From the Beacon, November 2022

At a time when cities and towns are dealing with a stubborn pandemic that continues to threaten public health, near-record inflation that is punching holes in local budgets, and increasing polarization that is fostering a lack of civility among residents, it’s important to recognize good news when it comes in, especially when it reaffirms the extraordinary work of our municipalities.

The good news I’m amplifying here: across America, cities and towns and local leaders continue to be widely appreciated and trusted by residents, and are viewed more favorably than any other level of government. This isn’t mere speculation, it has been demonstrated time and again through rigorous analysis.

And here in Massachusetts, every level of government — federal, state, and local — is viewed more favorably than in other parts of the nation. There’s a good reason for this: Massachusetts leaders work effectively across party lines and collaborate across roles and jurisdictions much more effectively than most of our counterparts in other regions. While this column is about local government, our governor, lieutenant governor, constitutional officers, senators, representatives, and federal lawmakers should take great pride in the level of trust and appreciation that residents hold for them, too.

The source of the most recent affirmation of local government is the Pew Research Center. This highly respected organization describes itself as a “nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world.” They do not take policy positions on issues. Rather, they use neutral public opinion polls, applied research, and data-driven analysis to explore key questions and understand what is driving the public and decision-makers to the positions they hold.

This past June, Pew issued an analysis tracking public sentiment regarding local, state and federal government, looking at the percentage of people who have favorable or unfavorable views regarding each. In May 2022, 66% of Americans had a favorable view of their local government, 54% had a favorable view of their state government, and just 32% had a favorable view of the federal government. Just 33% of Americans had an unfavorable view of local government, while 45% had a low view of their state, and 66% had an unfavorable opinion regarding the federal government.

Before we dive deeper, please do not focus on the negative here. This is good news, especially because we know that the favorability sentiment is significantly higher in Massachusetts by looking at recent opinion polls in our state, and because a 2:1 favorability ratio is really, really good in the context of a pandemic, inflation and a down economy.

Local government leads the pack with a 66-33 favorability rating, states are next at 54-45, and the federal government is under water at 32-66 (numbers cited here don’t add up to 100 due to rounding). A closer examination shows that local government sustains its high marks regardless of political party, whereas the public’s view of the federal and state governments swings wildly based on party affiliation.

Between August 2019 and May 2022, the overall favorable view of the federal government was unchanged at 32%. The favorable view held by Republicans, however, fell from 41% to 13%, and for Democrats it increased from 26% to 49%. These are statistically significant shifts, far outside the margin of error, clearly influenced by the change of control at the White House and U.S. Senate.

During this same time period, Pew reports that the partisan view of state governments depended on the party in power. Collectively, states went from 59% to 54% favorability, but there was much more volatility in states that saw a change of control from one party to another. In those cases, voters in each party switched their favorability viewpoints, similar to the federal pattern.

For local government, the overall favorable view moved from 69% in August 2019 to 66% in May 2022, a 3-point shift. The favorable view by Republicans moved from 69% to 67%, and Democrats moved from 71% to 67%. Not to get too wonky, but note that these differences are within the margin of error and are not statistically significant. The headline is that local government’s support from both parties was highly favorable and did not change.

Local government is consistently trusted and appreciated by Americans, and this sentiment has held true regardless of party or where people place themselves on the political spectrum. Republicans tend to be more conservative and Democrats tend to be more liberal, but as community residents they are united in their support for municipal government.

One key element is that local governments are nonpartisan. Local officials step forward to lead their cities and towns and are elected based on their connection to the community, their plans to address local issues, not the voting block they represent or where they stand in the push-pull of national politics. Typically, party enrollment does not drive decision-making on local councils, boards, and commissions. City and town managers and administrators are not selected based on party enrollment, and the appointment of key department heads is merit-based, not party-based.

Keeping local government nonpartisan has maintained high trust from all quarters.

It’s relevant to note that our Democratic Legislature and Republican governor have worked well together, partnering closely when they agree, and respectfully engaging and compromising when they don’t. The result is that Gov. Charlie Baker has the highest approval rating of any sitting governor, and our lawmakers consistently receive very high marks from residents. The rest of the country can learn a lot by looking at their example.

Another factor that builds favorability is the work of local government, which is focused on the nuts and bolts of daily life, not on politics. Delivering clean drinking water, keeping roads safe and passable, ensuring public safety and emergency response, transporting kids to school, providing parks and recreation services, running public health departments, creating programs for youth and seniors, staffing the local library, creating vibrant downtowns and strong local economies — this is the work of municipal government. These are all essential services that unite our residents. Sure, there can be disagreements on how to do all this, yet that is mostly on the margins, limited to questions of how to allocate scarce local resources, not whether these are important or desirable.

A third aspect is the closeness that people have with their municipal leaders. They can see progress, they can access information, they can hear what their local boards and committees and leaders are doing. And this is not limited to formal channels. This happens at a supermarket, local restaurant, soccer game, and countless other opportunities and places to engage in a direct way that helps residents see their leaders as people, not as political figures.

These factors have all helped, but they haven’t fully inoculated communities from conflict or incivility. Last November, I wrote a column raising concerns about rising incivility, and the impact it is having on local leaders.

This is a real issue that local officials are grappling with. And the MMA is continuing to provide guidance and training to help. On Nov. 2, the MMA provided a powerful webinar on conflict management, offering strategies on how to manage difficult situations and model best practices. Some 400 local officials and employees took part, and it’s now on the MMA website if you missed it.

It is true that cities and towns are not untouched by the polarization and politicization that we’ve seen in recent years. And because local officials are “fixers” who see a problem and spring into action to solve it right away, we’ve focused a lot on the rising instances of incivility, and less on the broader context, which is that local government remains very popular because it is nonpartisan, delivers services that matter, and is closest to the people.

An overwhelming number of residents appreciate their local governments and their local leaders. Local government is highly favored by residents, and the public’s view has held strong through really difficult times.

That’s good news, and it’s sure to continue because of you.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO