod, Merle 1958 Smolensk Under Soviet Rule. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. -ρ A paper-back edition was published in 1963 by Random House.

Finer, Herman (1933) 1950 English Local Government. 4th ed. London: Methuen.

Fried, Robert c. 1963 The Italian Prefects: A Study in Administrative Politics. Yale Studies in Political Science, Vol. 6. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Gottmann, Jean (1961)1964 Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Granick, D,avid 1960 The Red Executive. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Greer, Scott a. 1962 Governing the Metropolis. New York: Wiley.

Humes, Samuel; and Martin, EileenM. 1961 The Structure of Local Governments Throughout the World. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Lethbridge, HenryJ. 1961 China’s Urban Communes. Hong Kong: Dragonfly Books.

Local Government in the Twentieth Century. International Union of Local Authorities, Publication No. 72. 1963 The Hague: Nijhoff.

Lockard, Duane 1963 The Politics of State and Local Government. New York: Macmillan.

Mckean, Dayton D. 1940 The Boss: The Hague Machine in Action. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

The Municipal Yearbook. 1963 Chicago: International City Managers’ Association.

Presthus, Robert V. 1964 Men at the Top: A Study in Community Power. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Rahman, A. T. RAFIQUR 1962 Basic Democracy at the Grass Roots. Comilla: Pakistan Academy for Village Development.

Rao, V. VENKATA 1960 A Hundred Years of Local Self-government and Administration in the Andhra and Madras States 1850 to 1950. Bombay: Local Self-government Institute.

Robson, William A. 1954 Great Cities of the World: Their Government, Politics, and Planning. 2d ed., rev. & enl. London: Allen & Unwin.

Sayre, Wallace S.; and Kaufman, Herbert 1960 Governing New York City: Politics in the Metropolis. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Tinker, Hugh 1954 The Foundations of Local Self-government in India, Pakistan and Burma. London: Ath-lone.

Vidich, Arthur J.; and Bensman, Joseph 1958 Small Town in Mass Society: Class, Power and Religion in a Rural Community. Princeton Univ. Press.

Vratusa, Anton et al. 1961 The Yugoslav Commune.International Social Science Journal 13:379–450.

Wood, Robert C.; and Almendinger, Vladimir V. 1961 1400 Governments: The Political Economy of the New York Metropolitan Region. New York Metropolitan Region Study, No. 8. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Wraith, Ronald E. 1964 Local Government in West Africa. London: Allen & Unwin.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Local Government." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

"Local Government." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (May 24, 2017).

"Local Government." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from

Local Government

Local Government


England. In order to better understand local government in the British American colonies, it is instructive to consider first the English precedents that informed them. Before the Norman Conquest (1066), English local government was under a manorial system. Lords, under the authority of the king, ruled over their respective manors. Also in existence prior to 1066 were townships within the manors. The word township derived form the word tunscipe, which referred to a section of community marked off by a hedge. In theory, every parcel of land, hedged or not, was considered part of a township or vili (village). Whenever an Englishman laid claim to a piece of property he was required to name the town it was in. The borough derived from the Anglo-Saxon word burh, which referred to an enclosure designed for the protection of a house. A borough came to mean a protected or fortified town. Eventually, by the time of the Norman Conquest, a borough was the name given more particularly to the large marketplace within a township that had its own judicial courts for maintaining peace and safety.

It could also refer to any large portion of land, even land outside an enclosed area. Some towns were completely within a borough. Thus, that which had been a part of the township could eventually encompass it.

Characteristics. A key distinguishing point between a township and a borough was that the latter became corporate and the former did not. The borough, therefore, developed a more urban setting and was the forerunner of a city. The county also had English origins. After 1066 the old Anglo-Saxon shire (literally a division or share), over which a shire-reeve (shire headman), or sheriff, presided, became more commonly known as a county (or domain of a count). The county was a type of tribal division of land and might encompass several townships or boroughs. It became the largest local government division in Britain.

