Emerging Issues: Closing the Regional Disconnect

July 11, 2011
by Bill Barnes

Where are we with regional governance? 

We know that there's more and more of it, that it can be a big pain and that it often but not always produces useful results. Sounds like a lot of other things about government.

We also know that there's not enough of it. We need more and better regional governance.

Any local jurisdiction is only one part of the larger, inter-related region and regional economy. When leaders or citizens fail to acknowledge and act upon that fact - a regional disconnect - their own municipal governance is less effective and the region is diminished. 

Some jurisdictional boundary crossing is fully regional in scope and much is inter-local - bi- and multi-lateral - at smaller scales. 

Whether local leaders see regionalism as a glass half full or half empty, increasing numbers accept it as part of the task of governing. Federal and state governments, which have important roles to play, are a bit behind the curve.

Crossing Boundaries

For local leaders, boundary crossing for regional governance is on its way to becoming normal. Experience, lessons learned and credible stories about successful efforts encourage that trend. 

In order for leaders in all sectors to internalize and act upon an understanding of their regional context, some important changes are also needed in the ways the matter is approached. 

First, we can do without the grandiose rhetoric and inflated expectations that have accumulated around the regional idea. Like governance at other spatial scales, regionalism is better at dealing with easier things and less good at the really wicked ones. 

The real successes on the ground result from nitty-gritty, hard and complex work. Regionalism is a means, not an end; it's a question, not the answer to everything.

It is also time to get beyond the judgmental rhetoric that suggests, on the one side, that regional approaches are idealistic, unrealistic dreams or indefensible intrusions on home rule and, on the other, that opposition to regional approaches is always selfish or racist. Any or all of those accusations may be correctly applied in specific circumstances, but jousting at caricatures as the default position is a diversion from the hard work of bringing people to the table. It also poisons the well for future efforts.

Third, we can recognize that regional governance is not about making nice. It's about politics: about working through competing interests and values and about dealing with agreements and disagreements on matters of mutual concern. 

But the skills and roles required to reduce regional disconnects are not the same as those needed to function well inside a hierarchically-organized, governmental institution. Boundary-crossing skills may soon appear more frequently in job descriptions for managers and in campaigns for local elective office. 

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the relevant options for regional action are too often framed as either doing nothing or engineering major structural change in the form of jurisdictional consolidation. This is a false choice and a bad way to frame the topic.

A Better Way Forward

To get away from this false choice about consolidation, we should shift to a less dramatic but more practical focus on regional governance as capacity and process. The measure of regional governance success is achieving a goal - solving a problem, seizing an opportunity - not governmental consolidation for its own sake.

Regional governance occurs when multiple governmental jurisdictions and interest groups in an area work and struggle together toward a goal. Absent a goal whose achievement goes beyond a single jurisdiction, there is no need for regional governance. The goal might be a policy outcome (such as affordable housing throughout the region), a structural aim (such as creation of a special assessment district for amenities), a process outcome (such as a region-wide discussion on economic competitiveness that seeks to define a common agenda) or any other joint aim of actors within the region. 

Thus, the presenting issue for people and groups seeking a particular area-wide goal is not whether to form a consolidated government, but rather how to marshal capacity to achieve a goal. That marshaling may sometimes result in new roles for existing governments, sometimes in new institutions and only occasionally in consolidations. (In a paper that is now in review and is based on work for the MacArthur Foundation's Building Resilient Regions Research Network, Kathryn Foster of SUNY at Buffalo and I will offer an analysis of "regional governance" as a matter of capacity, including dimensions that can provide a means of measuring this complex concept.) 

In short, the road to regional governance goes through existing governments - local, state and federal - and also through the politics of interest groups and civic concern at the wider spatial scale. Effective governance requires both regionalism and federalism, both horizontal and vertical intergovernmental relations. Both need a lot of improvement.

Details: See related Nation's Cities Weekly article, "Intergovernmental System Requires Attention." 

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him at barnes@nlc.org. Previous columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage.