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Understanding the priorities of local policymakers in California

Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom released his budget proposal which outlined his priorities for the state of California. All around the state, local elected officials are going through the same process of trying to decide where they should focus their efforts to best serve their constituents.  

With the support of the Blue Shield of California Foundation, CivicPulse recently conducted a survey of 254 municipal and county elected officials across the state to identify what their top priorities are and how they vary by region.   

Respondents were given the opportunity to evaluate on a 5-point scale how high or low of a priority each of thirteen different policy areas were in their community. Specifically, they were asked, “Below we present a list of issues that local communities in California might face. How would you prioritize each of them for your community?” In Table 1, we display the ranking of these areas from highest to lowest priority.  

Table 1. Priority ranking of thirteen different policy areas based on a representative survey of 254 county and municipal elected officials.  


It may come as a surprise to some that issues like “affordable housing” and “natural disasters” do not rank at the top of this list, given the infamous housing affordability crisis in California and the seemingly never-ending string of natural disasters the state is forced to grapple with. And yet, any close observer of local governance would be at least as surprised if the topics that did make it to the top—public safety, education, economic development, and roads and highways—were not positioned there. After all, local governments have historically focused on these kinds of bread-and-butter areas that tend to receive fewer headlines but are essential for stable communities. 

The highest on the list was public safety. A large portion of most local government budgets go to police and firefighters. And while an important national conversation is underway about police reform and what the appropriate role of law enforcement is in emergency responding, an uptick in crime in the last two years has also dampened the strongest calls for police abolition, and the vast majority of Americans support maintaining a police force in some fashion.  

K-12 education was the second highest ranked issue, reflecting another core responsibility of local government. Though it is typically outside the purview of general-purpose government entities –instead managed by school boards with a separate tax base—municipal and county officials tend to keep tabs on school board governance, and sometimes exercise outside influence.  

Economic development was the third highest ranked issue. It is no surprise that this issue would be of high importance to local elected officials, as they are likely to hear about the economy often from constituents. But from the standpoint of the local government itself, the stakes of this issue could not be higher: if enough years go by with no jobs available, a negative spiral of depopulation can occur and, with it, the hollowing out of the government’s tax base.  

Finally, roads and highways were fourth on the list. When roads function well, constituents don’t pay much attention. But when they don’t, elected officials receive an earful at city and county board meetings. Though many highways are beyond the jurisdiction of local governments, most surface roads fall into the hands of local control. And just as in the case of K-12 education, local officials still must keep tabs on the broader transportation system even if they do not directly control it. 

Key differences in local government priorities fall along regional lines 

California is a large and diverse state, and the highest priorities for any particular community will vary. In our analyses, a key marker of differences in priorities was region. Below we show the priorities ranked within Southern and Northern California, respectively (Figure 1). For convenience, we also list the top four issues that were reported, on average, most highly for each region in Table 2. 

Figure 1. Priority ranking of thirteen different policy areas based on a representative survey of 254 county and municipal elected officials, broken out by Southern vs. Northern California. 


Table 2. Top four priorities of county and municipal elected officials in Southern and Northern California, respectively. 


In both regions, public safety and economic growth were consistently rated as top priorities. However, two of the four were different for each region too. Notably, “services for residents in need” and “clean air and water” were more often in the top four priorities for Southern CA, while “K-12 education” and “roads and highways” were more often ranked in the top four for local governments in Northern California. 

We do not have direct evidence from the survey about why such differences might exist. However, there are some facts about these two regions that may suggest some explanation for some of these differences. For example, it stands to reason that local governments in Southern California would be more concerned with water, given its reliance on northern California for supplying its water needs.   On the other hand, the increased focus on roads and highways in Northern California may have to do with the fact that its population centers have grown more rapidly in the last fifteen years than those in Southern California, putting disproportionate demand on a more limited road infrastructure. 

These findings reveal the nuanced requirements of local governance in different geographic regions of California, underscoring the importance of tailored policy approaches to address diverse local needs across the state. 

Up Next 

In parallel to this survey, we also did a survey of voters on their priorities with the goal of seeing how closely aligned elected officials are with their constituents. There will be much more to come of this paired survey methodology, and we’re excited to be able to show where voters are aligned with their local elected representatives and where they are not.  


Survey Background 

The research underlying this brief was built on data from a survey of elected policymakers from local governments (i.e., municipality and county governments) in California with a population of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with the Blue Shield of California Foundation and was implemented by CivicPulse. 

Below is the question wording for the survey item that was used in this analysis: 

Below we present a list of issues that local communities in California might face. How would you prioritize each of them for your community? 

Rows: 

  • Clean air and water 

  • Improved roads and highways 

  • Improved public transportation 

  • Walkability of your community 

  • Well-maintained parks 

  • Preparing for natural disasters 

  • Services for residents in need 

  • Jobs and economic development 

  • Affordable housing 

  • Public safety 

  • Domestic violence 

  • High quality K-12 public education 

  • Accessible healthcare 

Answer choices: 

  • Very high priority 

  • Somewhat high priority 

  • Somewhat low priority 

  • Very low priority 

  • Not at all a priority 


Local governments were considered part of Northern or Southern California based on the county in which they are located:

Southern California Counties:

  • Imperial

  • Kern

  • Los Angeles

  • Orange

  • Riverside

  • San Bernadino

  • San Diego

  • San Luis Obispo

  • Santa Barbara

  • Ventura

Northern California Counties:

  • Alameda

  • Alpine

  • Amador

  • Butte

  • Calaveras

  • Colusa

  • Contra Costa

  • Del Norte

  • El Dorado

  • Fresno

  • Glenn

  • Humboldt

  • Inyo

  • Kings

  • Lake

  • Lassen

  • Madera

  • Marin

  • Mariposa

  • Mendocino

  • Merced

  • Modoc

  • Mono

  • Monterey

  • Napa

  • Nevada

  • Placer

  • Plumas

  • Sacramento

  • San Benito

  • San Francisco

  • San Joaquin

  • San Mateo

  • Santa Clara

  • Santa Cruz

  • Shasta

  • Sierra

  • Siskiyou

  • Solano

  • Sonoma

  • Stanislaus

  • Sutter

  • Tehama

  • Trinity

  • Tulare

  • Tuolumne

  • Yolo

  • Yuba


Media Contact 

Nathan Lee, PhD 

Managing Director of CivicPulse 

(618) 319-3404 

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