How should we overcome political paralysis and take responsibility for our own communities? In this commentary, we suggest community-wide strategies for adopting localism as a governing philosophy. In subsequent pieces, we will focus on reforming local governments and restructuring local financing.
First, a little context. Understanding the key elements of localism sets the stage for change.
Localism’s promising characteristics, including the following, suggest the actions we must take:
- Self-reliance – an inexorable drive to assume primary responsibility for local progress and problem-solving and harnessing the local resources needed to sustain that progress
- Collaboration – a steely dedication to diverse, multi-disciplinary and cooperative problem-solving
- Strategy – a steady devotion to maximizing the community’s long-term competitiveness
- Pragmatism – a thirst for new ideas, entrepreneurial solutions, compromise and iterative change
- Opportunism – the agility to seize opportunities, leverage local resources and reform institutions
- Accountability – the discipline to measure progress and track the status of approved initiatives
Second, one recent trend could accelerate localism.
As observed by Richard Florida, US mobility rates (i.e., percent changing residence in the last year) are down for nearly every group, and overall mobility has fallen from 20% in 1985 to 10% in 2018, the lowest since 1948. This trend has many causes (e.g., economic stress, housing prices and student debt), but attachment to place could be the most pivotal.
Localism calls for several community-wide strategies, as highlighted below.
Leadership: The most vital strategy is to assemble a representative yet independent local leadership team, one that is visionary, decisive, disciplined, collaborative and respectful. Civic leadership must forego partisanship and quick fixes for a pragmatic focus on long-term results. Leaders must then organize, amass and sustain the requisite resources for charting and attaining the community’s vision and goals.
Organization: Localism requires a powerful civic network that represents all constituencies (e.g., businesses, governments, colleges, foundations, entrepreneurs, investors, workers, nonprofits and churches), fosters collaboration and funds ample problem-solving capacity. The structure may be formal, informal or hybrid. It may include a formal leadership board, merged government, public asset corporation, informal coalition and other structures (e.g., 501c4 or 501c6). Whatever its form, the civic network must have the clout to mobilize partners around data-driven, outcome-oriented solutions.
Civic engagement: Broad community support for bold goals cannot be assured without robust civic engagement. Competitive elections and strong voter turnout must be championed. Emerging civic leaders must be recruited to join civic groups and run for office. Candidates for local office (especially executive office) must be trained and candidates for state office favoring local innovation must be embraced. A comprehensive engagement process, including formal public meetings, informal civic gathering places, an accessible crowdsourcing platform and a proven community outreach mechanism, must be created. Finally, an inspiring neighborhood service, infrastructure and renewal agenda must be developed.
Once a community has adopted the leadership, organizational and engagement strategies described above, it should consider several other strategies, including the following:
- Discipline – adopt a disciplined, systematic approach for ensuring success across traditional boundaries (like Civic Way’s See It, Fix It, Own It, Track It framework)
- Planning – forge an ambitious vision based on legacy, assets and liabilities, set long-term, tangible goals aligned with the community’s vision, capacity and support and maintain a long-term agenda for the community beyond the next election cycle
- Diagnosis – conduct a candid assessment of the current situation and local institutions, inventory major public-private assets, employers, property owners and stakeholders, define significant threats and risks and identify realistic opportunities for change
- Action – scan best practices, seek new ideas, confront tough issues across institutional silos, demonstrate a willingness to place risky long-term bets on the future, test unconventional solutions for conventional problems (e.g., robotics) and mobilize local resources around initiatives
- Consensus – pursue every opportunity to reinforce community cohesiveness, publicize problems to be solved, celebrate success stories, engage local media, join national civic networks, participate in global networks and enhance the community’s global visibility
- Monitoring – regularly measure progress, track the success of approved civic initiatives and adopt mechanisms for ensuring the transparency and accountability of non-elected leaders and entities
As a governing philosophy, localism calls for fixing civic problems from the ground up. Judging from experience, localism offers enticing potential. Columbus built a globally competitive economy and became Ohio’s largest city. Copenhagen overcome a 18% unemployment rate to become one of the world’s wealthiest cities. Greenville (SC) attracted new industry and built a distinctive downtown. Indianapolis unified its governments and became a national leader in sports and life sciences. Pittsburgh rebounded from the steel industry’s collapse to become a global robotics leader. Since 2016, several other areas have created new civic networks (e.g., Birmingham, Broward County, Knoxville and Minneapolis).
According to Tom Friedman, Lancaster (PA) offers another testimonial for localism. Just over 20 years ago, Lancaster faced rising crime rates and the demise of its biggest employer. Its response? It built a diverse civic leadership network to find nonpartisan solutions to intractable problems. The results? A revitalized downtown, a new stadium, a minor-league baseball team, a new convention center-hotel complex and targeted neighborhood improvements. Today, the Lancaster County Community Foundation has over $100 million in assets and United Way funds collaborative, multi-year programs. In 2018, Forbes Magazine named Lancaster one of “10 Coolest US Cities to Visit.”