Inefficiency & Corruption in Local Government

Inefficiency in local government often results from either lack of coordination or pooling of resources and poor staffing/unqualified personnel.  The most common forms of corruption found in local government include bribery, extortion, embezzlement, graft, and nepotism.

Corruption in local government is what led to many of the institutional frameworks that are now used in local government.  For example, Dillon’s rule was proposed in response to concerns about irresponsible, unresponsive, and corrupt local governments; corruption in municipal government resulted in the creation of the council-manager system; and elected municipal and special district offices in Texas are now selected through nonpartisan elections.

Even with reforms to reduce corruption and increase accountability, transparency, and efficiency in local government, corruption and inefficiency in local government still occur, as the case of Progreso, Texas illustrates:

For almost a decade—from 2004 to 2013—several members of the same family, all Progreso government officials, used their positions to exact bribes and kickbacks from city and school district service providers. Through their illegal activities, they distorted the contract playing field, cheated the very citizens they purported to serve, stole education money from the children whose educations they were supposed to ensure, and lined their own pockets in the process.  (Corruption in a Small Texas Town, 2014).

A Closer Look: Texas Counties

Texas counties have several opportunities to be inefficient and engage in corruption because:

  • counties, as local governments, come into direct contact with individuals more often than state governments and the federal government
  • counties use partisan elections to select key county officials
  • most counties employ the patronage system (also known as the spoils system) in staffing
  • most counties do not have a centralized purchasing department
  • in most counties, commissioners are responsible for running the county government in their districts

Local governments, in general, are susceptible to corruption due to their proximity to, and daily interaction with, individuals.  More interaction with individuals is not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, it can promote civic knowledge and civic engagement.  The more frequently government officials meet with individuals, however, the more likely they are to encounter opportunities for certain forms of corruption, such as bribery.

Partisan elections and patronage systems increase the likelihood that key county officials and county staff working within the various county government departments will be selected based on nepotism or political loyalty as opposed to merit.

The lack of centralization when it comes to governance and purchasing in counties may result in poor coordination and duplication.  For example, in the majority of Texas counties, county commissioners are responsible for road construction and maintenance in their districts.  This decentralized model to governance, combined with a lack of centralized purchasing, means that counties may expend more money than they would have had it pooled their resources when developing requests for bids from private companies and renting or purchasing equipment and materials.