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  • Einat Elazari

Are Municipalities Becoming the Most Significant Civil Authority?

[Originally published on the INSS "Strategic Assessment" Journal on March 16, 2021. Click here to see the original publication]

Executive Summary:

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrated the significant and deepening role of municipalities and local governments in different policy areas. Beyond the exigencies of the pandemic, there has been a growing trend of decentralization worldwide over the past few decades, which has given local governments more power and authority. Elements characteristic of local governance, such as stability, flexibility, and the capacity to handle issues that are polarizing at the national level play a central role in this trend. Moreover, the use of technological platforms to communicate, collect, and analyze data on civilian needs stands to boost this trend further. As a result, municipalities make one of the most effective agents for policy implementation and crisis management, including global crises such as pandemics and climate change. Yet alongside the multiple advantages in this trend are significant costs and risks, such as growing divisions among different groups in the population, depending on their city’s location, demographics. and socio-economic status/strength place or residence; the ability to protect individuals’ data and privacy; and the potential of corruption due to this extended power.

Keywords: municipality, local authorities, local governance, decentralization, digitalization, COVID-19, climate change, social resilience.

In many ways, COVID-19 was the ultimate test for cities around the world. More than half of the world’s population (some 4 billion people) live in cities. With frequent density and populations that differ in their socio-economic status, cities had to respond rapidly to the pandemic, given the imminent risk to their citizens. Around the world, cities that already had adequate tools fared much better than their counterparts in handling the crisis.

During 2020, as the pandemic continued to spread, cities started to play a pivotal role in a growing number of policy areas related to the management of the crisis: setting up COVID testing areas in different parts of the city; presenting weekly and, at times, daily data about the current status of new cases; and significantly, taking decisions that involved closing and opening schools, stores, and other local activities, mostly when the guidelines from the government were overly vague. Perhaps one of the most prominent cases of granting increased power amid the crisis was when UK Prime Minister Johnson gave local authorities more powers to enforce local lockdowns.

The WHO, for example, identifies cities as ideal candidate to manage the COVID crisis: “City governments and local community organizations are key players in an effective response and are at the forefront of curtailing the epidemic in many countries.” The WHO identifies two significant advantages for cities: they are the “closest level of government to the people,” and they are “key actors in national preparedness and response plans.”

To be sure, cities and local authorities have gained more power and control over their citizens in different fields and policy areas for some time. This paper argues that the singular characteristics of municipalities and local governments, together with their use of technology and digital tools, will further boost the governing scope of these authorities. They will gradually acquire control over a growing number of policy areas that affect their citizens’ daily lives. The analysis will examine the advantages, risks, and reasons explaining why the municipal actor has such a pivotal role in the upcoming global challenges.

Growing Powers in Recent Decades

Municipalities and local authorities worldwide have clearly earned greater powers in the last 3-4 decades. In “Have We Legalized Corruption?: The Impacts of Expanding Municipal Authority without Safeguards in Toronto and Ontario,” Stanley Makuch and Maathew Shuman claim that in the last two decades, following significant changes in Canadian municipal law, Canadian municipalities expanded their powers, in part a result of more power granted by provincial legislation and less intervention by the courts in their decisions. In Latin America, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “municipal governments began to take on administrative, political, and tax functions from the 1980s onwards, in a decentralization process that was driven by the growing demand of services in the provinces and by the change in perception in relation to citizen participation.”

See the benefits of granting more powers to municipalities and local authorities, and therefore, actively push for provision of more governing power to municipalities.

In some cases, national governments (or states, in a federal system) see the benefits of granting more powers to municipalities and local authorities, and therefore, actively push for provision of more governing power to municipalities. However, in many places and cases, states object to the transfer of power to local authorities and prefer to retain a traditional centralized approach where most powers are in the hand of the state. An example is in the United States. In “Remaking Federalism: How States Can Realign and Rebuild a Stronger and Healthier Union,” Neil Kleiman argue that in the past four decades in the United States, many states have deliberately prohibited local authorities from having authoritative power on a broad range of issues, such as enacting new taxes, improving local employment, undertaking certain urban renewal projects, and more.

But perhaps the most enthusiastic actors, other than the cities themselves, are international and regional organizations like the UN and the EU, which see this decentralization process as a key element in their international development goals. Over the past decade, initiatives such as the Strong Cities Network and EUCF (a European initiative to support municipalities) have vigorously promoted the provision of increased powers to cities, seeing them as a successful and efficient agent of policy execution in different policy areas.

Stability, Flexibility, Openness

What is it that makes cities such suitable authorities to govern, especially where national governments fail? First and foremost is the stability factor. City administrations and their mayors tend to rule for a much more extended period than their counterparts in national government, and more frequently than on a national level, they are also re-elected. In the US, for example, a study of 19 major American cities showed a significant increase over time in mayors’ years of service (six) and in the number of terms they ruled (from 1.5 to 1.8). In Germany, a mayor’s term ranges between five and nine years, depending on the state. These lengthy periods provide enough time to execute wide-scale policies and make a meaningful change together with a solid, confident administration.

