A Regional New Year’s Resolution, by Bill Dodge, Regional Excellence

Regional Excellence

A Regional New Year’s Resolution

by Bill Dodge

Ugly cats! The phrase caught my attention as I was being introduced at a regional gathering. I had become used to the kind comments, and often hyperbole, of introductions, but I had never heard “He’s the sort of person who loves ugly cats!” She went on to clarify her comment, suggesting that regions were like ugly cats, and one had to have a something akin to a mother’s love to want to foster regional cooperation.

I have now labored for over three decades in the trenches of regional cooperation, helping local leaders and citizens to design ways to cooperate to address cross-cutting challenges. Unfortunately, regions have all too often been ugly cats. And that legacy might threaten the future of regional cooperation, just when it is needed most.

Regional cooperation has had some incredible successes, but it continues to fail to address the tough challenges in most regions. And the challenges are getting tougher, from decaying infrastructure to declining air and water quality, increasing natural and terrorist threats, accelerating climate change, volatile energy costs, and profligate growth. Without success in addressing the toughest challenges -- the true test for governing regions -- “bottom-up” regional cooperation will die, and along with it the ability of individual citizens and their local governments to shape their own futures.

Unless regional cooperation provides an effective tool to address tough challenges, and quickly, it will be displaced by "top down" state and national government actions in response to public frustration. And there is no guarantee that higher levels of government will do better.

I draw this conclusion, reluctantly. Have I, and the many colleagues I respect, been wasting our working years practicing regional cooperation? Were our efforts to educate individuals, establish regional mechanisms, share public services, and design compacts to address timely challenges all for naught?

A resounding no! Our efforts have resulted in building some amazing regional cooperation mechanisms -- from regional councils of governments to regional chambers of commerce, academic institutes, citizens leagues, and sewer and transit authorities. It has resulted in addressing pressing regional challenges in every region across the country -- especially transportation challenges. Maybe, most importantly it has resulted in educating individuals on the importance of regional cooperation and engaging them in cooperative efforts.

But, alas, regional cooperation increasingly appears to be bumping up against an impenetrable governance ceiling. Whereas regional mechanisms have nurtured more sophisticated visioning, problem-solving, service-delivery, and even performance auditing capacities, most lack the powers, resources, and especially public support to address the increasingly tougher regional challenges. And the gap between the capacity of these mechanisms and the emerging challenges appears to be growing.

The “Achilles Heel” of the best of regional cooperation efforts has been the lack of “clout” commensurate with the challenges being addressed. My fear is that asking weak regional cooperation mechanisms to take on more, and more demanding challenges, will not only result in fewer successes but mortally weaken the very places that drive our and the global economy. Citizens need to break out of their “local” mindsets, consider the regional “unthinkable”, and advocate for the regional “unheard-of”, if regional cooperation is to have the powers and tools to make regions work. With the support of, not the displacement by, state and national governments. And now!

Regrettably, all too many stateside regions are already behind their counterparts world wide. The European Community focuses its economic development assistance on regions, resulting in its national governments creating empowered regional organizations, with resources, across the continent and channel. Canadian provincial governments have experimented with almost every option for strengthening regional cooperation, including regional confederations of local governments and regional governments. National governments worldwide are creating regional administrative agencies to assure the delivery of critical educational, health, transportation, and other local services, effectively. I have recently spent time in Ghana, a developing country, and Chile, a developed country, and both have established such regional entities. The rest of the world increasingly empowers regional mechanisms to address the toughest cross-cutting challenges. And then holds them accountable for their performance.

Stateside regions tend to quickly dismiss most options for strengthening regional cooperation. They mask their objections in our tradition of independent local governments; that government closest to the people is the best. Less frequently voiced is that weak regional cooperation reinforces the tyranny of individual local governments, especially those that are affluent, think they can take care of their own needs, and are unwilling to cast their lot with the regional hoi polloi. Some of these objections have merit in that many of the overseas actions are “top-down”, limiting local government and citizen involvement in designing regional cooperation models or participating in their activities. But, thus far, few regions stateside have been inspired to pursue “bottom-up” models that provide real powers and resources to regional cooperation, in spite of national government transportation and other funding incentives, unless mandated by the random acts of state governments, such as in California, Minnesota, and Oregon.

James Madison would probably relish the opportunity to participate in strengthening regional cooperation. He wrote extensively on the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, which had created the governance mechanism that lacked "clout" in its time. The Articles fostered discussion on common issues, but provided little real power to pursue common actions among the very independent states.

By 1786, the repeated failure of the states to come together to address common challenges prompted George Washington and other founding fathers to call for reexamining the Articles of Confederation. Interestingly, it was a regional issue, riparian rights on the Potomac River, which was frequently cited to make the case for this reexamination. Most of the states appeared to desire minor adjustments in the Articles, but Madison concluded that a new social contract needed to be negotiated among the states. He explored all of the historic governance models, going back to Greece and Rome, compared them to the Articles of Confederation, and proffered arguments that probably succeeded beyond his grandest hopes, in the design and adoption of a new charter, the United States Constitution.

To succeed, however, he had to challenge the conventional wisdom of his times, that Charles de Secondat Montesquieu was correct and republics worked best in small geographic areas. Only in small republics were elected representatives close enough to the people who elected them. Madison countered that the states were too small to represent the breath of interests found across the new United States. He drew upon Adam Smith’s argument in the Wealth of Nations that the economic interaction in a larger marketplace produces better products than in a smaller one. Similarly, he argued that the inclusiveness of a larger republic would pressure state representatives to rise above their petty biases to solve common challenges.

But only if the larger republic has the "clout" to address common challenges. As a result, the delegates in Philadelphia devoted most of their time to designing the mechanisms and enumerating the powers and resources of the national government, and then wisely reserved the balance for the states.

Over two centuries later, our regions are struggling with the same governance dilemma. Like the founding fathers, community leaders and citizens have created an abundance of mechanisms to address regional challenges. Some resemble the Articles of Confederation, such as regional councils of governments, though at times they have secured powers from state and national governments, such as to prepare the plans required to receive national transportation funding. Some have substantial powers, but usually only for narrowly-defined tasks, such as delivering water, sewer, and transit services. Some are created by state and national governments, especially in crises, such as the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority when the Atlanta region could not adopt a common strategy for addressing its transportation and related air quality challenges. But few can claim to have the "clout" to address the toughest challenges with confidence.

Like Madison, I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last few years exploring existing and potential ways to breathe life into regional cooperation. And, like Madison, I have concluded that regions will not work, will not be able to address tough regional challenges effectively, until they have their own charters, ones that define the roles, responsibilities, and relationships of citizens, local governments, and regional mechanisms, and the means for financing and monitoring the initiatives to address regional challenges.

Designing, implementing, and monitoring regional charters requires sufficient individuals -- community leaders and citizens -- declaring their regional citizenship and demanding such charters and holding them accountable. In addition, regional charters will never succeed unless empowered by state government legislation and supported by national government incentives.

Once adopted, regional charters will need to be tested through negotiating and implementing compacts to shape future growth. No region can achieve excellence until it can shape sustainable, equitable, cooperative, renewable growth region wide. Finally, regional charters would benefit from, and might even require the establishment of, state, national, and even global councils of regions that facilitate exchange of regional experiences and advocate for state, national, and international support of regional charters.

I would like to make a toast to all fellow regionalists for the New Year, 2009. May we resolve to clothe our regions in the charters needed to address the toughest challenges! And become loved, or at least liked, by community leaders and citizens!


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.