Regional/Greater Community Development News – September 24, 2012

    Multi-jurisdictional intentional regional communities are, in all cases, “Greater Communities” where “community motive” is at work at a more than a local scale. This newsletter provides a scan of regional community, cooperation and collaboration activity as reported in news media and blogs.
Still on the road, so this edition features a new opinion piece from Bill Dodge. Recent stories can be found at Twitter and Delicious.

Regional Excellence                                                                                   

Plant an Intergovernmental Reform Garden Now:
A Modest Proposal for Public Interest Groups and Their Friends

By Bill Dodge

            The National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) is preparing a “Memo to National Leaders”.  It calls for creating a new intergovernmental policy council to help restore the health of our ailing federal/state/local government system.  The council would advance governance reforms to make the system more effective in providing the services and infrastructure required to restore our equally ailing economy. 

Initial topics suggested for the council’s agenda  --  adopting a Value Added Tax (VAT) shared by all levels of governments, as it is in Australia, and empowering innovative mechanisms, such as for-benefit organizations, to bring old stakeholders together in new ways. 

            Neal Peirce, the syndicated columnist, argues that the “unkempt (intergovernmental  system) garden needs a plan” and NAPA’s proposed intergovernmental policy council could prepare and pursue it, given support from all levels of government, starting with the White House and the Congress. 

            All well and good. 

But what will give this new council any better chance at success than its predecessor, the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR)?  Fellow recovering regionalists still look reverently upon ACIR’s efforts to design, test, and promote new regional governance models.  However, they are also haunted by ACIR’s inability to engage key government partners in controversial discussions  --  and all discussions of  intergovernmental reform are controversial  --  and its tragic demise in the polarized politics of the new century.  

            Moreover, creating an intergovernmental policy council could take years and even then it might have difficulty contending with the dysfunctional dynamics of the Nation’s capital. 

Thus a call to action by public interest groups and their friends. 

If the intergovernmental system is to be reformed, public interest groups that represent towns, cities, counties, regional organizations and states need to plant the seeds  --  the proven existing and practical new models for local, state, federal, and especially intergovernmental governance.  They need to be the gardeners who will foment a “revolution from the bottom up”, as opined by Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.   And they need to plant the seeds now as all levels of governance are in crisis, including my beloved regions.
            Regional cooperation has been one of the positive intergovernmental reforms in my lifetime, providing a new governance capacity to tackle the tough transportation, air and water quality, emergency preparedness, sustainable growth and other challenges that cut across all levels of government and are critical to keeping the United States competitive in the global marketplace. 

It has had its flaws.  Most regional organizations still have too little power or funding to address the toughest common challenges.  But, these governance flaws have not thwarted achieving real success, due in no small part to federal and state government initiatives, along with enough largesse to smooth over intergovernmental infighting.

Now, with growing deficits, local governments cannot depend upon federal, state or other public partners to develop or fund regional initiatives.   Nor can they expect other sectors  --  private, academic, non-profit, or civic  --  to pick up the slack.  And without well-heeled partners helping them to address the toughest challenges, regional governance flaws will be quickly exposed and threaten future success. 

Bottom line:  Restoring our national economy requires rebuilding our intergovernmental system.

Local governments, therefore, need to have access to the best ideas for governance reforms, ones that can strengthen their capacity to work together until they can address the toughest challenges, with confidence and limited outside support.  They need models for building their governance capacity to:

·                      address all emerging cross-cutting challenges, no matter how controversial, before they explode into crises,
·                      design joint action plans to address these challenges and then empower themselves to negotiate their successful implementation, with each other and other sectors,
·                      propose options for funding priority actions, from primarily local sources, even if this means taking them to the public for approval,
·                      hold themselves accountable for implementing priority actions, even if this results in public embarrassment or reduced support for nonperformers, and
·                      maybe most importantly, report to the public on their successes and failures on a regular basis. 

State and federal governments are still critical.  They need to endorse regional capacity-building efforts and reward them with supporting legislation and, to the extent available, funding for action plans to address cross-cutting challenges.  State and federal governments also need to continue to provide incentives to make sure that more distressed regions, urban and rural, can complete on a “level playing field” with more affluent ones. 

The same case could be made for similar reforms across the intergovernmental system.  Neighboring local governments need to find better ways to cooperate, and share the benefits, of economic development initiatives.  Neighboring states need to find better ways to cooperate, especially when their boundaries divide up the metropolitan regions where over half of us live.  And all levels of government need to find better ways to plan, finance, implement, monitor, and report on initiatives to address their own challenges, especially those that affect their neighbors as well.

A modest proposal. 

What if the public interest groups and their friends sent out a request for ideas for reforming local/state/federal governance?  Their research centers and members have a long history of governance reform and would be ideal candidates to advance ideas.  So would NAPA, the Alliance for Innovation, the National Civic League, and academic research institutes, along with active and retired government, academic, and community leaders.

 Simultaneously, the public interest groups could appoint a working group  --  a bottom-up, informal, prototype intergovernmental policy council  --   to select the best, and boldest, ideas for governance reforms to explore this fall.  They could use their research centers to recruit experts and host dialogues to convert the ideas into practical actions.  Then, they could turn to their members and staffs to test and implement them.

I suspect that national foundations would welcome the opportunity to provide seed funding for such an effort.  Moreover, I am sure that I, and my column-writing colleagues, would welcome the opportunity to share these ideas in our columns and solicit reactions and additional ideas for governance reform.

            Collectively, these actions could become an informal 2013 Intergovernmental Reform Agenda.  It might result in a somewhat messy garden, but if a few of  the reforms quickly bear fruit across the country, it would help restore confidence that governance reform has not been fatally poisoned by political infighting and encourage others to advance good ideas in future years.  It could also provide a compelling rationale for quickly creating an intergovernmental policy council to keep planting and harvesting a garden of most promising reforms.  Finally, it could help demonstrate how the public interest groups can keep such a council accountable for advancing the most critical reforms. 

Members of public interest groups are the most important consumers of a bountiful garden of intergovernmental reforms.  If the public interest groups don’t plant the seeds, who will?  And, if they don’t do it now, how will our intergovernmental system ever build the capacity to address the challenges that will keep our economy competitive and our communities the best places to live?


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.

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