New Frontiers for Regional Economies and Governance

September 3, 2012

By Bill Barnes

We find ourselves amidst widespread explorations of new ways to conduct government.

Some explorations are not so useful ---- trying to operate the Federal government without a functioning Congress; selling large chunks of the political process to what one recent correspondent to this column simply called Big Money. Others are more promising, like enabling several federal departments to collaborate to implement a big program.

At the local level, exploring proceeds apace in search of ways to solve problems that cross boundaries. Cautions, even fears, about the threat of one, big "regional government" persist, as Neil Kraus points out in a recent State and Local Government Review article about a rural Wisconsin area. Although examples of unsuccessful efforts are not hard to find, lots of collaborations are interesting, important, and successful.
These inter-local and regional efforts involve messy, often gritty, work on the ground. That work is pushing in some new directions and thus is re-shaping the regional envelope.

Re-shaping the Envelope

The ideas and images people bring to this work matter immensely: they shape the options for action that people will likely consider.

For example, practitioners increasingly focus on building capacity to achieve goals rather than on structure. The measure of success is not about creating a new governmental unit; it's about marshaling the capacity to achieve a purpose. That focus frees leaders to act as needed.

Thus, what's called regional governance is just politics, policy, and problem solving at the scale where there is no authoritative governmental unit but there are shared concerns. This is a practical process of historical adaptation to changing contexts and challenges. A concept paper along these lines is on the "Governance" page of the NLC website, and a workbook for local leaders who aim to "get things done regionally" will be available there later in 2012.

A second frontier involves coping with the realization that the physical shape of "the region" depends on the place and the goal or purpose sought. The geography for water resources, for instance, is different from the geography for emergency services. They also involve different intergovernmental challenges, both horizontal (across the region) and vertical (with the state and the feds.) So there's no default "region" either spatially or governmentally. Instead, leaders increasingly let the space and the governance fit the problem that is to be solved.

Third, there's more and more recognition that governance across boundaries requires attention to issues of power and voice and to the question of who benefits? These items are at the core of politics at any scale and are too often absent from "let's all just collaborate" happy talk.

Systems of Regions

A wider frontier for exploration is learning more about the implications of the fact that each region is enmeshed in national systems of regions. For some topics, the system is even international, like economics or immigration. No region is an island unto itself; and none are autonomous siloes. (Think, for example, of the map of "auto communities.")

It's not either/or: each region is a functioning system and it is connected to other regions through networks. They compete and they are interdependent. It's best to keep this duality in mind when you see presentations that, in effect, ignore it: the lists and rankings of "metros" and the maps that show each metro region as a free-standing bar. Those presentations are useful, but they can send the misleading message that regions are essentially separate from one another.

Take economics, for example. The recent emphasis from the Obama administration on international economic connections - exporting abroad - is crucial and commendable. But we also need to recognize the importance of exports and imports among US regional economies, which is where most of the "trade" of most regions occurs. Your local economy is importantly connected to others, both domestic and foreign and local economic development strategies should take that reality into account.

Finally, it's time to see that those economic flows of goods, services and knowledge create the national system of regional economies that constitutes what is called the US economy. In The New Regional Economies (1998), Larry Ledebur and I called this the "Common Market of the United States." National averages and even state averages misrepresent what's going on in the real economy: the system of interconnected regions. We urged that this way of understanding economics in the US should have a key place in economic analyses, including federal policy-making.

We suggested, moreover, that the regional economies collectively should have a national voice. There could be a Forum for the Common Market through which the voices of those regional economies could be articulated into national and state policy discussions.

These are perhaps daunting thoughts. Exploring new frontiers of any sort is risky, exciting and potentially very rewarding activity. We all have a stake in the explorations. Tell Scotty to "beam you up."

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Previous monthly columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage.