Local Government | Definition, Characteristics & Problems

Local government which can be simply described as government at the local level has been defined by various scholars in different ways. The United Nation office for Public Administration defined local government as “a political subdivision of a nation or (in a federal system) state which is constituted by law and has substantial control of local affairs including the power to impose taxes or to exact labor for prescribed purposes.

The governing body of such an entity is elected. The 1976 local government reform defines local government as “government at local level exercised through representative council established by law to exercise specific powers within defined areas.

These powers should give the council substantial control over local affairs, it should have institutional and financial power to initiate and direct the provision of services and to determine and implement project so as to complement the activities of the state and federal government in their areas, and to ensure through devolution of these functions to these councils and through the active participation of the people and their additional institution, that local initiative and response to local needs and conditions are maximized. The definition above brings out four key characteristics of local government.

Characteristics of Local Government

  • First, local governments officials are elected. Regular election at specific period of time is a feature of local governments. In fact the main distinguishing characteristics that differentiate a local governments from administration is the fact that while the officials of the former are elected, those of the later are appointees of the centre to implement policies of the centre.
  • Secondly, the local governments unit must have a legal personality distinct from the state and federal governments.
  • Thirdly, the local governments must have a specified power to perform a range of functions.
  • Finally, local governments must enjoy substantial autonomy. Local governments autonomy means that the local governments is elected at the local level and operates independently of the state and federal government.


Local governments suffer from many problems, these problems adversely affect their productivity and effectiveness. The problems are outlines below:

Financial problem: Perhaps the most serious problems facing most local governments are inadequate funds. The local governments cannot function as a government if it is not provided with adequate funds. Local governments as a result of their status as a subordinate government depends on the state or federal government for their funds. Local governments in developing nations like Nigeria are not given viable sources of independent revenue.

If local governments are to achieve their objectives, they should be well funded. States and central governments should give more grants to local governments. Local governments should put in some effort in generating more revenue, internally they should establish many revenue yielding ventures and mange them effectively.

Unqualified Staffs: In any human organization, it is the personnel that make things happen. Local governments cannot realize their objective with unqualified staff. Generally, local governments lack adequate qualified experienced professional, technicians and craftsmen who are much needed.

There is the need to improve the quality and quantity of staff of local governments to enable them provides worthwhile services to the local people. Professionals should be encouraged to work with local governments. Local governments staff should enjoy the same condition of service with their counterparts in the civil service. Greater emphasis should also be placed on local government staff training.

Excessive Control: An essential requirement for effective performance of local governments is autonomy. But in most countries, local governments are not given adequate autonomy. The ministry of local governments exercises excessive control over local government to the point of frustrating their programmes. The ministry causes delay in the approval of local governments budgets, bye-laws, major contracts and programmes.

Sometimes the ministry of local governments supplies revenue materials like receipt booklets, certificate for licenses, rate, tickets etc. When the supply of these materials become centralized, a lots of delays are caused before they are supplied, leading to a huge loss of revenue for the council. This problem can be solved by giving adequate autonomy to the local governments.


  • State government creates local governments under a state law. Each local government is created by an instrument.
  • The federal government can undertake reforms of the local government system and make necessary changes in the system in consultation with state government.
  • There are certain services, which both local governments and the state government provide jointly. These are primary education, health services and agricultural and industrial services. The state government provides the standards and general control for these services.
  • Apart from the functions assigned to local governments by the constitution, the state government can assign other functions to local governments from time to time.
  • The federal government has a statutory obligation to pay 10% of the federal account to local governments. The federal government determines how the local government share of the federation accounts is shared out to them.
  • The federal government can give specific grants to local governments for specific services.
  • The federal government has the power to know how the money it paid to local governments is spent.
  • The state government has a statutory obligation to pay 10% of its total internal revenue to the local governments within the state and can give other specific grants to the local governments.
  • The state and federal government can execute certain functions on community development through or jointly with local governments.
  • The state government can institute an inquiry into the operation of the local governments. It can punish offenders, it can dissolve the council and appoint a caretaker council until an election is conducted.
  • The state government approves the estimate, bye-laws and major programmes of the local government before they are implemented.
  • The state government provides inspectors who visit local governments regularly to inspect their operations. They look into their income and expenditure and other records and offer advice to the local governments officials.
  • The state government auditors audit the account of the local governments annually.
  • The state government provides rules which guide local governments staff.
  • It provides the local governments with financial memorandum. The state government also regulates and controls the appointment of certain professionals working with local governments like medical officers, etc.


