Gird Your Regional Loins: Chart a New Path

It’s time for local governments and their residents to gird their regional loins.

Regions are critical to our competitiveness in the global economy and quality of life at home.  Regions are the level at which we need to address many of our most pressing challenges, from shaping sustainable growth to overcoming inequities across jurisdictional boundaries.  Regional councils of governments, along with other regional organizations, design the strategies to move people and goods, provide affordable housing near employment, prepare for natural and man-made threats, keep air breathable and water potable, and reduce our carbon footprint.

Regions have proud histories of addressing common challenges in cooperation with state and Federal government partners.  As challenges emerged, state and Federal governments would create incentives for regional public, private, nonprofit, labor, and civic interests to come together.  They would offer financial assistance to prepare plans and help finance their implementation.  Witness the long, though sometimes jaded, the legacy of addressing transportation challenges.

Local governments would turn to existing regional organizations to take the lead.  However, often with only enough capacity to do part of the job effectively  —  that is design strategies.  Less capacity was provided for financing the implementation of key actions, monitoring progress, or holding anyone accountable for success, much less anticipate the inevitable next round of challenges.

Maybe most critically, local residents were rarely encouraged to be practicing regional citizens and help design and implement strategies.  In fact, all too often, they were recruited to engage in turf wars, pitting jurisdiction against jurisdiction, and undermining the capacity to address common challenges.

All of this local infighting was detrimental, but not necessarily catastrophic.  Yes, the regional capacity to address common challenges was much weaker than the capacity of individual local governments to address the challenges within their boundaries.  But, state and Federal governments were able to use a combination of legislative mandates and financial incentives to close the gap.

The future does not appear to be like the past.  Federal and state support for regional initiatives has been compromised by ideological infighting and the unwillingness of the “haves” to share their wealth.  There have been a few state exceptions, such as California’s regional initiatives to balance jobs and housing, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and allocate housing needs.  And nationally there has been an explosion in regional referenda to finance transit and other improvements as local leaders and regional citizens lost hope in higher levels of government.  But the availability of new local government largesse is shrinking rapidly.

One can hope that the new administration will see the merits of regional cooperation.  Or breathe life into a trillion-dollar infrastructure program.  But historic precedents are not encouraging.  Witness the wholesale abolishment of Federal government-supported regional planning assistance in the Reagan administration.  And administrations from both parties allowing a transportation trust fund to survive, but on life support.

It’s time for local governments and regional citizen partners to build the capacity of their regions to address common challenges, successfully, regardless of the state of higher governments.  That is not to say that state and federal assistance is not important.  But local governments need to have at least as much capacity to address common challenges as they do local ones.  Or they will fail at both.

My recommendation is that each region consider preparing a “charter” that provides the interconnected venues and tools to address common challenges, collectively and effectively.   As part of the regional charter, each region would also negotiate an agreement with state and Federal governments, empowering the charter and defining the responsibilities of each of the participants.  Such as the region addressing key challenges on a timely basis and state and Federal governments targeting multi-year resources on implementing actions to address the challenges.

Why now?  The intergovernmental (Federal, state, local) system, which historically helped build our country, is broken.  Reform is critical and needs to come from the bottom-up.  Regional charters will empower local governments and regional citizens to address common challenges.  And, suggest the reforms required to make the intergovernmental system work.

Who wants to be remembered for being a Regional Charter pioneer?

William R. (Bill) Dodge has assisted community leaders and citizens to foster regional cooperation and build successful regional communities over the past three decades. Bill has been a visiting professor in graduate schools of public affairs and administration. He co-authored Shaping a Region’s Future: A Guide to Strategic Decision Making for Regions, a manual to guide regional strategic planning processes, and wrote Regional Excellence: Governing Together to Compete Globally and Flourish Locally, a book to guide explorations of regional decision making.  He also served as the Executive Director of the  National Association of Regional Councils.


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