Local Government Performs Four Very Basic but Important Roles


By John A. Ostenburg

Some time ago, I was asked what local government actually does. Giving the question some thought, I came up with the following response.

Local government performs four basic tasks: (1) assuring that citizens respect the rights of one another; (2) providing essential services required to meet public needs; (3) managing the various operations that are necessary for the public good; and (4) providing funding for the various operations that the public requires.

The first of these four – assuring that citizens respect the rights of one another – is the fundamental basis of governing. Elected officials are charged with the responsibility of creating ordinances that are intended to maintain a balance between the rights of the individual and the common wellbeing of the citizens as a whole. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once noted that “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins,” and that is the basic premise for law in a civil society. Every individual has a wide range of personal rights and options, but none of those rights or options allows him or her to infringe on the rights and options of fellow citizens. As a result, laws are enacted based on a common denominator of what is best for the greatest number of individuals, while at the same time guarding and protecting the personal freedoms of every individual as guaranteed by our constitutional government.

Maintaining that balance is not an easy task and is probably one of the most difficult jobs that the elected official faces. Special interests continually emerge and advocate for one course of action or another, based on the firm and solid beliefs of the individuals who support those interests. Often citizens find it difficult to understand why their special interests cannot be codified into law; they sometimes are so personally committed to the ideals behind their interests that they cannot recognize the potential negative impact such principles might have on others who do not share the same ideals.

When government begins to act on personal interest more than the general interest, disaster is right around the corner. So, elected officials must be very circumspect in their decisions and in the ordinances that they enact. Governing is not an easy task, but it is a necessary one. Not everyone always will be pleased with the laws that are established, but hopefully no one ever will be hindered by them.

The second task of government – providing essential services required to meet public needs – is easier for most citizens to understand. Most people get it that the services of policemen and firefighters are needed in order to preserve the common good. Most people also understand that streets have to be maintained, that water and sewer services need to be provided, and that parks and recreational facilities are part of the quality of life that communities offer.

The problem is not that citizens don’t understand these needs, or that they’re not grateful that they are available 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year; the problem, rather, is that most people don’t realize that taxes are needed to support these vital services. Lots of citizens complain about high taxes without ever considering that the many services provided by government actually come at far less a price than do the services of various private businesses.

In part, the lack of appreciation for what the tax dollars actually provide comes from the fact that most citizens don’t need all the services of government on a continuing basis. Gratefully, relatively few citizens need police, fire, or paramedic protection more than a few times in their entire lives, yet those are items that take the biggest portion of local tax dollars to maintain. A large part of what taxes pay for is the availability of those services when they are needed.

The third role of government – managing the various operations that are necessary for the public good – is the same as management in any business or corporate enterprise. Someone needs to provide direction to staff members and to oversee various operations. Municipal government is a major business, with millions of dollars being collected and spent in the average community. Proper management assures that the dollars spent on those operations produce effective results.

Additionally, municipal managers maintain on-going contact with the public to assure that services provided in fact are meeting the needs of the citizens. Government managers are troubleshooters, always looking for things that need to be improved, that need to be addressed for the first time, or possibly even eliminated because they’re no longer needed. Good management is an essential part of any operation, and local government is no different.

Finally, one of the most important roles of local government – providing funding for the various operations that the public requires – assures that adequate taxes are collected and are spent wisely. To a great extent, costs drive just about everything else in government. Budgets are built on careful analysis of what citizens expect their government to do, and then taxes are collected to meet the various activities identified in the budgetary process. It’s the responsibility of the elected officials to prioritize the needs proportionate to the available of revenue to pay for them.

In my municipality, for example, building the budget is a nearly year-long process, with goal-setting as the principal component. Citizen input is sought in various ways as a backdrop to the subsequent activity of setting goals. Once goals are identified, an analysis is done of how much revenue will be needed to meet those goals. That revenue then is divided into the various cost-center activities that will assure the fulfillment of the desires of the citizens.

People often are critical of government because it is slow and sometimes less efficient than it should be. Additionally, not everyone always gets from government the things that he or she thinks are most important. Yet, I think any careful analysis of most government operations will find that things flow fairly well, given all the complexities involved. It’s hard to satisfy all the people all the time, especially when revenues available to do so are limited. However, if elected officials are doing what they should be doing, then everyone is going to be satisfied at least most of the time.

John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He is the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected]. This article is from his blog The Outpost Observer, Copyright © 2009 John Ostenburg, used with permission.