The Church. Another important precedent was the English parish. By the fourteenth century the manorial system as a local government structure began to give way to private property ownership. Even so, the manorial courts sought to maintain authority over inhabitants affairs. The intervention of churches and their priests slowly evolved into an alternative structure for local authority. The parish priest, due to his social and academic position, often took it upon himself to protect the peoples rights. Over time the custom of meeting in the vestry led to the assembly becoming known as the vestry meeting, or simply the Vestry. By the eighteenth century, with the leadership of the parish priest in local secular affairs, the parish vestry had become integral within the local government structure. It, with all of the above structures, evolved in one form or other into the British colonial framework of local government.

New England Town. The New England town, though in many respects different from its English counterpart, did draw significant functional elements from English roots. The New England town served much the same function as the English manor and parish where jurisdiction extended to the surrounding countryside, not just to the local municipality. A typical size for a New England town was fifty square miles. One of the unique elements of the New England town was its function as an arm of Puritan interest. That is, the town institutionalized the Puritan ideal, and it was, for all practical purposes, a secular replica of a congregational church meeting.

The Town Meeting. All New England towns regularly (at least once a year) held town meetings. All white adult male property owners (in time the property stipulation lessened) of good character were eligible to vote in the town meeting. The meeting place was usually in a church or tavern. Majority rule was not the ideal for town business. The primary goal of a town meeting was to find consensus on as wide a scale as possible. The town meeting was not, therefore, as it is often described, a condensed form of democracy per se. Each year new town officials were elected. Offices included selectmen (chief executives), constables (similar to policemen), a clerk (town record keeper), tax officers, highway surveymen, fence viewers (assured fences were properly placed), tithingmen (monitored sabbath and other moral infractions), and cattle catchers.


Having realized that they were outside the jurisdiction of governmental authority as defined in their Virginia Company charter and fearing that some on board might use their freedom from governmental restraint as a license for unruly behavior, Separatist leaders decided to draw up a Compact (based on their familiar church covenants) allowing them to later establish a government with binding laws. On 11 November 1620, before ever disembarking their vessel, forty-one adult male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact. The following is the Compact in its entirety.

In the Name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and Advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.

Source: William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 16201647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Knopf, 1966), pp. 7576.

The Chesapeake. Local government in the Chesapeake operated primarily under a county system. The governor appointed six to eight magistrates for each county. These justices of the peace had singular duties in their respective neighborhoods (where they often held hearings in their homes), and together they made up a county court. In this capacity the court could appeal decisions made by individual magistrates. This collective status also gave the county court a legislative and executive role whereby local regulations were created and carried out. The primary executor of local law was the sheriff

(one per county), who served under the magistrates. Court appointed constables also served with the sheriff. Other officers appointed by the governor were the coroner, clerk, and road supervisors.

Lower South. A dominant form of local government in the Lower South was the parish vestry. In South Carolina, where the parish system was most pronounced, magistrates appointed by the governor did serve, but the more powerful officers were parish vestrymen. In 1706 South Carolina was divided into ten parishes within the existent counties of Berkeley, Colleton, and Craven. Between 1706 and 1770 twenty-three were established. Each parish in the colony appointed seven men for the annual position whose social functions extended to education (oversight of parish schools), benevolence (care for the poor), and ethics (morality enforcement). Vestrymen also acted as parish law enforcement, both executive (police-type work) and judicial (as judges), and as tax collectors. The parish in South Carolina was in some ways like the New England town insofar as it too served as a secular arm of the established church. Unlike the Puritan counterpart, however, the Anglican Church in South Carolina and dissenters (non-Anglican Christians) often worked together in a considerably harmonious

manner. This spirit of cooperation insured mutual support in the secular realm. Dissenters supported the secular functions of the church and received the benefit of public services in return. The parish vestry, even with county structures developing around it, remained the most powerful arm of local government in South Carolina from the early eighteenth century until the Revolution.

Pennsylvania. The Middle Colonies had a much more diverse system of local government than the other regions. This is not to suggest that the above mentioned regions did not also have diverse systems. Yet, in comparison the Middle Colonies had a greater mixture of systems, making any given one less dominant than in other colonies. In Pennsylvania there were four distinct local entities: township, city, county, and borough. The city, though a separate entity, was nevertheless under county authority (Philadelphia was the only exception to this rule throughout the colonial period). Each county was sectioned off into townships. The townships highest officer was the constable, and the countys was the sheriff. Pennsylvania townships, unlike New England towns, did not hold town meetings. The constable was appointed by the Court of Quarter Sessions while other officers were elected at the polls. The borough, on the other hand, did hold meetings similar to the New England town system. The borough officers (burgesses and councilors) conducted the meetings. In practical terms a borough was more like a village. On a smaller scale it functioned much like a city. It was also less beholden to county authority than was a township. A marked uniqueness about early colonial Pennsylvanias local government was the subordinate character of its judiciary.

