While political matters at the level of the federal government tend to dominate the news, many matters of governing happen at a much smaller scale. There are 50 state governments that handle many things for their respective populations, and there are far more local government entities dealing with matters at a county and municipal level. Knowing state vs. local government responsibilities can help you understand who to turn to for various resources or issues. It can also tell you where to get involved for specific issues that matter to you.
The United States Constitution states that any government responsibilities not assigned to the federal government fall to the states and the people. Furthermore, local governance is divided between state and local levels of government. While your engagement with the federal government might feel like it only happens in certain Novembers in the election booth, citizen participation with state and local governments can happen far more often.
You might not have a lot of contact with federal leaders or elected officials, but you do rely on more local levels of government throughout your daily life. From local first responders to parking tickets, state and local authorities maintain law and order in their jurisdictions, empowering citizens to go about their lives in relative safety. Students of political science might memorize the federal Constitution, but they also spend a lot of time studying state constitutions, given their substantial length. For instance, the Alabama state constitution has over 300,000 words and is 40 times as long as the United States Constitution, and there are 49 other state constitutions for political experts to study and analyze.
There are many types of local government at the county and municipal levels, and local government at the municipal level includes villages, towns, and cities. Every state government structure is modeled to some degree after the federal government, and they include an executive structure, legislative branch, and judicial branch. Most states have a bicameral legislature responsible for the state budget and tax legislation, but Nebraska has a unicameral legislature of elected representatives who handle legislation.
Every state has an executive branch headed by a governor, and most states also have a lieutenant governor. Other state government elected officials might include an attorney general and secretary of state. The specific function of state government varies with each state, but they often include statewide departments for transportation and agriculture, among others. Public schooling sometimes happens at the state level, but it could also take place at local levels.
When looking at federal vs. state vs. local government levels, you should note that there is nearly always some kind of legislative branch involving elected representatives at every level of government structure. The federal government has Congress for this, and most state legislatures mirror the bicameral legislature of having two houses that collectively decide on and fund public policy and government services through tax legislation and passing a regular state budget, in addition to any other legislation needed to conduct government business. State legislatures often call the upper house of their legislative branch a senate, but the lower chamber might be a house of representatives, house of delegates, or just an assembly.
A lot of state governance and public administration falls in the hands of the executive and legislative government roles, but real-world examples of government functions have to include the judicial branch. While there are government differences from one state to the next, state judicial branches are usually responsible for court hearings, criminal trials, and civil suits. Understanding government roles in your own state isn't just a matter of political knowledge, since officials overseeing these proceedings can make rulings impacting your community, and that's why civic engagement is important for citizen empowerment to take place.
When you're in a voting booth and looking over the secretary of state candidates, you know from the very title that you're voting for a state-level official. Things get more complicated at the local level, however. Local governments can be either county or municipal governments.
Every state has governments that are below the state government but over municipal governments. In 47 states, they're known as county governments, but Louisiana calls them parishes, and Alaska calls them boroughs. New York gets still more complicated because the state uses counties throughout, but New York City has boroughs that fall under the city government. Whatever they're called, these governments usually cover specific areas of land that may or may not have many population centers within them. Texas has 254 counties, and Delaware has only three. The average state has a little over 60 counties.
The second and usually lower tier of local government is municipal government. Municipalities tend to focus on specific population centers, and they're often categorized as cities and towns. However, they might also be called villages and townships. The specific criteria for each name are different in every state, so some towns might be bigger than other communities that are called cities.
When trying to understand government roles at various levels, it helps to look at things in terms of departments that might be common at all three levels of government. These are real-world examples of government differences of various levels you can use to expand your political knowledge. When you know the appropriate elected representatives in the different levels of government structure, you can practice citizen empowerment in the pursuit of accountability.
Federal government services might manage famous national parks that you go on vacation to, but the executive branch of many types of local governments is responsible for state, county, and city parks closer to where you live. Many state parks operate with a delicate balance of trying to preserve national and cultural resources for future generations while also allowing modern citizens to enjoy them responsibly. Local parks often operate with a narrower focus, but they might try to prevent local soil erosion while providing families a place to spend time outside.
