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The pitfalls of local government--is it this bad all over the world?

I'll start off by being frank. The local government in my country is an absolute joke; the entire system is a semi-functional, corrupt and debt ridden mess, and I'm wondering, is there something in the local system or culture ruining things, or is this a more global issue?

Unlike the national elections, where people tend to have at least a passable grasp of the people involved and issues at hand, the local elections go by the public with complete apathy.

Local newspapers are relic of the past, and the more centralized modern media (mostly television and internet) simply aren't interested in every day local matters (for no fault of their own). Therefore, your average citizen hasn't a clue who's doing what in city hall, has no real knowledge of the candidates past their names (and sometimes not even that), and is accordingly apathetic. Its hard to keep up to date when the information isn't within easy reach.
Major cities whose leadership occasionally make the news, and settlements so small that everyone knows everyone don't suffer from this problem, but most municipalities are between those two extremes. Most people simply haven't got a clue what their local government is doing.

This of course leads to the whole thing working about as well as you expect. Local governing bodies tend to fall into debts, are more or less unaccountable for their failures, and are notoriously corrupt.
I'm honestly starting to think that the whole mess ought to be removed and replaced by civil servants. Those can be more easily held accountable for doing a poor job (especially plunging into debt), and are more easily removed if corruption is suspect.

Are things this bad with local government all over the world, or is just like this in my country? Is there a realistic fix, or would it just be better to uproot the whole system and start over with something perhaps a little less democratic?

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  • Oct 5 2013: I havern't noticed local government being so bad. But local government has similiar problems to national government , but different objectives.
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    Oct 5 2013: Nadav, Thing area little clearer to me now at 70 than they were at 20 - 40. Upon reflection I recall a mid sized city where we left keys in cars, doors and windows unlocked, sat on the porch at night and talked with neighbors as they passed on their evening walks. The Mayor stopped and talked to everyone and had real concern ... his office door was always open and he knew you by your first name. Your teacher also taught your parents and if you screwed up would call them in a heartbeat. If you saw the principal you were in deep smelly stuff ... I heard of the superintendent but never saw him ... once on the playground we heard the guy walking with the principal was a school board member .... we stared in awe. There were three churches we all went to one of them.

    Times change. we would never leave keys in cars or unlocked doors and windows. You don't know your neighbors. Less than half go to church. Teachers, Principals, and Superintendent have little decision making power and being a school board member is more like a punishment than a honor and distinction.

    The power that mayors and leaders once had are now at state and federal level. We live in a world of entitlements, policies, laws, and rules that makes it hard if not impossible for local leaders to "manage" their areas of responsibility.

    It is getting harder to find a "honest person" to run for office .... so we get egos and megalomania.

    In my youth families all lived within 50 miles or so. Many of our "leaders" today are transplants and feel no responsibility to the community. Further there is little accountability. The elected official has only two goals 1) get elected and 2) get reelected. Everything else is BS.

    As bad as that picture is the real problem is us. We do not know the issues, the people, or understand the Constitution. We allow this to happen. This is the apathy generation. Its not the system ... its us.

    I wish you well. Bob.
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    Oct 4 2013: i would say a local government is just a smaller version of the government, and it functions even less sometimes, simply because of the economies of scale. in a big government, you might find one or two experts, that actually knows something. or they can afford some. in a local government this number can be one tenth, thus expected to be zero. and no money either.

    paradoxically it would help if the size of the local entity was reduced, to the level when people all know each other. everything over 100 participants becomes abstract and self serving.
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    Oct 4 2013: '... perhaps a little less democratic?'

    On the contrary! And the problems you rightly describe here are rooted in the fact, that 'Most people simply haven't got a clue what their local government is doing.'

    It is not a natural law, that 'governing bodies ... , are more or less unaccountable for their failures'. This is what happens if a ruling class is gradually misusing its power.

