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The Local Government Marketer’s Starter Kit: A Beginner’s Guide to Local Government

2nd Edition

You’re here because you want to strengthen your marketing program by becoming more familiar with local government.  But the complex array of local government entity types can make it challenging to even identify high-probability submarkets, let alone make them your program’s focus.  

Let’s strip the mystery away from local government jurisdictions so you make more intelligent elections for your marketing campaigns.

See what we did there?

The 5 Types of Local Government

Local government refers to all governmental jurisdictions below the level of state.  There are two categories of local government: general purpose and special purpose.  If we zoom in, we see those counties, municipalities, and townships constitute the general-purpose local governments; and special districts and school districts comprise special purpose local governments.

General Purpose Local Governments

This tier of local government includes counties, municipalities, and townships.


Counties are the primary divisions of states.  There are approximately 3,000 counties spread across the country; however, in Connecticut and Rhode Island, there are no county governments. 


There are about 19,000 municipalities in the country.  And while municipalities are typically cities, they can also be called towns, villages, or boroughs.  …Not to be confused with Alaskan counties.

It’s nutty.  We know.


There are approximately 17,000 townships in the United States.  Townships, technically “civil townships,” may be referred to as either towns or townships.  (Yes, some “towns” are municipalities, and some are townships.) Townships exist in only 20 states, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest.  The precise definition varies by state, but they are smaller on average than municipalities.

The names of municipalities and townships can be a helpful hint to local government marketers.

For example, municipalities called “cities” are, on average, 3-4 times larger than towns, villages, and boroughs.  Our proprietary analysis of the 21,000+ US sub-county entities with populations exceeding 1,000 people found the following average populations:

If one were to include ALL such entities in the US, including the 18,000 with populations less than 1,000, the averages would drop considerably. By comparison, the average county has a population of about 98,000.

But wait.  There’s more.

County – Municipality Hybrids

There are a small number of entities that have elements of both counties and municipalities:

  • Consolidated City-Counties: These entities are simultaneously a city and a county (to varying degrees). There are approximately 40 of these nationwide (the exact count depends on subjective definitions), with prominent examples such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Denver.
  • Independent Cities: These cities are not legally in the territory of any county, and they tend to assume the authority normally granted at the county level. There are approximately 41 of these cities, 38 of which are in Virginia.  Baltimore and St. Louis are also generally classified as independent cities.

There are thousands of cities and towns with the same name, even within a single state.  For example, Indiana has 48 Washingtons and 48 Jacksons!   One way to ensure you’ve got the correct local government is to confirm the STATE and COUNTY in which that government is located, because there is NEVER more than 1 municipality or township with the same name within the same county.  

Special Purpose Local Governments

Special purpose local governments include approximately 37,000 special districts and about 13,000 school districts.

Special Districts

According to U.S. Census Bureau, special districts are local entities “authorized by state law to provide only one or a limited number of designated functions, and with sufficient administrative and fiscal autonomy to qualify as separate governments; [and] includes a variety of titles such as, districts, authorities, boards, [and] commissions.”

According to the Cities 101 – Types of Local US Governments by the National League of Cities, “These districts are local governing units that vary widely in authority, function, and structure.  Their functions range from street lighting to a large port authority.”

But you’re not out of the woods yet!

There’s another special purpose local government nuance:

Organizations with a similar designated function might be a special district government in one place, and a department within a municipal or county government somewhere else.

For example, there are independent water districts that are special district governments managing water supply for a certain geographic area; and there are other water supply utilities that are departments within a municipal government.  In effect, the department is not independent— it reports to the municipal officials.

School Districts

School districts serves to operate the local public primary and secondary schools, are defined as either independent or dependent systems.  Most school districts (about 80%) are independent, and therefore qualify as a local government.

Independent Schools:

  • Have enough fiscal and administrative independence to qualify as separate, special purpose governments
  • Offer the freedom to determine what to teach and how to assess student achievement and progress.

Dependent Schools:

  • Operate under the control of other local or state government entities, thus they are not counted as separate government
  • Require approval of all plans by the creating government, including the location and type of facilities the dependent school constructs and maintains

Gain a Competitive Advantage

By understanding the five types of local governments (divided into two critically different categories), you’ll develop more tailored and effective outreach to the decision makers who will weigh in on the purchase of your product or service. And you’ll certainly make the most of your content marketing budget, as quality content is always an investment.

You Need More Than a List. You Need Expertise.

With a decade of 100% local government focus, we have finely-tuned knowledge about whom to contact and what to ask –across 21,000+ general purpose local governments (virtually all of those with a population of 1,000 or more)– to keep our contact data on point.

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