Penn. William Penn, whose double exposure as an English court defendant and as a Quaker (who as a group had experienced much opposition within English courts), stressed a less technical, user-friendly court system. The influences of this attitude are reflected in the Laws Agreed upon in England, which the colony adopted. In one section it is asserted That in all courts all persons of all persuasions may freely appear in their own way, and according to their own manner, and there personally plead their own cause themselves, or if unable, by their friends.... That all pleadings, processed, and records in courts, shall be short, and in English, and in an ordinary and plain character, that they may be understood, and justice speedily administered.

New York. Somewhat different from Pennsylvania, New York demonstrated further local government diversity in the Middle Colonies. After Dutch rule ended in 1664, local government structure in New York tended to become less simplified. As New Yorks local government structures began to anglicize they also grew in complexity. After the period of the Dukes Laws, which served as a transition in the immediate post-Dutch years, and after the volatile years under the Dominion of New England (16851688) and then Leislers Rebellion (16881691), New Yorks most enduring local government structures were established.

Authority. The county emerged as the highest entity of local authority, but within the county structure was a subdivision of authorities consisting of municipalities, manors, and towns. The sheriff was the most powerful official in a New York county. He was to execute court decisions, oversee elections, perform police duties, and collect taxes. Also important were the county Boards of Supervisors, who served an administrative role. County judges had little or no administrative or executive functions. Their duties were generally limited to trial court cases. The sheriff and judges (judges were usually members of the assembly) were appointed by the governor, whereas the Boards of Supervisors were elected yearly by freemen. Town government administration proved remarkably stable during New Yorks larger transitional periods (Dutch to English rule, the Glorious Revolution, and Leislers Rebellion). During the change from Dutch to English rule daily life continued unchanged, and some towns, recognizing that not much was new, neglected to even note the conquest in the town minutes. Whereas smaller towns such as Newtown, Long Island, anglicized more slowly, the larger municipalities experienced swifter and more pronounced change as they developed strictly along English metropolitan lines (wards, aldermen, freemen status, etc.). What is true about all levels of local government (in every region) was that whether suddenly or gradually, they overall became more, not less, English over time.


John J. Clarke, A History of Local Government of the United Kingdom (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1955);

Joseph E. Illick, Colonial Pennsylvania: A History (New York: Scribners, 1976);

Jessica Kross, The Evolution of an American Town: Newtown, New York, 1642-1775 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983);

Frederic William Maitland, Township and Borough (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898);

M. Eugene Sirmans, Colonial South Carolina: A Political History, 1663-1763 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966);

Robert M. Weir, Colonial South Carolina: A History (Millwood, N.Y.: KTO Press, 1983).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Local Government." American Eras. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

"Local Government." American Eras. . (May 24, 2017).

"Local Government." American Eras. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from

Local Government


LOCAL GOVERNMENT is the designation given to all units of government in the United States below the state level. During the colonial period, the pattern of local government was not uniform throughout the thirteen colonies. In New England the town was the principal unit of local rule, responsible for poor relief, schooling, and roads. The primary governing body was the town meeting, an assembly of all the enfranchised residents, though the popularly elected selectmen seem to have assumed increasing authority over town affairs. In the southern colonies, the parish vestry and county court were the chief elements of local government. Appointed by the royal governor, the members of the county court exercised both administrative and judicial powers, supervising road construction as well as presiding over trials. The parish vestry of the established Church of England administered poor relief. In the middle colonies, local government was a mix of the New England and southern elements. Both county governments and towns were significant, sharing responsibility for local rule. In the middle colonies and in Maryland and Virginia as well, the colonial governors granted municipal charters to the most prominent communities, endowing them with the powers and privileges of a municipal corporation. Although in some of these municipalities the governing council was elected, in Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Williamsburg the city council was a self-perpetuating body, with the incumbent councilors filling vacancies. In marked contrast to the direct democracy of the town meeting tradition of New England, these were closed corporations governed by a self-chosen few.

