Why Councils Get Things Done: Size Does Matter

Why Councils Get Things Done: Size Does Matter

Anyone who has been an observer of legislatures is likely to notice some important variations in their performance.

The British Parliament is often a rather raucous place, with members of the “loyal opposition” shouting out in objection during speeches by the prime minister or his/her various Cabinet secretaries.  In comparison, our Congress is a most civil and proper place.

Beyond the noise, there is the question of productivity. Are there discernible patterns that distinguish one kind of legislature from another when it comes to getting the public’s business done?

Here in Florida (and there are examples elsewhere in the country), we’ve witnessed some remarkable dysfunction in the state capital, as well as at least some measure of recovery more recently. In Washington, D.C., there seems to have been some recovery as well, though there are enumerable bills and appointments that continue to lie in wait, unresolved and unlikely to be resolved. The dysfunction has been and continues to be evident; things just don’t get done.

City councils can be profoundly dysfunctional as well. But compared to what we’ve seen in our capitals, the degree to which the public’s work gets done here at home is remarkable.

The contrast may be clearest in the area of budgeting. Most cities pass budgets on time. And most cities, at least in a general way, operate within their means. Cities generally don’t shut down over budget disputes, and usually there’s no doubt that a budget will be passed on time, even if an added hearing is required.

The same cannot be said for our state Legislature, nor for Congress.

What are the underlying causes of these differences?

I think there are several, but let me simply note one important difference today.


For all the antagonism toward political parties expressed by this nation’s Founders, members of the first Congress under the new Constitution quickly divided into competing camps. Arguably, this simply was the most efficient and effective way of getting things done. When a chamber has even a couple dozen members (as the Senate did; the House was larger even then), it is natural for people to meet in smaller groups and to form these groups around commonalities. Those might be economic interest (representatives of maritime versus inland areas, for example, or urban versus rural areas). Those also might be philosophical (those who favored an “energetic” central government versus those who favored a more limited central role in favor of “energetic” states).

Furthermore, when dealing with larger legislative bodies, there are many paths to a majority vote. If I can’t get your vote, there still are dozens of others whose votes I may secure. Rarely will I need one specific person’s vote.

Unless, that is, that person is the leader of a voting bloc. Then both the leader and the members of the bloc have enhanced power in the negotiating process.

So, in a large legislature, it makes sense for coalitions, caucuses and parties to form. Such organizational structures make the legislative process more efficient and enhance the power of individual legislators through their membership in these groupings.

But a typical city council or commission is a very different thing. With five or seven members, the relative voting power of each member is substantial. If one or two members are in opposition to a proposal, the remaining three or five or six members become essential, or almost essential, to its passage. Every member matters, and, most of the time, they matter a lot.

This reality cuts both ways. Each councilmember knows he/she will need each of the other members of council someday, that the tables will be turned.

The reality of each member’s voting power, whether understood in these or in more intuitive terms, drives prudent councilmembers to maintain at least decent relations with each of their colleagues. This, in turn, fosters more constructive dialog and more productive working relationships.

Of course, not every councilmember understands these realities. The long-term incumbent, the belligerent and the naïve can fail to appreciate the dynamics of this most intimate of legislatures. Councils can be dysfunctional, or firmly divided 3 against 2 until the next election. It happens.

But in my experience, even in this highly partisan era, such dysfunction and rigid division simply is less common in a council than in a state legislature or Congress. Size, it turns out, really does matter . . . in a surprising way.