Other than longer tenure in office, cities have something no less significant for their impressive governing due to flexibility and adaptability. Cities can rapidly assimilate and adjust to new tools—most notably digital tools—that enable them to stay connected to their citizens’ sentiments and needs. Social media pages, chat groups (like WhatsApp), digital surveys, newsletters, and other platforms help municipalities stay connected, respond rapidly, and navigate policy road maps to best meet their populations’ needs. According to ZenCity, an Israel-based startup that helps cities transform residents’ data into actionable insights, when it comes to crisis management (COVID-19, natural disasters, and others), the key is to communicate with citizens as fast as possible, get their feedback, and respond. There’s no faster, more efficient way to do so than through digital channels that enable the collection of large amounts of data and their rapid analysis.

A similar effort is underway in the vaccine effort: municipalities that collect accurate data and respond in a precise way to the changing reality will better position themselves to exit the crisis more quickly.

Another constructive attribute of municipalities is that they can more easily implement policies than a larger demographic unit in the face of deep social divisions. Issues like religion, liberalism, education, and public transportation preferences can be addressed more easily at the municipal/local level than at the governmental level due to its more homogeneous population. One of the best examples of this is the federal system, specifically the one in the United States, which grants power to states in a way that was designed to suit/match their rules to the set of values and beliefs of their citizens.

All of the above-mentioned qualities provide municipalities and local authorities an impressive response time for crises. As noted by the World Economic Forum, “Cities that are open, transparent, collaborative, and adopt comprehensive responses are better equipped to manage pandemics than those that are not” ( Specifically, during the COVID-19 crisis, municipalities worldwide had to perform and react very quickly in the face of a rapidly changing reality. They collected data about the pandemic in the city, implemented campaigns requiring residents to wear masks and maintain social distancing, and more. A similar effort is underway in the vaccine effort: municipalities that collect accurate data and respond in a precise way to the changing reality (campaigns, vaccine hubs in local centers, and more) will better position themselves to exit the crisis more quickly.

Cities as the Agent of Change

Although ostensibly competitors and/or entities vying for overlapping areas of responsibility, it is often in the interest of the governments to grant local authorities more powers and means to deal with various crises. The European Commission, perhaps, says it best: “When addressing issues such as climate change, growing inequalities, migration, and urbanization, Local Authorities are at the forefront when responding to the challenges on the ground and providing viable solutions for their communities.”

In other words, local authorities are one of the most efficient governing agents to respond to a crisis, provide solutions where the states fail to succeed, and mobilize their citizens for initiatives that might be helpful in an upcoming challenge: global climate change. While the word “global” might be confusing, a useful and effective change could and should start locally. The broad set of tools that municipalities have, from data collection to direct discussions with their citizens by digital tools, provides them with the ability to manage one of the most critical tasks the citizens of the world will have to face. “As the public institutions closest to citizens, local authorities are responsible for executing a mandate in line with their constituencies’ needs…They are able to mobilise all local actors involved in development processes, while acting as catalysts for change” (European Commission).

Cities already recognize their importance as a player in combating global crises like climate change and pandemics. Some of the most inspiring and prominent manifestations of that recognition are the different inter-cities global network initiatives, like the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. Presumably, in the upcoming years, a growing number of such initiatives will take place.

Notable Risks and Prices

Undoubtedly, more power to the municipalities and local authorities often means addressing the citizens’ needs better. For example, in certain places in Latin America, giving more powers to local governments increased transparency, accountability, and, most importantly, the ability to fight poverty.

At the same time, there are costs to this trend. Municipalities and local authorities within the same country sometimes differ significantly in their resources, and as such, their capabilities to serve their citizens. Their ability to take on a growing number of policy areas depends not only on their existing resources (budget), but also the level of good governance and the effectiveness of their existing mechanisms. Therefore, without a clear framework of distribution of these resources and capabilities among cities, socio-economic and other parameters of differences are expected to increase further and might even cause a growing divide between different populations and groups within a certain country.

Another potential risk is the transfer of power from the state to local authorities. While decentralization might be very useful and effective in citizens’ lives, both in times of crises and their daily lives, this spillover of power might blur the role of the state in many areas where the state is still the responsible entity. Issues like enforcement, legislation, and even healthcare might be conveniently neglected by the state, especially in “strong” cities, and de-facto gradually erase the state’s responsibility to its citizens in policy areas and roles where the state remains the responsible authority. Without a clear process of legislative framework by the state, that risk might grow as the cities and local authorities gain more powers.

An examination of the extended powers of local authorities highlights some potential areas of risk within the authorities themselves. Research about the city of Toronto claims that extended powers granted to the municipality resulted in an increased level of institutionalized corruption, and the lack of precise procedural mechanisms and legislation that set a clear framework for this power indirectly contributed to a rise in corruption.

Another significant risk is the protection of data. The tools that cities use to communicate with their citizens, together with other sets of data such as municipal bills and use of public education systems, store an unprecedented amount of data about their citizens. The question is, to what extent can a municipality protect data from mal-usage (cyberattacks, corrupted access to data, and more), and can it harness the same power and budget that a government invests in data protection?

In conclusion, the growing power of municipalities and local authorities worldwide promises their citizens more effective service. The ability to respond rapidly, execute policies that are more difficult to address at the greater governmental level, and promote action on issues like climate change, poverty, and health crises makes this a positive and promising trend. However, failing to recognize and take adequate measures to define and set clear limits to that power incurs multiple risks that might prove harmful in the medium to long range.

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