Change After the American Revolution

The closed corporations, however, did not survive the wave of government change unleashed by the American Revolution. By the 1790s the electorate chose the governing council in every American municipality. Moreover, the state legislatures succeeded to the sovereign prerogative of the royal governors and thenceforth granted municipal charters. During the nineteenth century, thousands of communities became municipal corporations. Irritated by the many petitions for incorporation burdening each legislative session, nineteenth-century state legislatures enacted general municipal incorporation laws that permitted communities to incorporate simply by petitioning the county authorities.

Meanwhile, the newly admitted states west of the Appalachians were replicating the local government structure of the Atlantic seaboard states. Most of the trans-Appalachian South followed the example of Virginia and North Carolina and vested local authority in county courts that exercised both judicial and administrative powers. With the disestablishment of the Church of England during the Revolutionary era, however, the parish vestries lost all secular governing authority. The new midwestern states imitated New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, dividing local responsibilities between counties and town-ships. Nowhere west of the Appalachians was the town-ship as significant as in New England, but it survived as a major element of rural government in the states north of the Ohio River.

To administer public education, the nineteenth-century states added a new unit of local government, the school district. These districts exemplified grassroots rule run amuck. By the early 1930s there were 127,531 such districts in the United States. There was a district for virtually every one-room school, and in some districts the number of school board members exceeded the number of pupils. With an average of 118 districts per county, Illinois had the largest number of school governments. One Illinois district comprised only eighty acres.

Reducing Grassroots Power

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the nation's cities, however, were the most criticized units of local government. Although they were responsible for the creation of grand parks, well-stocked public libraries, up-to-date fire departments, and the world's most advanced water and sewerage systems, the major American municipalities fell short of the expectations of prosperous city dwellers who rallied behind a growing body of good-government reformers. Members of the urban elite resented the clout of plebeian councilmen representing immigrant constituencies and cited well-publicized examples of political corruption in their crusades for reform. To weaken the grip of the supposedly venal political party organizations, reformers called for the introduction of a civil service system and a nonpartisan municipal bureaucracy. Moreover, they urged the adoption of nonpartisan elections. They also sought to curb the power of ward-based politicians from working-class neighborhoods by introducing at-large election of council members and by strengthening the role of the mayor, who was usually a figure of citywide distinction chosen by a citywide electorate.

Some cities discarded the mayor-council scheme and experimented with new forms of government. In 1901 reformers in Galveston, Texas, introduced the commission form of municipal rule. Under this plan, a small commission elected at large exercised all legislative and executive authority. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of cities adopted the commission option, but after 1915 it fell from favor and reformers rallied instead in support of the city manager plan. This scheme of government originated in Staunton, Virginia, in 1908 and spread rapidly until by the end of the twentieth century more than half of all American cities had adopted it. Its major feature was a strong, centralized, professional executive branch under a city manager who was hired by the city council. Council-manager government made little headway among the largest cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where voters preferred strong mayors with the political skills necessary to mediate clashing ethnic and economic interests. But many communities embraced the notion of a nonpartisan, expert administrator at the helm of government.

During the twentieth century there was also reform in those bastions of grassroots rule, the school district and the New England town. In an attempt to upgrade rural education, the states restructured school government, eliminating eighty thousand redundant school districts between 1940 and 1960. Consolidated school districts replaced existing minuscule units of government, and one-room schools yielded to graded institutions with students bused in from a five-or ten-mile radius. In twentieth-century New England a number of the largest towns deviated from the town meeting tradition and adopted an institution known as the representative town meeting. In these communities an assembly of usually over two hundred elected representatives determined town policy. No longer could every enfranchised townsperson vote in the town meeting; that became a prerogative belonging to the elected representatives.