Many theorists involved in political science argue that the primary responsibility of any executive structure handling public administration is the protection of people and property. Of the many government roles in practice, this responsibility falls largely on the shoulders of local governments more so than those involved in state governance. Law enforcement does happen on a state and federal level, but it most often happens locally. Other emergency services are very community-oriented, including fire departments, emergency medical services, animal control, and more.
The government functions of housing services vary greatly from one area to the next. A governor might execute public policy per the state budget and legislation passed, but housing services often involve grants sent down to counties and municipal governments where many housing departments actually do most of the work. A local housing authority might have the power to buy, build, and operate property, but they might also work with nonprofits to help people facing difficulties in keeping shelter. Working with community planners is also common in executive branch operations to maintain proper accountability in growing a community.
Jury duty is a civic responsibility that many don't look forward to, but it's a necessary component of local governance. Municipal courts are often the lowest level of court with limited jurisdiction, and a town or city attorney general might only handle matters such as traffic and ordinance violations. Small claims court also happens at a local level. Civil cases of substantial monetary value and felonies are more likely to head to county or even state court. The specific court levels and their lines of responsibility vary from one state to the next.
A governor and lieutenant governor are likely to have authority over a state-wide department of transportation, and that department might be responsible for maintaining interstates, state highways, and vehicle and driver license registration. County and municipal governments usually get tasked with building and maintaining public roads in their jurisdictions, and they have to operate any public transit services that might include city bus systems, subways, or light rail services.
Public works often include cleaning streets, maintaining sewers, signage upkeep, snow removal, and more. Some of these responsibilities fall on a state department of transportation for state highways, but this is very much a local matter that many municipal and county governments wind up responsible for.
School board elections are a very common place for citizen engagement, but the shape and size of school districts can vary substantially. Districts across the West and Midwest often cross municipal borders, but school districts up and down the Atlantic seaboard are more likely to fall within existing municipal or county boundaries. Education is a hot topic among most parents and even grandparents, so political candidates are likely to take positions on local school issues. This also happens even when candidates run for state positions that might not have much power over local school districts, including the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, or attorney general.
You don't need to major in political science to understand the power of civic engagement. Once you understand state vs. local government responsibilities, then you know where to apply your citizen participation. You might decide to petition your bicameral legislature about upcoming tax legislation, or you could focus on the public administration of more local governance. Real-world examples of government functions you might deal with include situations where you start a business, build your new home, send your kids to public school, or just get help with food and bills. All these activities involve government roles at some point in their respective processes.
Government responsibilities will be divided between local and state governance, but you can impact both government differences by voting in state and local elections. Many voters only do so on days when national elections occur, but there are often lower-level elections you can also participate in. Given the lower voter turnout in local elections, your vote can have more power than in federal elections. If you're not clear which candidates have positions that you support, contact them or their campaigns for clarification, or attend town hall meetings and other events where local candidates interact with voters.
Your voice always matters when it comes to state vs. local government responsibilities, and citizen participation is hardly restricted to just voting in elections. You can always contact elected officials about government responsibilities and matters of local governance. All levels of power, including state government and local government, are supposed to be for the people, by the people, and of the people, so the best leaders don't just listen to voters but look for ways of empowering citizens to participate in the process.
Political leaders have to deal with many different issues in their line of work, so they need to hear from people who are familiar with those issues and have first-hand knowledge and experiences to share. Specific positions are also best filled by people with the proper background and skill set, such as attorney general, superintendent, or agricultural commissioner.
If you want to utilize your political knowledge in ways that impact public policy, it’s important to understand federal vs. state vs. local government divisions. While the various types of local governments can be confusing, it's local government services that impact your daily life the most. Understanding government roles in your area means you can pick and choose where to practice your citizen empowerment and civic engagement.
Good Party is here to help you enforce accountability and civic responsibility among local leaders. From AI tools for candidates to opportunities to connect with other third-party and independent voters, Good Party offers valuable ways to make change happen. From the local level up, you can help make local and state governments more representative of and accountable to the real people they represent.