local government

Characteristics and Types

Although there are special-purpose local government bodies (e.g., school boards in the United States), more important are those that carry out a broad range of public activities within a defined area and population. Almost all such local government bodies share certain characteristics: a continuing organization; the authority to undertake public activities; the ability to enter into contracts; the right to sue and be sued; and the ability to collect taxes and determine a budget. Areas of local government authority usually include public schools, local highways, municipal services, and some aspects of social welfare and public order. An important distinction among types of local government is that between representative bodies, which are elected locally and have decision-making authority, and nonrepresentative bodies, which are either appointed from above or, if elected locally, have no independent governing authority. While most countries have complex systems of local government, those of France and Great Britain have served as models for much of the rest of the world.

The French System

The French system is among the most nonrepresentative. Its basic structure, codified by Napoleon I, developed out of the need of revolutionary France to curtail the power of local notables, while hastening government reform. It stresses clear lines of authority, reaching from the central government's ministry of the interior through the centrally appointed prefect of the department to the municipality, which has a locally elected mayor and municipal council. The prefect, being both the chief executive of the department and the representative of the central bureaucracy, provides the channel of centralization, with wide authority to overrule local councils and supervise local expenditures. Variants of this system are found throughout Europe and in former French colonies.

The British System

The British system of local government, which has been the model for most of that country's former colonies, including the United States, is the most representative of the major types. Largely reformed in the 19th cent. and extensively restructured in the 1970s, the system stresses local government autonomy through elected councils on the county and subcounty levels. This system was marked by less central government interference and greater local budgetary authority than in other systems. However, in 1986, six major county governments were abolished by Parliament, while the powers of others were restricted. A special feature of the British system is its use of an extensive committee system, instead of a strong executive, for supervising the administration of public services.

Despite differences among states, local governments of the United States follow the general principles of the British system, except that a strong executive is common. The county remains the usual political subdivision, although it has retained more authority in rural than in urban areas, where incorporated municipalities (see city government) have most of the local power. In both rural and urban areas the local government's relationship to the state is a complex one of shared authority and carefully defined areas of legal competence. Local governments are pulled two ways, increasingly reliant on state and federal funding to carry out their expected duties, while fearful of losing their traditional degree of local control.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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