The Impact of Political Structures on Public Policies in American Counties

By DeSantis, Victor S.; Renner, Tari | Public Administration Review, May-June 1994 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Political Structures on Public Policies in American Counties


DeSantis, Victor S., Renner, Tari, Public Administration Review


American county governments have experienced substantial change as intergovernmental actors and service providers over the past several decades.(1) Although academic research on American county governments and their operations has been extremely sparse, there appears to be a mild upsurge in recent literature focusing on counties, primarily as a consequence of their increasing importance. In fact, a recent collaborative article appearing in PAR (Menzel et al., 1992) called for new interest on the topic and suggested a wide-ranging research agenda to help improve our current body of knowledge on county government.

This research seeks to contribute to our knowledge of the impact of American county forms of government on public expenditures. Recent years have seen an increase in the efforts to reform county government structures. The reformers urge shifts from the traditional county commission form, which is limited by a lack of singular executive authority (either appointed or elected) and by a multiplicity of elected officials. This traditional form has been criticized for being too fragmented and inacapable of handling the new functional responsibilities and concomitant priority setting of modern county governments. In its place, the reformers advocate switching to a version of the county administrator form (with an appointed executive similar to, but typically less powerful than a city manager) or the county executive form (with an elected executive).(2)

Very little systematic evidence exists, however, on whether county forms of government have an impact on who gets elected and what public policies are pursued. Virtually all of the existing literature on the impacts of local government structures examines American municipalities.(3) Some of this research is indirectly useful in exploring county governments, however its applicability is limited because of the uniqueness of counties in the American federal system and their traditional structures. Counties were largely devised as convenient mechanisms for states to deliver programs within their geographic boundaries. As a result, their functional responsibilities differ from those of municipalities. Similarly, the reform movement for cities and counties had different roots and objectives. The promotion of the council-manager plan was based on the desire for increased government efficiency, with reformers eager to keep municipal government expenditures and activities to a minimum. The more modern reform movement for counties seeks to provide central executive leadership in order to more effectively direct an increasing number of government responsibilities.

This research examines the extent to which the county form of government affects public policy decisions. Specifically, it addresses the linkage between government structure (reformed and unreformed) and total per capita spending by the county government. Surprisingly, few research projects have ever attempted to systematically evaluate the policy or representational consequences of different forms of county governments.

A recent project by Mark Schneider and Kee Ok Park (1989) examined the total, developmental and redistributive per capita expenditures and number of functions performed by 162 counties located in 50 of the largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Their data for expenditure and form of government data were from 1977. Controlling for the effects of region and population size, Schneider and Park concluded that county executive jurisdictions spent the most and performed the most functions among the three basic forms of county government. County administrator jurisdictions were consistently second, and the traditional commission counties were consistently last. The structural differences were more dramatic for per capita expenditures than for the number of government functions performed. In fact, Schneider and Park's data indicated that county executive forms spent more than twice the per capita expenditures of county commission systems. …

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