Global Democracy, devolution and governance

NACo doesn’t rhyme with taco: what we learned at America’s biggest local government conference


H Muirhead

LGIU’s Hannah Muirhead and Ingrid Koehler recently attended the National Association of  Counties Conference in Austin, Texas to learn about the work of local governments and their elected officials in the US. They found out how counties are tackling some of the thorniest issues and toughest challenges. 

Often when you visit another country, you seek to explore the differences. When Hannah Muirhead and I visited the National Association of Counties (NACo) conference in Austin,Texas in July, what we found were a lot of similarities.

While I don’t want to overlook the major differences, it was a lot hotter and a lot easier to find good tacos. great tacos in fact.  Really what we took away from the conference were how similar many of the challenges were and how hard people were working to find solutions for their communities.

row of breakfast tacos by a laptop and conference agenda
It wasn’t all tacos. Sometimes it was work and tacos. H. Muirhead.

About counties in the USA:

You might easily say that counties are the basic form of local government in the US. There are over 3000 counties and direct equivalents (parishes in Louisiana and boroughs in Alaska). But only a handful of them have no specific governing powers and there are only a few more that have no powers or duties for cities within their boundaries.

Of course, statutory responsibilities vary both by individual location and by state. But by and large many of the functions are common. Road maintenance, social services, education. Many also handle the necessary civil administration functions like registering deeds, voter registration and electoral administration. They also look after public land management including parks and support of the local economy including job creation, workforce, infrastructure and economic development.


Map of counties in the US
via MapChart – Outline of counties in the US


NACo is the national organisation supporting counties, their staff and elected officials. They provide lobbying support, but also leadership training and exchange of good practice and learning as well as advice and guidance on legislation and policy. Resources packs on how counties can provide early childhood support to families are just one example. They work with constituent organisations at state level, like the Texas Association of Counties as well as affiliate organisations like the National Association of County Surveyors.

What’s worrying American local government:

American counties were looking for solutions and innovations for workforce development for themselves and their communities, alongside housing affordability – including temporary homes for the unhoused, resilience issues from natural disasters and from shifting economic fortunes whether it be from declining industry or depleting natural resources. They were also sharing learning on how to support better mental health, help people with experience of the justice system have better life chances, deal with the opioid crisis, and push back creeping centralisation (by Federal or state governments).

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because these are many of the same issues faced by our members in LGIU’s core areas: the UK, Ireland and Australia. (And we’ve linked some of the past issues of our Global Local bulletin exploring local solutions to these challenges.) Hannah and I will be following up with many of our new American contacts to find out more about how they’re making progress on these issues and the shareable lessons.

What’s different about America?

One big difference between the US and the UK, for example, is the current level of investment. While I don’t think anyone in US local government would say they have too much money, there has been a significant investment in infrastructure and Covid recovery. Some counties have also been able to leverage specific funds to help them deal with devastating issues like opioid addiction.

Many counties are also able to raise revenue locally through a proportion of the sales tax rather than on exclusively on property. And in many cases they have greater flexibility to work with industry, to borrow and to bring new people and businesses into their areas.

The most important similarity:

Passion. Hannah and I met so many people who were passionate about finding solutions and working with their communities. Conference delegates included both elected representatives and appointed staff, and everyone we talked to was absolutely dedicated to making things better for their county’s residents. Of course, they didn’t all see eye to eye about how to do that, but that’s down to differences in the communities they serve, in perspectives and in lived experiences.

For me, it was great to see local leaders who were seeking to revive the fortunes of once prosperous rural communities through clear vision and an outward focus, leaders of metropolitan counties who were seeking to help everyone in their bustling city communities take advantage of opportunities. We met so many uniters, problem solvers and innovators. And we’d love to encourage many of the paid staff members who shared much of the same passion to nominate their electeds to our Global Local Showcase, highlighting international examples of community champions as part of our Cllr Awards before 22 September. (And if you’re reading this Great Britain: England, Wales or Scotland – your Cllr Awards are here.)

And I was tickled pink to be able to meet one of our past winners, Larry Johnson, at the conference:

Ingrid Koehler and DeKalb, GA County Commissioner Larry Johnson
Ingrid Koehler and DeKalb, GA County Commissioner Larry Johnson


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