Hyperlocal is HOT!

Hyperlocal is HOT!

Americans of all political stripes are disenchanted with government. This is especially true as it applies to the federal government — Congressional approval ratings averaged 17% in 2016 — and true in state government. As a result, a lot of energy is going to where it can make a difference in your day-to-day life: it’s going local.

“Hyperlocal” is a trendy buzzword these days. It refers to anything from small businesses to the food we eat. At Ellis Mills, in our work all over New England, we are seeing that municipal government is extremely active, local elections vibrant, and citizens are much more engaged. As businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, and community leaders consider the next step in their professional evolution, it is increasingly important to understand and anticipate the local angles.

Towns and cities are increasingly challenged as they do their work of governing. Costs – healthcare, materials, staffing, education, infrastructure – are going up. With many of these costs part of collectively bargained contracts (teachers, municipal employees, etc.), there are not many discretionary items left to ponder. Add in cuts — real or threatened — in state or federal aid and one can see how balancing a budget gets tough. Increasing local taxes – property, sales, etc. – is EXTREMELY unpopular these days because residents are dealing with some of the same cost increases: modern day American life is expensive!

So what does this mean? There are a number of consequences for towns and those that interact with local government (businesses, real estate developers, candidates, etc.):

Citizens are hyper-aware (I do love that word) of what local government is up to. Technology allows them to get access to municipal agendas and minutes, live streams of town meetings and town financial documents. It also allows them to interact with local officials more easily…and more often. For better or worse, technology results in MORE citizen advocacy, not less.
More municipal budgets get voted down. Where budgets require public approval – a town election or a town meeting or both – local governments run the risk of having months of appropriation and finance related work rejected. School budgets, the most hyperlocal of local budgets due to their dependence on local property taxes (and, oh yeah, because they involve people’s children), are the most vulnerable.
Town elections are much more contentious. I don’t mean in a mean way (although that certainly happens) but in the energy and resources that are put into them by candidates and their citizen allies. If you drive around New England towns in any election season, you see the familiar signs for selectboard or town council. But look closer: signs for school committee are just as common these days, along with planning board, conservation commission and library trustee. The most volatile race in my metrowest Massachusetts town last year was for a spot on the Parks & Rec Commission…we’re talking full campaigning here!

For those in and around government, this means that the stakes are higher and the need to communicate and achieve buy-in are even more critical. A developer’s zone change could swing from a community benefit to the most evil thing ever contemplated with a few key strokes and an active Facebook page. Doomed is the business, association, non-profit or candidate that pooh-poohs the increasingly active local government scene.

In simplest terms, it is good to have someone looking in your blind spots, identifying problems real and perceived, and making sure that your point of view gets the attention and respect it deserves. At Ellis Mills, well, that’s what we do. So you can keep your attention on the big picture.

Bryan Mills

Bryan Mills is an attorney and nationally recognized expert in grassroots public affairs. In his nearly 20-year career, Bryan has designed and executed dozens of land-use permitting, zoning, and community engagement campaigns around the country.