Local governments are subordinate authorities. As subordinate authorities, they are subject to controls by the state or federal government. The main purpose of the control is to ensure that local governments operates within the laws, which establish them, discharge their duties effectively and do not violate human right.

The means adopted to control local governments are:

  • Legislative
  • Ministerial and administrative
  • Financial
  • Judicial
  • Public complaints commission

Legislative Control: Local governments are normally created by an act of the legislature. The legislature has the power to amend or alter the law which creates the local governments if they do not perform efficiently. The legislature monitors the performance of local governments; member of the legislature criticizes on the floor of the House, local governments that manifest poor performance. The legislature has the power to set up an investigative panel to probe into the performance of the council in order to expose corruption and maladministration and punish wrong doing.

Ministerial and Administrative Control: Local governments are effectively controlled by the ministry of local governments. The commissioner or minister for local governments provides the financial memorandum to local governments for their efficient control and management. The financial memorandum is a policy manual, which guides the management of local governments funds. The ministry of local governments provides staff regulations for local governments, which specify service conditions for local governments staff. The local governments ministry supervises the activities of the local governments through its inspectors.

The minister or commissioner of local governments is empowered to approve bye-laws before they come into effect. He also approves major projects, programmes and contacts of the local governments before they are implemented. The minister for local governments with the approval of the state chief executive can dissolve the local governments council whenever the council does not give satisfactory performance, arising from corruption, maladministration, financial mismanagement, incompetence, non-performance, or general inefficiency. The minister or commissioner for local governments can also institute an inquiry into the operation of any local governments.

Financial Control: The most important of all the aspect of financial control is the power of the minister or commissioner for local governments to approve or disapprove annual estimates for local governments. Local governments cannot implement their annual budget until they are approved. Rates and fees must be approved by the minister or commissioner before they imposed by the council. Changes in approved rates and fees must receive the approval of the minister for local governments. Local governments are expected to prepare and submit annual statement of their income and expenditure to the minister or commissioner for scrutiny. The state or central government auditors are empowered to audit all accounts of local governments. Audit surcharge is served on councilors or officials of the local governments who misappropriate local governments fund.

Judicial Control: Local governments are creatures of law and thus they are body corporate. They can sue and be sued. The court has the power to declare any act or policy of the local governments null and void. An oppressed citizen can take the local governments into court for redress. On the other hand, the writ of mandamus can be invoked to compel a local governments to perform its neglected duty.

Public Complaint Commission: In countries where public complaint commission or Ombudsman exist, citizens who suffer any form of injustice in the hand of the local governments can take them to the public complaints bureau (local office of the Public Complaints Commission) for redress. Thus the public complaints commission checks the excess of local governments and ensures that they do not infringe on the fundamental human rights of the citizens.


Local government as a tier of government: According to L. Ademolekun, L. Rowland, the ideas of local governments as a tier of government means the formal and unequivocal recognition of local governments as constituting a distinct level of government with defined boundaries; clearly stated functions and provisions for ensuring adequate human and financial resources. By being a tier of government, local governments is now regarded as the third level of government and charged with greater and additional responsibilities of mobilizing, sensitizing and harnessing the human and material resources at the local level for the development of such localities.

As a third tier of government, the local governments now enjoys the following area of autonomy:- Staff: – local governments can now recruit, pay, promote, retire and discipline their staff through the local governments service commission. The local governments now enjoys high level of manpower unlike before. Financial autonomy: – the local governments as the third tier of government now gets its fiscal allocation from the federation account and the state generated revenue. It can also generate its own revenue through rents, rate, tolls etc.The local governments now exercise control over its annual budget.

