Our View of Localism – Part 3 (Reforming Local Government)

To fully embrace localism as a governing philosophy, we must make our state and local governments more efficient, effective and responsive. To take on more responsibility and deliver solutions more quickly and cost-effectively, our communities must be organized and equipped for the challenges ahead.

First, we must understand the conditions that localism will encounter. There are several serious barriers to the kind of change that localism promises, including the following:

  • Fragmentation – the bewildering and often overlapping collage of jurisdictions makes it very costly and difficult to solve problems or launch bold initiatives
  • Inertia – the sheer number of independent agencies and bureaucratic silos impede the ability of state and local governments to respond to dynamic needs and external forces
  • Inequity – every metro area has winners and losers, but the inherent inequities of fragmentation can make some constituencies indifferent about (if not resistant to) civic progress
  • Conflict – the jumble of jurisdictions, institutions, leaders and constituencies comprising most metro areas can exacerbate tensions, inhibit consensus and thwart constructive change
  • Potential – the competition among neighboring states and localities can be bitter and costly, but it also can obscure each region’s aggregate strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and seriously erode economic performance and living standards
  • Costs – no region has sufficient resources to solve intractable civic problems so long as it is yoked to an overlapping, inefficient and sluggish local government structure
  • Accountability – one of the overlooked consequences of local fragmentation is its impact on accountability; when voters lose touch with their local governments, it is extremely difficult to hold them accountable for ineptitude, poor performance or corruption (see Oliver’s commentary)

These aren’t reasons to forego localism, but they are factors to consider in forging strategies to maximize the prospects of success for localism. The failure to do so could lead to the same kind of paralysis locally that plagues us federally.

So, what must we do to prepare for the challenges of localism? What strategies should we consider to better leverage our local resources and attain enduring civic progress? There are two intertwined sets of strategies to consider, one involving government (public strategies) and the other involving all community sectors (macro strategies).

Public strategies – State and local governments may be even more poorly structured than federal government. They are hamstrung by quirky boundaries, shifting legal powers (state preemption schemes) and scarce resources (compounded by federal and state cuts). To facilitate localism, each region must find the best ways to replace outmoded hierarchical and bureaucratic government structures with modern networked and collaborative structures. Such government-centric strategies include:

  • Recalibrate federal, state and local roles and adopt a modern definition of federalism
  • Shift more power from state to “charter” local governments (i.e., local governments that have restructured, modernized and strengthened their capacities)
  • Forsake state preemption policies for laws that treat local governments as partners in improving local economies, communities, education, infrastructure and accountability
  • Merge county, municipal and special district governments as appropriate
  • Form regional cooperatives of local governments (e.g., councils of governments) to address regional issues & coordinate regional initiatives (e.g., transportation infrastructure)
  • Implement functional cross-jurisdictional mergers (e.g., planning, public works or parks)
  • Unify the accounting, management and financing of public assets (e.g., consolidate public assets across jurisdictions)
  • Create new cross-jurisdictional public entities to plan, lead, finance and carry out initiatives that will enhance civic competitiveness (e.g., infrastructure or education)
  • Launch targeted initiatives to promote cross-system collaboration or improve neighborhood services (e.g., joint pre-K, job training or parks maintenance programs)

In this era of federal paralysis, some metro areas are retooling their governments. Indianapolis created a consolidated metro government (Unigov). Louisville merged with Jefferson County. Copenhagen created a formal public asset corporation. Georgia enacted legislation authorizing local leaders to seek voter approval for a public transit sales tax. In such cases, leaders are empowering regions to tackle civic issues, reduce per capita government costs and control their fiscal destinies.

Macro strategies – To be competitive, communities cannot rely solely on government reforms. They also must mobilize diverse constituencies and promote civic progress across all sectors. They can do this by replacing conventional top-down strategies with ideas for improving cooperation among governments, institutions, foundations and businesses, pursuing such measures as:

  • Develop a formal civic mechanism for launching collaborative metro initiatives
  • Promote the distributed organization of local stakeholders around local institutional hubs (e.g., churches, schools, town halls, civic clubs and libraries)
  • Build diverse local support for downtown revitalization projects and other efforts to develop distinctive and unifying downtowns and regional activity centers
  • Develop, fund and sustain cross-sector economic catalysts (e.g., incubators, accelerators, manufacturing start-ups, training centers and development corporations)
  • Champion initiatives to prepare workers & businesses for modern economy, overhaul fragmented, legacy functions (e.g., economic & workforce development)
  • Strengthen accountability for extra-governmental organizations with transparent processes

By improving cross-sector partnerships and embracing the best practices of all sectors, such strategies are intended to enhance local capacity and agility. Indianapolis created a formal CEO structure for promoting long-term regional growth. Pittsburgh developed an informal civic alliance to spur major civic investments. St. Louis formed a 501c3 entity to develop an innovation district (Cortex). Louisville created a manufacturing incubator. New civic networks continue to blossom (e.g., Birmingham, Knoxville and Minneapolis). And while such entities vary, they share a commitment to collaborative leadership, networked governance and the harnessing of civic wealth.

We should turn to localism as a response to increasingly fossilized federal government, but our approach to localism must include innovative strategies for modernizing local government and fostering collaboration across public and private sectors. The most successful metro areas will not be the smug or timid, but rather the fearless and innovative.