Who leads local government?
The events of 2020 highlighted the significance of local government in our day-to-day lives. From pandemic response and recovery, to criminal justice reform, we’ve seen firsthand that critical decisions are being made and implemented at the local level.
Given the central role local government plays in our democracy, it’s remarkable how little work has been done to document who leads these organizations. One of the key reasons for this is sheer volume: there are nearly 40,000 local governments in the United States.
Through random-sample surveys drawn from the 90,000+ key policymakers who lead these governments, CivicPulse has begun to fill the gap in our knowledge about these individuals. We’ve been asking questions like, “Why did you decide to run for local office?” and “What did you do before?”
Below we offer a couple of initial findings that have emerged. Taken together, these findings paint a picture of a distributed network of elected officials who are committed to service and to their local communities.
Finding 1: People run for local office to make an impact.
In February 2017, CivicPulse asked over 250 local government leaders why they chose to get involved in local government. What we found was that, despite historically low levels of trust in government, individuals run for local office because they believe they can make a difference. Participants saw local government as a way to improve their communities and felt that public service allowed them to make these important changes.
“I want to help improve the lives of others in my community.”
“To make my area a better place to live, work, and play along with raising a family.”
“I felt I could make a difference in people's lives.”
“I wanted to give back.”
Responses were grouped into six categories: “Ability to make an impact”, “To serve”, “Fix the system”, “The job”, “Policy” or “ideology”, and “Someone asked”. Results showed that participants were most likely to mention “Ability to make an impact”, shown in Figure 1, as to why they decided to get involved in local government.
Notably, smaller percentages of respondents mentioned a specific policy or ideological goal (15%), and even fewer (10%) mentioned being recruited.
Finding 2: More than half of local policymakers come from service-oriented professions.
Since 2017, CivicPulse has asked over 3,000 local elected leaders from across the country to describe their work experience prior to their current position in local government. Figure 2 displays these responses by a range of categories.
We find that a majority of local government leaders previously worked in a service-oriented profession prior to their leadership role. Specifically, 21% of local leaders reported having previously served in another (typically unelected) local government position. An additional 17% come from the education sector, and a similar percentage came from the nonprofit sector. Taken together, these three service-oriented professions comprise more than half of all local policymakers.
The second-most common background behind public service was the private sector. Specifically, 16% reported having worked in a skilled-trade profession, 14% in retail services or logistics, and 13% in financial services or consulting. The New York Times published a related analysis on pathways for Congress.
Despite its critical importance, local governance is not sexy. The work can be tedious – and is often thankless. Neither fame nor money is a draw for those who dedicate themselves to it.
But perhaps that is all the more reason why we should pay attention to those who choose to serve in these organizations. Our findings show that these individuals are drawn to local government less for political reasons than their belief that it is an avenue to better their local communities. Many have chosen to dedicate their careers to local governance.
In an era of national political intrigue and record low trust in our national leaders, perhaps we could all benefit from engaging more directly with our local government leaders.
After all, effective and trustworthy governance begins with those governments closest to home.
Related: Latest Findings on the Gender Gap in Local Government