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Sources of uncertainty in local policymaking

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

Leadership of any kind comes with navigating a great deal of uncertainty, and local governance is no exception. Local leaders must cope with countless unknowns when making policy decisions. This compounds the fact that local leaders often possess fewer resources than their state and federal counterparts to address complications and shifting conditions.

To better understand what causes uncertainty in local governance, we collaborated with Dr. Joshua Lewis and Dr. Lucius Caviola of New York and Harvard Universities, on a nationally representative sample of local officials to rate the frequency of several possible sources of uncertainty in making local policy decisions. The potential sources of uncertainty we asked about were economic conditions, funding from higher levels of government, constituent groups (e.g., grassroots organizations, business groups), voter opinion, and regulation from higher levels of government.

Uncertain Economics

Respondents agreed by a healthy margin that economic conditions are the most persistent generator of unpredictability, with 54.1% reporting them as a source of uncertainty “often” or “all the time.” These responses mirrored the broader public disquiet for the economy. Economic conditions rated as the most frequent concern in localities of all population sizes, and for officials of both major political parties.

The last few years have seen the U.S. thrust into a new period of economic turmoil, with high inflation, increasing Federal Reserve rates, and widespread perceptions that Americans’ financial situations are worsening. This economic downturn negatively affects local and state budgets, compelling officials to make budget cuts, pare down existing policy initiatives, and scrap new ideas. One official from a small Florida municipality described how “the unpredictability of economic conditions makes it extremely difficult to commit to long-range or permanent expenditures.” Inflation and rising construction costs mean “the cost of doing business has doubled, tripled or quadrupled depending on the products needed for infrastructure or improvements,” according to another official from a small Florida town.

Higher Level Government

When it comes to uncertain economics, inflation and deflated revenue aren't the only things that come to officials' minds. After the economy, the second most common response overall was, “funding from higher levels of government” with 46.8% of respondents indicating that it is a source of uncertainty “often” or “all the time.” This concern was slightly more common among officials from small localities (<2300 people) with a frequency of 51.0%.

As officials everywhere are pressured to cut budgets, the amount of funding available to local governments through grants dwindles. For example, ongoing national debates over the federal debt ceiling and a sharply divided Congress could jeopardize the remaining funding for state and local governments from the American Rescue Plan. This leaves local leaders unsure of how much state and federal grant money they will be able to secure, increasing difficulty to make decisions about how to allocate budgets and whether policy proposals should be approved.

Higher levels of government can also create unintended consequences for local officials through legislation and political pressure. 43.9% of survey respondents marked that “regulation from higher levels of government” as a source of uncertainty often or all the time. However, there were significant partisan differences, —51.8% of Republican respondents viewed regulation as a frequent concern, compared to only 36.3% of Democratic respondents.

Officials at the state and federal level might pass legislation and directives that create new, unexpected challenges for local governance, leaving local leaders scrambling to keep up. “The unknowns of how state and federal legislation are going to land provide the most uncertainty,” according to a politically independent official in a small Michigan town.

For instance, state governments can unexpectedly complicate the jobs of local policymakers through preemption. Past CivicPulse research has shown broad opposition to state preemption of local policies, and this tactic seems to continue to frustrate local governance. One Democratic municipal official from Florida emphasizes that “the greatest issue that I have experienced is preemption of local policy decisions by our state government.”

Surprisingly, members of officials’ own communities seemingly provide the least amount of hesitation. A markedly lower number of respondents ranked voter opinion (38.5%) and community interest groups (28.7%) as frequent sources of uncertainty. When deciding to support a policy, officials gauge and manage community input with more ease, unlike the economy or state and federal policies, which remain outside the control of local governments.

Survey Background

The research underlying this brief is drawn from a national random-sample survey of 535 local officials. The sample consisted of elected policymakers from local governments (i.e., municipalities, townships, and counties) with populations of 1,000 or greater. “Elected policymakers” include top elected officials and governing board members. The survey was developed in collaboration with Dr. Joshua Lewis and Dr. Lucius Caviola of New York and Harvard Universities and implemented by CivicPulse.

Below are the key survey items used to generate this brief:

In making local policy decisions, how often is each of the following a source of uncertainty? (Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, or All the Time)

  • Voter opinion

  • Regulation from higher levels of government

  • Funding from higher levels of government

  • Economic conditions

  • Community/interest groups

In your experience, are there any other important sources of uncertainty in evaluating whether to support a local policy proposal?

Media Contacts

Nathan Lee, PhD

Managing Director of CivicPulse

(618) 319-3404


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