Special Districts

Meanwhile, thousands of new special districts were adding to the complexity of American local government. Between the early 1950s and late 1980s the number of such districts rose from twelve thousand to thirty thousand. Most of these local governments were established to provide a single service or perform a single function. The functions included fire protection, water, sewerage, mosquito abatement, parks and recreation, airports, and a variety of other activities. In a few instances, special districts were created for multiple purposes such as water and sewerage, but all were limited in scope. The governing boards of special districts were often appointed rather than elected, and this gave rise to some concern over the degree of popular control possible in these governments. Two major reasons existed for the rapid growth of special districts. First, many potential service areas did not coincide with the boundaries of existing local governments, and special districts could be created to fit these service areas. Second, many local governments had exhausted the taxing and bonding authority granted to them by the state legislatures, and each special district could begin with a new grant of authority to tax and borrow.

Merged Government and Its Alternatives

The growing number of special districts in metropolitan areas as well as the proliferation of suburban municipalities gave rise to new concerns about duplication of effort and inefficient delivery of services. From the 1920s on, metropolitan reformers decried the multitude of conflicting governments and offered schemes for unifying the fragmented American metropolis. The most far-reaching of these proposals would have merged counties and city into a single unit of metropolitan government. During the 1960s this option, with some modification, was adopted in Nashville, Tennessee; Jacksonville, Florida; and Indianapolis, Indiana. Elsewhere, reformers proposed federative structures that would preserve existing municipalities but assign certain regional responsibilities to an overarching metropolitan government. Voters repeatedly rejected such schemes, though in 1957 something resembling a federative plan was adopted for Miami-Dade County in Florida.

Local governments and their citizens generally resisted sweeping reforms that would alter the basic structure of government in metropolitan areas. Instead, many local governments sought other means to avoid duplication and inefficiency in the provision of services. One increasingly popular device was the intergovernmental agreement. By utilizing contractual agreements, existing governments could band together to provide services that single units were unable to afford. In other cases, as in California's Lakewood Plan, cities could contract for services with an urban county that already provided such services to unincorporated areas. During the second half of the twentieth century, such agreements were popular because they permitted existing governments to continue operation and allowed local citizens to maintain mechanisms for local control of policy.

Americans have, then, opted to adjust to fragmentation rather than embrace consolidation or a radical restructuring of government. Thousands of school districts disappeared during the mid-twentieth century, but town-ships survived in the Northeast and Midwest, as did a myriad of little municipalities in metropolitan and rural areas.


Daniels, Bruce C., ed. Town and County: Essays on the Structure of Local Government in the American Colonies. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1978.

Pollens, John C. Special District Governments in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Stone, Harold A., Don K. Price, and Kathryn H. Stone. City Manager Government in the United States: A Review After Twenty-five Years. Chicago: Public Administration Service, 1940.

Teaford, Jon C. The Unheralded Triumph: City Government in America, 1870–1900. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Teaford, Jon C. Post-Suburbia: Government and Politics in the Edge Cities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Wooster, Ralph A. The People in Power: Courthouse and Statehouse in the Lower South, 1850–1860. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969.

John H.Baker
Jon C.Teaford

See alsoCity Manager Plan ; Commission Government ; County Government ; Metropolitan Government ; Municipal Government ; Municipal Reform ; Town Government .

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Local Government." Dictionary of American History. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

"Local Government." Dictionary of American History. . (May 24, 2017).

"Local Government." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from

local government

local government, the administration of units smaller than the state, has a long but shadowy early history. Not only do many books on the subject begin only in 1835, but the purposes of local government are different, and the sources different, as one goes further back in time. In very early periods ‘central’ and ‘local’ government are difficult to separate, since many areas of Britain had independent or semi-independent rulers; and for centuries the primary purposes of local officials, as of central government, were seen to be defence, law, and order, rather than social services.

Britain before the Romans consisted of many tribal units. Those areas conquered by Rome were welded into a single province of Britannia (though in the 3rd and 4th cents. it was subdivided into two, and later into four and five, provinces). Within that province, however, most of the tribal units survived as civitates (city-states), with the larger towns governed separately as coloniae and municipiae. In the 5th and 6th cents. the pattern dissolved, and Britain became a patchwork of small states of both natives and invaders. As smaller states were absorbed into larger ones, old units often survived within them as administrative areas. By the 9th cent. Wessex was organized into shires, and as the kings of Wessex conquered the rest of England, they imposed the shire-system on it. By 1066 most of England, at least south of the Humber, was divided into shires, which in turn were divided into hundreds or (in the former Danish areas) into wapentakes (from vápnatak, the brandishing of weapons to show assent). Wales, however, was divided into independent principalities, each subdivided into commotes and hundreds (cantrefs).

