University of Wisconsin–Madison

Good Governance

Written by Walker Kahn and Maria Manansala

What’s the Problem?

Americans’ long tradition of mistrusting government has historically centered on the federal government. However, recent data shows that local governments—which have been unaffected by broader trends in governmental trust—are also losing residents’ confidence. This falling confidence in local government reflects our doubt that they are able to effectively handle local problems and undermines the legitimacy on which government depends.

Local municipalities can increase trust in government by implementing and promoting good governance policies.  The United Nations identified the key attributes of good governance: transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation, and responsiveness to people’s needs. However, truly good governance is about more than ticking off boxes on a checklist. Communities must be understood as complex adaptive systems. Local leaders from government, the community, and business must prioritize listening to community members as they work together to identify inefficient systems and innovate replacements. Ultimately, good governance policies and institutions should lift up workers, more efficiently use natural resources and human capital, and foster equity, justice, and democracy for all people.

While these lofty goals cannot be accomplished quickly, there are first steps that municipalities can take to lay the groundwork for future success. This roadmap offers an introduction to the critical first steps on the path to good governance, including data collection, campaign finance and public expenditure transparency, government accountability, and increased public participation in policy making. 

What are People Currently Doing? 

Reliable and transparent data is an essential component of good governance. Expanding data collection and increasing data availability builds trust and fosters accountability between cities and their residents by providing residents with the information they need to assess government effectiveness.

Local governments can start by enacting open data policies that require agencies to release data to the public without prohibitive costs or restrictive licensing. Open data policies enacted in Portland, New York City, and San Francisco can serve as models for other municipalities, while websites maintained in Chicago, Austin, Honolulu, and Seattle are useful examples of well-maintained, user-friendly data portals.  Cities and counties should also mandate the publication of campaign finance data. Campaign disclosure ordinances, such as those in Ventura County and Pittsburgh (see: Pittsburgh’s searchable database) can shed light on political “dark money” and reduce its influence. See ProGov21’s Election Finance Roadmap for more information on campaign financing.

Participation is another core aspect of good governance. Municipalities must take steps to ensure that all residents are able to inform and influence local governance by granting them opportunities to engage in decision-making, problem-solving, and planning. Cities and counties can implement participatory budgeting (PB)—a democratic process where community members decide how to spend a portion of a public budget. In 2015, Seattle launched Youth Voice, Youth Choice, a PB process that engaged over 3,000 young people in allocating $700,000 of the city’s budget. New York City also launched a PB process, which allowed residents to determine spending for $35 million in taxpayer money. Tacoma strengthened community participation by supporting neighborhood councils.  Madison has made public meetings more interactive and reduced barriers to participation by providing face-to-face and online options, holding meetings in areas outside “traditional” downtown locations. Lastly, local governments looking to improve governance should regularly obtain feedback from the public through surveys, online forums, social media, opinion polling, and more. For more public engagement strategies, see guides from the City of Fort Collins and the National League of Cities.

Finally, good governance requires the equitable provision of government services. The data collection and open data policies described above can help ensure that municipal resources are equitably distributed. A further step towards equitably distributing resources is having responsible and fair contracting and procurement systems. Boston has an executive order for equitable public procurement, while Portland has an environmentally sustainable procurement policy. The ProGov21 policy library contains New York City’s equitable contracting ordinance as well as guides to responsible contracting from the Center for American Progress, National Employment Law Project, and the American Sustainable Business Council.

To make voting easier for registered residents, local policymakers can mail applications for absentee ballots to all citizens, make Election Day a holiday, offer city employees paid time off to vote or serve as poll workers, and provide eligible students with an excused absence when voting or poll working. Cities can also facilitate voting by creating free bus lines that lead voters directly to the polls and work with ride-share and bike-share companies to provide voters with free or discounted transit.

Taking it to the Next Level

One of the most important ways for local leaders to make good governance policies a reality is facilitating democratic participation.  ProGov21’s Voting Rights Roadmap contains more details on how this can be achieved, but policies must address both enabling voter registration and reducing barriers to voting. In states without automatic voter registration (AVR), local policymakers can use agency-based voter registration, where public agencies providing housing, health, and other services also offer eligible persons the opportunity to register to vote. Similarly, renter registration policies requiring landlords to provide tenants with voter registration forms are useful for registering members of marginalized communities, who are both more likely to rent and more likely to move frequently. Additionally, local officials can proactively mail voter registration material, absentee ballot requests forms, and prepaid return envelopes to every resident eligible to vote.

Helpers, Allies, and Other Useful Organizations

  • The National League of Cities is the oldest and largest national organization representing municipal governments throughout the United States.
  • OpenGov Foundation is a non-profit organization committed to bridging the gap between citizens and government through technology and data.
  • The High Road Strategy Center is a research and policy center that promotes “high-road” strategies to improve economic performance and living standards in the State of Wisconsin and nationally.
  • The Mayors Innovation Project is a national learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government.


Mayor's Innovation home page

Mayors Innovation Project, our sister organization, is a national learning network for mayors committed to shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government.


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