    And that 'the local elections go by the public with complete apathy' is nothing but as sign of resignation of the people, who have been forced out of the continues process of decision making.

    Most of the problems you describe are tackled by the concept of 'direct democracy', as it is put to practice in Switzerland, in which all citizens are an integrative part of the active process of policy all the time and not just given a passive maturity any other 4 years or so...

    Corruption hates publicity and can only be reduced if you bring back the people in the active process in the making of democracy. Anything else is doomed to fail, sooner or later.
    • Oct 4 2013: Direct democracy doesn't scale well with size, but for a smaller settlement, it may actually work. Major cities may be the exception, but they get enough attention to make the representative system work.

      So we're left with two extremes, either get rid of the whole local democracy mess and replace them with civil servants instead, or go straight to direct democracy...
      Shame that it'll never happen. The current system is pretty well entrenched, nothing short of a national initiative will budge it, and the national government already has enough issues without going head to head with the local ones.
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        Oct 4 2013: Actually, direct democracy scales pretty successfully in size, as it is naturally capable to follow the usual division and subdivision of 'regular' governmental structures, beginning at local levels all the way up to the federal government. The reason for this is, that direct democracy does not exclude political representatives, yet ensures for immediate 'feedback loops' and accountability at all times.

        Public opinion polls play a vital role in direct democracy. Its not degraded to a rare option, its the norm.

        Direct democracy is no extreme and it only appears as such for those who are not used to this intensity level of public participation and influence, or to those who don't wish this influence to interfere with their very own particular interests. The latter could be seen as the famous 1% of each society, whereas the remaining 99% would only need to get used to it.

        Active, direct democracy can be learned by the people. Of course it would take some time for them for the concept to sink in. This would be normal for any transitional phase, as 'apathy' is nothing one get rid of over night. Yet any environment shapes the behavior of the people who happen to life in it. And if this environment is encouraging, so will become most of the people in it. Simple psychology, thats all.

        'Shame that it'll never happen.'

        You got to lend me your crystal ball from time to time, as it seems to do a lot of convincing out of thin air ... :o)

        For societies, nothing is ever set in stone! Period. And our history is full of examples. Good ones and bad ones, but there never was a continuation of stagnation for all times.

        We have the tools, we have the brains and it will be only on us to decide when enough is enough.

        There is a lot of inertia within 'the people', which is exactly what makes them that powerful once they get into motion! And through all ages, this has always been the nightmares of any ruling class.

        We are about to see many changes pretty soon.
        • Oct 4 2013: I don't know about the rest of the world, by in my country, the process of replacing the local government has zero momentum.

          Everyone's more concerned with Iran, the Palestinian negotiations, the Arab spring, the economy, trying to get the orthodox to enlist... Its just not in the public consciousness at the moment.
          The current system of local government is here to stay for the foreseeable future, poor though it is.

          Nothing is set in stone in a long enough time frame, but you can usually tell when things are about to start moving, and they're currently showing no sign of doing so.
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        Oct 5 2013: The momentum determines the tides of change. Regarding this matter your and your country's tide tables seems to be out of sync. Not a nice situation to be in, I'd agree. Just keep repeating.
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    Oct 4 2013: Pretty much. Some towns have hired city managers which can be a little better in governance,but...
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    Oct 4 2013: What was your take on this talk http://www.ted.com/talks/benjamin_barber_why_mayors_should_rule_the_world.html, which offers the opposite perspective?
    • Oct 4 2013: It sounds from this talk that mayors function better simply because the problems they deal with are simpler. Being under less media scrutiny probably helps with their approval rating as compared to the national government.

      The moment the cities turn more independent, they'll just start acting like national governments on a smaller scale--they currently only avoid those more difficult national issues because its out of their pay grade. It won't solve a thing.

      I suppose it'd make the cities run better, but something would come along and take advantage of the power vacuum left by the disappearance of the national government. Transnational corporations seem like the most likely candidates, and I'd rather not have one of those own me.