Each English shire (often called by the French name of county after 1066) was controlled by a royal official called a sheriff (shire reeve), whose powers and duties were greatly increased by the Norman kings; while in Lowland Scotland the kings created a similar pattern in the 12th cent., with sheriffdoms and thanages (under sheriffs and thanes respectively). Similarly, when Edward I conquered independent Wales in 1276–83, he reorganized his conquests into shires on the English model, though he left alone the marcher lordships of south and east Wales. However, in none of the three countries was there a tidy and uniform system of administration. Some of the larger English towns, for example, acquired the status of counties corporate and excluded the county sheriffs altogether; while in both counties and towns there were numerous islands of exempt jurisdiction (immunities or ‘liberties’). It should also be remembered that all of these arrangements applied only to secular administration; the church had its own administrative and judicial structure, with extensive powers over laity as well as clergy.

In late medieval England kings increasingly entrusted local government to resident gentry and burgesses, many of them acting under crown commissions, especially in the new offices of justices of the peace. In the 16th cent. the sheriffs lost further control of their counties with the institution of lords-lieutenant, and with increasing powers and responsibilities laid on the county justices. The parish became, after the Reformation, the basic unit of secular as well as ecclesiastical administration, and new parochial officials were introduced to deal with highway maintenance and poor relief. This English pattern was imposed on the whole of Wales in 1536–43, but in independent Scotland there were differences. Sheriffdoms began to evolve into counties only in the 16th cent., and their jurisdiction did not become completely coextensive with counties until 1747, when private jurisdiction of baronies and regalities, and traditional Highland clan jurisdiction, were abolished.

With this Scottish exception, central government interfered very little with existing local government structures between 1688 and the 1830s. However, during that ‘long 18th century’ those structures became increasingly inadequate, particularly as towns grew in size, and Parliament had to alleviate problems by delegating many responsibilities to groups of improvement commissioners, and from 1834 to Poor Law unions. In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act transformed local government in England and Wales, creating standardized urban local authorities elected by ratepayers, and in 1872 sanitary districts were added. In 1888–9 the whole of British local government was reorganized, with County Councils taking over most of the country, though some large towns were made all-purpose authorities outside the county structure. Within the counties, the sanitary districts were made into urban and rural districts (1894). In Scotland the Scottish Office, established in 1885, has since acted as an intermediary stage of government, taking over some of the functions exercised by local authorities in England and Wales. Otherwise the broad pattern persisted until 1974, when another reorganization divided England and Wales into counties and districts, and 1975, when a more drastic rearrangement produced new regional and district councils in Scotland.

From 1992–5 the Banham commission undertook another major review of local government in England, proposing the restoration of Rutland, the separation of Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and the abolition for all but ceremonial purposes of the eight counties of Avon, Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cleveland, Dorset, Humberside, and Somerset. In the event, Rutland and Herefordshire were reconstituted as unitary authorities, and Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Dorset, and Somerset retained their county councils. Local government in Wales was reorganized by the Local Government (Wales) Act of 1994 and in Scotland by the Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1994.

David M. Palliser

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"local government." The Oxford Companion to British History. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

"local government." The Oxford Companion to British History. . (May 24, 2017).

"local government." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from

local government

local government System of regional administration differing in each country. The systems that developed in France, the former Soviet Union and England served as models for much of the rest of the world. Local government in England developed from the Municipal Reform Act (1835), which first established elected councils in cities; the Local Government Act (1888) set up county councils elsewhere. In 1974, a two-tier system was established in England, Scotland, and Wales, with counties subdivided into districts, each with an elected council. Some metropolitan counties were abolished in 1986, and replaced by a single tier of smaller, local borough councils.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"local government." World Encyclopedia. . 24 May. 2017 <>.

"local government." World Encyclopedia. . (May 24, 2017).

"local government." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved May 24, 2017 from