Policy Responsiveness and Political Accountability in City Politics
25 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2017 Last revised: 4 Jul 2017
Date Written: March 1, 2017
Peculiar patterns have emerged in municipal politics in Canada. Unlike at federal and provincial levels of government, party politics is weak or absent in cities. But looking at the entire history of municipal elections of three Western Canadian cities — Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver — also finds that, again unlike politicians at higher levels, municipal representatives are increasingly more likely to win repeated re-elections, facing a much lower threat from any competitive challenge. In addition, the careers of municipal politicians are growing steadily longer, leading to relatively stable, almost static, city governments that tend to see change most commonly when councillors choose to step down, rather than being forced out.
Such patterns, of course, run counter to the general presumption in lively democracies, including this one, that the responsiveness of government leaders (that is, following the wishes of their constituents) and their accountability for the actions they take are best served by frequent turnovers in government: The need to throw politicians out every now and again to let new ones try and do things better. Whether the remarkable levels of stability and incumbency on city councils actually do serve the best interests of voters is unclear. More clear is that the lack of a party system at the city level seems to have contributed to this peculiar dynamic, and that city politicians have an interest in keeping it that way. While party affiliations provide a candidate some benefits in the form of campaign co-ordination, they also provide voters with increased clarity about what each candidate stands for policy-wise. That might be helpful to voters, but city politicians might find it more useful to blur their positions, leaving voters uncertain of exactly how to define a specific councillor’s stand, overall amount of information required to root through a councillor’s voting record, and the relatively light media coverage of daily council business, leaves most voters inclined to rely on something other than political signals when they decide who to support. Inevitably, a candidate’s personal character and length of experience take on a larger priority in the voting decision. So, the longer a councillor serves, the longer he or she might be likely to keep serving.
The natural outcome of this phenomenon is that city councils are less likely to become polarized as councillors have an incentive to seek consensus by limiting obvious policy distinctions between themselves and their fellow representatives, contributing to a dynamic where city council works more like a corporate body and less like a partisan legislature. As long as citizens remain largely unperturbed by the overall actions of their city council, they might judge the risk of replacing them at election time as unnecessarily high compared to sticking with the status quo.
This behaviour challenges much of the prevailing theory about how political processes improve political responsiveness and accountability. This is occurring at a time when cities are emerging as important and increasingly powerful nodes in the modern global economy. That the very nature of how they are governed is diverging so markedly from the norm that Canadians have come to expect from other levels of government is not something to be considered lightly.
Keywords: municipal elections, municipal politics, city council,
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