A National Coalition of Regions?
Trading Capacity for Cash
by Bill Dodge
The 2012 Annual Conference of the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) in St. Petersburg showcased NARC’s efforts in an incredibly challenging 112th Congress.
NARC is keeping its member regional councils up-to-date on opportunities through its eRegions newsletter, preparing timely handbooks on regional challenges ranging from poverty to solar energy, and guiding national demonstrations on new regional approaches, in collaboration with federal and other partners. Member accomplishments are equally impressive, even as regional challenges are exploding and federal and state resources are shrinking.
This success is not new. NARC and its sister national regional associations have a proud history of advocating for legislation and funding that facilitates cooperation in addressing transportation, economic development, and other regional challenges.
However, the national regional associations have always had inadequate resources, in part, because they divide up all too few, and often underfunded, regional organizations. Each of them tends to represent a particular type of regional organization. NARC primarily represents regional planning agencies and councils of government; the National Association of Development Organizations, regional economic development districts; the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations, independent regional transportation planning organizations; the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, regional chamber of commerce directors; and similar organizations for regional emergency preparedness, aging, and other activities.
Moreover, as regional challenges have become more inclusive, cutting across all types of regional organizations, national regional associations are often pursuing parallel but independent strategies, further stretching their already limited resources.
Bringing national regional associations together to pursue collective efforts is like herding javelinas. Even when they succeed, such as in the national regional summits sponsored by NARC, resources are rarely available to follow up on even the most promising opportunities. Addressing common needs affecting all regional organizations, such as building a collective regional capacity to foster sustainable or even equitable growth, remain ethereal will-o-de-wisps.
Now, however, the national regional associations themselves are struggling to survive. The rapid reduction in federal government largesse has led to the same program and staff reductions seen in local governments. NARC is increasing membership dues just to sustain the core staff required to represent its members.
Ironically, over the past few years, federal government interest in regional cooperation has grown. Regions are increasingly seen as the most appropriate level for bringing federal, state, and local interests together to effectively address common challenges, such as emergency preparedness and sustainable communities. This interest helped fund NARC’s recent accomplishments. The federal interest prevails; however, federal funding is disappearing.
Maybe it’s time to reconsider the way regional interests are represented in federal and state governments. For example, national regional associations should consider conducting joint efforts, such as having a single Washington-based legislative conference. Such joint activities would also facilitate preparing a common national regional agenda to advance with the U. S. Congress and other regional supporters.
Preparing a national regional agenda itself would also benefit from joint efforts. Coincidentally, NARC just created a new Center for Regional Research to explore regional challenges. The Center could help develop partnerships between national regional associations and academic and other research institutions to examine potential topics and proffer practical actions for such an agenda. The federal government, along with national foundations, could target their shrinking resources on these collaborative efforts.
If any of these joint efforts are to succeed, individual members of national regional associations need to take the lead. They pay the dues and dictate the associations’ agendas. Cities and counties have wrestled with similar challenges, and used the power of the purse to assure that their representation in Washington and state capitals is coordinated and has as much substantive rigor and political clout as possible.
Individual members also need to help negotiate the intergovernmental deals required to make regions work. Given that federal and state governments will have inadequate resources to fund future regional initiatives, they need to be persuaded to empower regions to address the tough challenges more independently, such as by providing priority funding to regions that prepare regional charters and invest in strengthening their capacity to cooperate. Maybe “Trading Capacity for Cash” can be the mantra for a national regional agenda.
These ideas are not new. NARC also held its 2000 Annual Conference in St. Petersburg on the theme of the future of regional cooperation. In the opening session, the panelists pretended to be in the year 2020. I moderated that session and hobbled out on stage with a cane and wore a grey wig. One of the panelists wore sunglasses that allowed him to review his email; another speculated that regions had replaced states.
The most common, and maybe promising, conclusion of panelists: NARC had helped bring together all national regional associations, and their public interest group, foundation, academic, and other friends, in a National Coalition of Regions to collectively represent regional interests in federal and state governments.
It’s over half way to 2020. Google, Apple and others are already perfecting glasses that double as wearable computers. Maybe the national regional associations could start conducting joint activities in 2012 that lay the groundwork for a National Coalition of Regions before 2020.
Bill Dodge is looking for a few good regions that are interested in designing regional charters to strengthen their capacity to take bold actions to address tough common challenges. He is the author of Regional Excellence, and is writing a new book on regional charters. WilliamRDodge@aol.com