Local Governments: Capacity and Will
No other institutions are as central to the quality of life in small towns and rural areas as local governments. Alone among all community-based organizations, they have comprehensive legal powers and functions, revenue-raising abilities, and legitimacy. Although forms, resources, and competencies vary greatly, these three characteristics are common to local governments in all kinds of small communities--whether population centers or open-country areas, and with growing, stable, or declining populations.
The popular understanding of these governments today is that, because of the limitations of small size and isolation, they are not efficient and economic providers of public services. They lack adequate amounts of what is termed "capacity," the resources and expertise necessary to cope with increasingly complex problems. Much of the recent literature on local government in small communities is concerned with the capacity issue--how little of it there is, and how it can be improved.
Emphasizing the delivery of public services, this concern overlooks the other purposes of local government. For they also are devices of local democracy, agents through which citizens express, deliberate, and resolve community problems. The distinction is between capacity and political will, between the processes of management and those of rep-____________________
This paper was prepared while the author was a visiting faculty member in 1978-79 at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign. The generous support of the Institute is gratefully acknowledged. Several readers provided useful critiques of an earlier version of this paper. As well as members and staff of the Future of Rural America Advisory Committee, they included J. Norman Reid of the Economic Development Division, U.S. Department of Agriculture.