Regional Excellence: A Vision for the 2011 State of the Nation

Regional Excellence

Regional Excellence: A Vision for the 2011 State of the Nation

by Bill Dodge

January 8, 2011

The State of the Union provides an opportunity for the President to propose a new vision for the future. Such visions can contribute to restoring hope, and energizing citizens, especially when the nation is anxious about the challenges confronting it. Witness the impact of the New Deal in the Great Depression and the Great Society in the turbulent 1960s.

Such a vision is needed for the 2011 State of the Union.

I have spent my career laboring in the trenches of regional cooperation, assisting local governments and others to find ways to come together to address challenges that cut across individual jurisdictions in both metropolitan and rural regions. Over that time, challenges that demand regional responses -- from transportation and air and water quality to emergency preparedness and future growth -- have become the dominant ones in determining our competitiveness globally and the quality of our lives at home.

I must reluctantly conclude that our success in addressing these common challenges is often no better than fostering cooperation across the political aisle in the U. S. Congress.

Most regions still lack mechanisms, such as councils of governments, which are sufficiently empowered to address common challenges, especially the tough ones like shaping future growth that is affordable, sustainable, and equitable. Most regions still lack the capacity to finance joint initiatives for addressing these challenges, such as building, and maintaining, critical roads and transit systems, providing affordable housing near jobs, and supporting local businesses in the global farmers market.

Few of our efforts to address common challenges are accountable to the public, leading to fragmented responses, often jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction. This all too often results in duplicative services and infrastructure and intra-jurisdictional wars over new development. And all of this regional ineffectiveness is driven by state and federal largesse that all too often supports piecemeal reactions to cross-cutting challenges.

There are signs of positive change. The federal government now passes out some funding on a regional basis, such as transportation and homeland security funding in metropolitan regions. Some state governments also pass out these funds to the other, often more rural, regions. The Obama Administration has launched a Livable Communities demonstration in a sample of regions to foster cooperation in addressing interrelated transportation, housing, and environmental challenges. States are requiring regional plans prior to distributing funding, such as California Senate Bill 375, which calls for adopting regional strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions before receiving transportation funding.

My suggestion for a compelling 2011 State of the Union vision is regional excellence!

We need to build the regional capacity to cooperate until each region -- metropolitan and rural -- has the capacity to address any tough common challenge with confidence. This requires being able to define common challenges, convene stakeholders to design strategies, submit these strategies, and suggested sources of funding for financing them, to local government and public approval, empower those responsible for implementing the strategies, and create citizen and other groups to monitor progress and hold everyone accountable.

To build this capacity, regions need charters that empower local governments and others to address common challenges just as effectively as they address their individual challenges. Such charters advance agreed-upon regional cooperation principles and an agenda of actions for building the capacity to address common challenges. Regional charters will enable local governments and others to work together, effectively, precluding the need to create yet another level of government.

Federal and state governments need to be partners in developing regional charters and reward regions that follow them in addressing common challenges. Moreover, they will also benefit from regional charters, which will inevitably advance models for rebuilding federal/state/local government cooperation.

Finally, the President could especially target the 2011 State of the Union on the group that can make the greatest contribution to regional excellence, even if the group will be its shortest term beneficiary. That is, boomers and even pre-boomers like me. Whereas we distinguished ourselves in addressing some of the compelling challenges of our youth, such as racial and social inequities, we have made fewer contributions as adults. In fact, we have all too often isolated ourselves from following generations and even profited at their expense. Most disturbing, we have avoided addressing tough challenges and appear to accept burdening our children with our inaction.

Maybe the President can help rekindle some of the youthful energy of boomers and call upon us to help build the capacity of each region to address its part of the tough challenges facing the nation. I can think of no better label to attach to my generation than becoming the boomer regionalists that addressed today’s challenges, spared our children the pain of our excesses, and assured a better nation for our grandchildren. And in the process, established models for regional excellence that are the envy of the world.

Regional Excellence pursued by Boomer Regionalists! A dramatic vision for the 2011 State of the Nation!


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