The Regional Communities Blog is pleased to add, as a regular feature, the Regional Excellence column by Bill Dodge.
The First Regional President
by Bill Dodge
Regions have emerged as the nation’s new communities. President-Elect Barack Obama, if he chooses to be the first regional President, can focus federal government efforts on building the capacity of these new communities to address our toughest challenges.
These new regional communities are both urban and rural. The more urban ones evolved organically from small settlements into central cities and sprawling suburbs. The more rural ones create a national, even global, identity for groups of towns linked by common agricultural and natural areas. Successful regions attract the mix of entrepreneurs, capital, facilities, and workers needed to drive the national economy and provide the mix of amenities critical to living the good life, neither of which can be usually provided by individual jurisdictions.
Regions are often the most local level for delivering cost-effective water, sewer, transit, and other public services. They have also become the most appropriate level for addressing the toughest challenges. Regions are large enough to encompass economic marketplaces and environmental watersheds/airsheds, as well as rich and poor jurisdictions. Yet regions are small enough to engage community leaders and citizens in pursuing practical strategies to provide affordable infrastructure and services, protect threatened environments, and foster robust economic development.
Unfortunately, regions are almost impossible to govern. Federal, state, and local governments have created single purpose planning groups to address particular challenges, sometimes coordinated through regional councils of governments. In addition, other sectors have established regional chambers of commerce, united ways, academic institutes, community foundations, and citizens leagues. At times, these regional groups join forces to design strategies to address common challenges.
However, few regions have invested in building the capacity required to breathe life into these strategies, including providing the tools to test public acceptance, raise adequate financing, empower implementation mechanisms, and evaluate performance. This lack of capacity not only results in failed strategies, it puts regions stateside at a disadvantage with their global counterparts, which are being supported by their national governments and held accountable for addressing common challenges.
Building regional capacity would benefit from, and might only succeed, with a regional President.
First, President-Elect Obama could declare his regional citizenship. We are a nation of “closet” regionalists. We are proactive regional consumers, taking advantage of what the region offers, but reluctant regional stewards, unwilling to work with our neighbors to address common challenges. We have to give up some of our wasteful independence and become practicing regional citizens. President-Elect Obama could be the first to declare his regional citizenship, sign a regional pledge, and encourage the rest of us to do likewise.
Second, President-Elect Obama could use the White House “bully pulpit” to advance regional cooperation. He needs to quickly hire regional advisors, possibly as part of an Office of Intergovernmental Affairs that rebuilds the capacity of federal, state, and local governments to work together. He could issue an Executive Order directing federal agencies to identify regional opportunities for achieving agency goals and offer incentives to take advantage of them. He could work with the Congress to develop new tools for building regional capacity, such as by reinventing a region-friendly Department of Housing and Regional Development.
Third, President-Elect Obama could work with the Congress to fund the preparation of regional compacts to shape renewable growth. The overwhelming task facing each region is to understand a growing list of interconnected challenges -- decaying infrastructure, high fuel costs, economic meltdown, excessive CO2 emissions, rising foreclosure rates, fragmented service delivery, and shrinking resources -- and negotiate the agreements for addressing these challenges and shaping renewable, sustainable growth. The Federal government could offer matching grants to regions to negotiate these regional growth compacts and implement their priority initiatives. It could require regions to report regularly on implementation progress and tie future federal funding to regional performance.
Fourth, President-Elect Obama could meet regularly with regional representatives to build the capacity to address tough challenges. Initially, he could do this in annual White House Conferences on Regional Excellence. Over time, regions should create their own forum, such as a Council of Regions, to share progress in addressing tough challenges, pursue a National Regional Agenda to build regional capacity, and meet regularly with the President, Congress, and federal agencies.
Becoming regional citizens, building regional capacity, negotiating regional growth compacts, and creating a national regional forum -- four keys to addressing our toughest challenges. All depend on a President who practices his regional citizenship.
Bill Dodge assists community leaders and citizens to build their capacity to address regional challenges. He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and can be reached at WilliamRDodge@aol.com.