Part 4b: Decentralized into Chaos: The Three Causes of Civic Fractionation (#2)

Part 4b  – An Introductory Essay Series (Click here to start at the beginning!)

ffThis post continues from Part 4a, which delves into the reasons why we have such a fractured, and tough to understand, civic environment. Here, I get into the second reason:

An Overlooked Source of Government Waste


An Overlooked Source of Government Waste

It’s time we ask: do we need so many units of government?

The dynamics of federalism means that the federal government’s powers are limited, and that most power is in the hands of the state and local governments.

American preferences for local control, states’ rights and home rule mean that we get to do things our own way in our own places.  But many voters lack an appreciation that, because of these principles, the thickest and most prolific layers of government exist at the state and local levels. The United States has 90,106 units of state and local government, according to the 2012 U.S. Census Bureau’s Census of Governments. These units are comprised of 38,910 general purpose governments, such as counties or townships, and 51,146 special purpose governments, such as independent school districts, transit authorities or water and sewer districts.[1]

American democracy is decentralized by design, but it is our decentralization and distribution that compounds complexity. Another factor that compounds complexity is growth. Government is growing in the United States, but not always at the level that many people may assume. Special purpose districts have increased from 12,340 districts in 1952 to 38,266 districts in 2012.[2] According to Wikipedia’s definition, these are “independent, special-purpose governmental units that exist separately from local governments such as county, municipal, and township governments, with substantial administrative and fiscal independence. They are formed to perform a single function or a set of related functions.” These districts are created mostly at the local and state level, for a particular reason, such as land management or to manage intergovernmental relationships.

The government in the state of Ohio is broken up into 88 counties and 611 public school districts. Why? The counties are the same physical size they were 150 years ago.  Their size and number has much more to do with the amount of time it takes to ride a horse from one side to the other than it does with what is an efficient and effective land and population area for governance and infrastructure management. Because of this historical rootedness and a failure to evolve, we have more local government units than we really need.

In my particular county, Lucas County, Ohio, we have 8 different school districts. The largest is the central urban district for the City of Toledo. The others are all associated with different suburbs. This means that anytime my community foundation wishes to convene a conversation about educational outcomes, come together on a joint initiative, or look at county-wide data, I have to attempt to gather together 8 different superintendents, with 8 different schedules, priorities and levels of interest in collaboration. And that’s just the public schools. We also have to convince leaders from the Catholic school system, and a wide array of different charter schools, which are not connected to overarching district, to participate.  We often spend more time organizing collaborations and attempting to get them started than actually collaborating. Because of the way we break up and distribute power, there’s often no force that has the wherewithal to make them come together and collaborate. Because of this, we have a hard time working efficiently and we miss the opportunity for solutions at scale.

Then there’s all the overhead to consider. Do we really need to have 8 different HR departments, 8 different superintendents, 8 different data systems, 8 different administrative departments to deliver public education in just one county in Ohio?  Government waste is undoubtedly generated by these unnecessary divisions and structures at local and regional levels, but we almost never talk about this in the national debates.

I am sure that few in the general public understand that we even create units of government to organize all of the different units of government that have to work together on common issues. In Ohio, and in many other states, we have councils of government, or “COGS.” My local organization is called the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments. It has 140 (!) members across a small handful of counties. COGS are created as a provision of the Ohio Revised Code, so that all of the different city, county, township and other units can come together to jointly govern a couple of things that make no sense to try and govern independently, like major transportation planning and water infrastructure projects. In fact, it is the federal government which often requires this regional planning as a condition of its funding. It is unclear if these governments would come together at all if they were not required to.

How efficient is it to have to convene 140 different local governments in the metro Toledo region? But just try convincing the Township of Such and Such that it should merge with the Town of Whosits right next door. Or convincing the County that it should merge with the City.

Later on, I will get into more detail about the obstacles, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities that I have had to contend with in education and other local sectors because of all of these divisions. COGS only deal in a few narrow subject areas, so most other public sector activity remains quite uncoordinated at the regional level.

The federal government, by comparison, occupies a relatively smaller amount of governmental “space.” The total number of people in the United States who hold elected office, including state and local government, is 513,200. There are 493,830 officials elected at the local level, 18,828 elected at the state level, and only 542 elected at the federal level.[3]  The state and local levels dominate in many policy areas of importance to the communities where we live, such as education.  It’s time we look at our structures and institutions at these levels of government, and consider how inefficient they are and how impenetrably confusing they have become to the average civic actor or voter. It is incredibly difficult to tell who is responsible for what. Because of this fog, it is very hard for the people to hold government accountable – a critical issue for American democracy.

[1] Hogue, Carma. 2013. “Government Organization Summary Report: 2012,” United States Bureau of the Census, p.1.

[2] Id. at p.4.




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