The doctrine of ultra vires: Ultra vires is a Latin expression meaning “beyond the power” the local authorities under the doctrine of ultra vires may only do those things which the laws specifically order or permit them to do. The legal view is that as a body corporate, it is created purely as a legal entity to carry out those functions for which it was created and therefore it has no existence as a legal entity for any other functions.

Then a local governments with the best intention in the world is anxious to make life more abundant for its citizens and to earn profit which will assist in paying for other essential services in the area, start a business outfit without having first government legal approval for it, although the all the inhabitants of the area may like the idea of setting up the business outfit, the authority is acting illegally (beyond it powers, ultra vires) in running the business.

Perpetual Succession: This means that unlike individual human being, local governments never die. They are continually in existence and therefore, even though all councilors may change owing to death, resignation or defeat in elections, the council continues to be responsible for legal acts of the past and for the future.

Local government as an authority or body corporate: All local governments owes their existence to the constitution and state laws (Local government Act of 1999, 2001, 2004). They are not part of central or state government machinery and are supposed to have an independent existence of their own, since they run their own affairs and are responsible to their own electorate. They must however, like private individuals only act within the framework of the law, which is off course made of parliament. By independent existence, we mean that in law, local authorities are bodies corporate with perpetual succession. By body corporate we mean that they have a legal existence like ordinary individuals. In other words, they can sue and be sued in the court of law as they were individuals.


The United States of America is structured as a federation and operates executive presidential system of government, with over 50 states and one federal district. It has a bicameral legislature in the form of the House of Senate and House of Representatives. United States operates three tiers of government namely, the federal, state and local government.

United States: State and Local Government – features:

As it is the case in most federal system, local governments in USA is the government jurisdiction below the level of the state government. USA constitution makes local governments a matter of state rather than federal law. Every state has the right to establish its own system of local government and states as such adopt a wide variety of systems of local governments. Most states in the USA have at least two tiers of local governments namely, the county and municipality.

The County Council: county governments are organized local government, authorized in state constitution and statutes. Counties form the first tier administrative division of a state in USA and are found virtually in all the states of the United States of America. All the states in the USA, for administrative purposes, are divided into counties or county. Counties are typically charged with enforcing state laws inside its county area like peace keeping, taxation, road and bridge repair, marriage, death and property. In areas without a county council, local services are provided either by lower level township or municipality or the state. United States have 3,039 counties.

Township Government: township governments are organized local government, authorized in the constitution and statutes to provide local services within the geographic subdivision of a county. Depending on law of a particular state and some other local circumstances, a township may or may not be incorporated and the degree of authority over local governments services may vary greatly.

Municipal Government: municipal governments are organized local government authorized in state constitutions and statutes, established to provide general government for a defined are, generally corresponding to a population centre than one of a set of areas into which a country is divided. The structure and existence of a municipal government has a relationship to concentration of population. Municipalities are run by mayors or city managers. In United States, there are about 19,429 municipal governments whose population range from 24 residents to 8million.

Special – Purpose Local Government: in the USA, there are special-purpose local governments in the form of, school district and special district. School district – are organized local entities authorized by state law to provide designated function as established in the district charter or other founding document and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate government. Special district are known by variety of titles like district, authorities, boards, commission etc, as may be specified in the enabling state legislation. Special district may serve areas of multiple states if established by interstate compact. Special district is a popular form of local government. Special district is a popular form of local government in the United States.

Furthermore, in USA local government (county government, township government, municipal government, special-purpose governments, special district government) often form “Councils or association of governments” that serves as regional planning agencies and as forum for debating issues of regional importance but are generally powerless relative to their individual members.

Unlike the relationship between the federal and state government that involves sharing of power, local governments has no power except what is granted to them by their states. State government can place whatever restrictions they choose on their local government system. As a result of the fact that local governments are creations of states in the USA, there is no uniformity in the structure, functions, personnel and funding sources of the local governments across the states of the United States. The nature of local governments varies between states.

Political leadership of the local governments could be in the form of governing council that works in conjunction with a mayor or president. It could also be in form of council-manager government, administered by a city manager under direction of the city council. It could also be in the form of Municipal Commission. Local voters are generally free to choose the basic frameworks of government from a section established by state law. Census of all local governments in the United States of America is performed every 5 years by the United States census bureau.

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