In a year where businesses had to shut their doors, millions of Americans hunkered down at home, and many took to the streets in a variety of protests, we wanted to see how the priorities of local elected officials had been shaped by these events. In January 2021, CivicPulse surveyed 213 elected local government officials to ask, “What do you think is the most pressing issue that your local area faces?”. We then categorized their open-ended responses into 13 topic areas.
The most frequent topic mentioned by local elected officials was business development, mentioned by 29% of elected officials, followed closely by public health at 23%. At the start of this year, public health was still on the forefront for many local leaders, but business development was the premiere pressing issue, and the individual responses revealed a wide number of issues that local governments across the country were facing. Local officials wrote about “keeping small businesses afloat”, “allocating loans and grants to small businesses”, and “supporting restaurants”, reflecting immediate concerns related to their local economies. Others worried about the so-called “new normal” and how the economic downturn would have temporary or even permanent downstream effects on their government’s future revenue. Several officials cited the uncertainty around commercial real estate as a threat to their local revenue stream and economic viability, as a growing number of companies reconsider their need for an in-person workspace.
Rounding out the top four pressing issues were concerns around infrastructure (14%) and general fiscal challenges (9%). Many of the officials that cited infrastructure as their most pressing issue specifically mentioned broadband or water infrastructure. The pandemic and the importance of the internet in a remote learning/work setting may have exacerbated the need for reliable high-speed internet, but the recognition of broadband’s importance also reflects a growing need for communities to stay technologically up-to-date.
Regarding general fiscal challenges, local officials raised concerns about government revenue and solvency. As shown in our June 2020 report, local governments faced massive budget deficits and spending concerns because of the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic downturn. Looking ahead, the American Rescue Plan and potential infrastructure funding will likely provide many local areas a way to address their infrastructure or fiscal challenges. Our June 2020 report also showed that roads and capital projects were two areas that faced the highest likelihood of spending cuts as governments faced the need to balance their pandemic-stressed budgets. With more federal assistance coming, governments may be able to restart projects that were put on hold for the past year.
In an August 2018 survey, CivicPulse asked a similar question to 631 elected local government officials about the most pressing issue facing their local area at that time. By looking at the results from the 2021 survey and the 2018 survey together, we can compare pre-pandemic and current concerns. The largest difference in the 2021 responses was the focus on the pandemic response: with 23% citing public health-related issues, up from just 6% in 2018. However, even the meaning of public health has shifted. In 2018, the opioid epidemic accounted for 64% of the public health responses, while in 2021, only one policymaker named the opioid epidemic as their most pressing issue.
In comparing the two years, we also see that other issues that have become more salient in the national discourse are not viewed as the most pressing issues for local government. For example, the survey data does not reflect concerns around racial justice, which rose to prominence this past year, nor does it reflect worries about election integrity (civic participation). In both cases, the 2021 statistic represents a decline from 2018, as seen in the chart below.
However, because we asked officials what the most pressing issue is, we cannot gauge the relative importance of other issues that they may also find important. What we can see in the 2021 data is that local governments are focused on recovery, as expressed in terms of public health and economic development. Other areas that may have been significant in 2018 are suddenly less important in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis.
If we look beyond the top issues in 2021, the responses in the two years look a little more similar. The relative importance of many issues remains the same, even if the absolute percentage of respondents stating that issue has fallen. These downticks for fiscal challenges (17% to 9%) and for infrastructure (21% to 14%) may not suggest areas became any less of an issue—many of those surveyed mentioned concerns around infrastructure, fiscal challenges, and housing affordability as second or third pressing issue. Instead, we suspect, they were not the single most pressing.
If your boat is taking on water, having a stronger, safer boat next time is no less important, but stopping it from sinking is imperative. Ultimately, these reductions may tell a similar story to the increases: they reflect that local governments were focused on trying to stay afloat, while still focusing on perennial set of issues and responsibilities.