By Amanda Rutherford and Cullen C. Merritt
As the nation continues to rely heavily on local governments to respond to a range of issues—from cybersecurity threats to the spread of infectious disease—knowing what local officials do and whether they manage their resources effectively is vital for understanding how policy influences the daily lives of citizens.
Unfortunately, there has been no clear way to assess the performance of local governments—until now. In 2019, our research team began developing a first-of-its-kind process to review the effectiveness of the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council in Indiana. That assessment focused on hearing from those who are directly involved in and impacted by the council’s work. Nearly 600 residents, in addition to city and county leaders, from across Marion County participated in an online survey, interviews, and focus groups to provide their perspectives of the strengths and weaknesses of the consolidated city-county council.
The Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council acts as the legislative and fiscal body of Indianapolis and Marion County. The council consists of 25 councilors—20 Democrats and five Republicans—as well as nine non-elected staff members. The council manages a budget of $1.2 million for a metro of slightly more than 950,000 residents.
Among city-county leaders interviewed, many believed the council’s purpose was focused on the budgetary process and creating appropriate policies. The general public also identified budgetary decisions as a key function of the council but also generally agreed that the council should listen to citizens and address their needs.
Interactions with the council
When asked about the strengths and weaknesses of council meetings, survey respondents listed the following strengths:
- The ability to learn and gain information
- The organization and structure of meetings
- The opportunity for citizens to voice opinions and provide public input
- An appreciation for meeting accessibility, openness, and transparency
However, respondents also highlighted key weaknesses of council meetings:
- The length of meetings
- The time spent on recognitions and symbolic resolutions
- The impression that decisions are finalized prior to meetings and open discussion
- The potential to be overly partisan and/or disrespectful dialogue from council members or other citizens
Representation and public engagement
Survey respondents generally felt the council and their individual councilors were racially/ethnically representative of their community, but people had mixed feelings on whether the council was representative of their socioeconomic status. More than 40 percent of people surveyed agreed that the council and its members try to interact with the public to understand current issues, but few thought the council made good use of the news, its websites, email/mail, or social media to connect with their constituents. Those in our focus groups often expressed interest in receiving a newsletter from the council or having council meetings at multiple locations across the 25 districts rather than only meeting in downtown Indianapolis.
Most important issues
In our survey, respondents ranked public works, public safety, and education as the most important issues facing Indianapolis and Marion County. In assessing how well issues have been addressed, however, public safety was ranked second only to economic development while public works and education were ranked much lower on the list behind issues such as development and housing or health and welfare.
While awareness of the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council was not generally high, residents tended to place more trust in local elected officials compared to state or federal policymakers. They also said the council could better utilize technology in the future to both increase outreach to and connect with people in the community. Some of the people in our survey said those updates could include reassessing the layout of the council’s website, enhancing two-way communication on social media platforms, and extending the ways in which information is made accessible to residents who are unable to access online platforms. The council can also revisit the timing, location, and salience of committee and council meetings to increase knowledge of interactive opportunities among residents.
Communication and collaboration can extend beyond constituents to include other public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and local businesses. Sharing information with other organizations and gaining insight from city and county leaders can help the council to gain additional insight about specific issues faced by other groups in the city and county.
Finally, compared to peer consolidated councils in Nashville, Tennessee, Louisville, Kentucky, and Jacksonville, Florida, members of the Indianapolis-Marion County City-County Council receive the lowest level of compensation and are supported by the smallest number of non-elected staff. While bipartisan discussion and support would be needed to appropriately change compensation levels and staffing, current levels may limit the capacity of the council to interact with residents and develop more effective policies.
To read the report in its entirety, visit the News and Media section of the IU Public Policy Institute’s website.