Local Government Political Accountability

September 2001 - June 2006


Note: This project was active at CLOSUP from 2001 to 2006. The information below is for archival purposes.

One underlying theme in studies of democratic government is the problem of political accountability. To most scholars, accountability has to do with the relationship between what citizens want and what government officials do. Definitions abound, some focusing on government processes (are procedures fair and transparent?), some dealing with government actions (do representatives advocate policies that citizens favor?), some dealing with policy outcomes (do they reflect citizen preferences?). Definitions of political accountability may require an active role by the public (can and do they take action to punish negligent government officials?), or they may demand a more passive role (given what citizens prefer, does government conform?). Much of the vast body of scholarly research on governance, representation, and the public policy process is concerned with understanding one or more of these notions of accountability.

In the American context, much of what we know derives from our observation and analysis of the US Congress. While there remains vigorous scholarly and journalistic debate about whether national governmental officials are indeed sufficiently accountable to the American public, much recent scholarship argues that they are. Indeed, it appears that despite low levels of factual political information amongst the citizenry, citizen preferences are often represented quite faithfully in policy. Much of this accountability comes about because of both the existence of institutional incentives (especially party leadership pressures and re-election concerns) that constrain government actors, and information shortcuts (party labels and the media) that help citizens.

CLOSUP's study of political accountability focuses on the local level, where much less in known. On the one hand, many local government outputs - such as the services municipalities provide - are highly visible. It is easy to see whether trash is collected or parks are maintained or police are on the streets. On the other hand, local government processes - how decisions are made - may be quite opaque. Perhaps most importantly, the institutional incentives and information shortcuts that facilitate accountability at the national level are largely absent. This study is designed to assess the net effect of these factors. To the extent that citizens are able, under some conditions, to hold their national government officials accountable, are these prospects enhanced or diminished at the local level?

The study has several components. One is a theoretical exercise in which CLOSUP plans to bring together scholars and practitioners from diverse perspectives to discuss their views on what political accountability means and what we can learn from understanding different dimensions of the accountability relationship. A second component is an empirical study of the public opinion dimensions of local political accountability. Based on a survey of Michigan citizens, we investigate what they know about their local governments, whether this knowledge corresponds to differences in government institutions or activities, and whether this information is sufficient for citizens to hold their local government officials accountable. The study is designed to help students of the American local policy process to better appreciate the costs and benefits of increasing political accountability (i.e., can too much accountability be a bad thing?) and to better assess the prospects for enhancing local political accountabiliity.