1.11.2012 | This election cycle has proved one thing: our faith in government and our trust in key institutions is clinging desperately to the roof of the car like the Romney family dog. Congress bickers like an old married couple. Banks take the money and run. Lobbyists baldly peddle influence. Meanwhile, family budgets have shrunk just as state and local governments cut back on key services and privatize everything from bridges to parking meters in a desperate attempt to make ends meet.
The National League of Cities recognizes the fragile state we’re in, epecially at the local level. In response, it has launched a “governance and civic engagement” effort, as its website say, to:
contribute to a national effort to strengthen democracy and governance at the local level by involving residents in government and public life and by focusing on developing an inclusive, collaborative, and effective relationship built on trust between citizens and government.
From promising practices in cities across the nation to a toolkit for local government to foster civic involvement, the site offers a rich set of resources for restoring our faith in government, joining together to make change, and injecting a sense of “us” in our daily lives.
Yet these civic issues and solutions aren’t contained by local government boundaries. Instead, governance and civic life are metrowide and even regional affairs. To be most effective, municipalities should work across borders (and states) to build community and civic life, to improve government transparency, or to find solutions to pressing issues. As the League of Cities puts it on their website:
Problems and opportunities often do not respect municipal boundaries. So, local leaders find themselves crossing those boundaries in order to make their city a better place. NLC provides ideas and information to assist city leaders in working with one or several or many other jurisdictions in the area to achieve a goal.
So what does that cross-border governance and civic action look like? In the greater Pittsburgh area, for example, the CONNECT group helps communities find mutually beneficial ways to cooperate on projects in order to reduce service duplication and to unify the policy agenda of the area. Or in the Puget Sound region, the Community Steward Initiative helps networks of active citizens to develop land use plans that retain the region’s historical and natural character of the region.
And how does a region foster this kind of collaboration? Bill Barnes of the National League of Cities, and Kathryn Foster, of the University of Buffalo Regional Institute–and both BRR members–answer that question in their essay, “Regional Problem-Solving: A Fresh Look at What It Takes.” [pdf]
Instead of framing regional governance by its form (how it can create structures to work regionally), the authors reframe the issue as one of capacity. What is the ability of people and institutions to come together to act on a specific regional problem? And how can we build that capacity? In effect, they present a new tool to decipher the key aspects of regional governance and its the capacity to work on specific issues at specific times.
The authors suggest planners weigh capacity in five realms: actors, agenda, internal capacity, external capacity, and implementation experience. These conditions become the important determining factors in a region’s capacity to work on a regional scale.
Understanding the capacity of actors, for example, involves understanding the wherewithal of the actors to achieve a goal. What is the group’s composition, its leadership reputation, and its commitment to the goal? Likewise the agenda is critical to successful regional efforts as well. How is the agenda framed (vision, priorities and goals), and how thoroughly the agenda is understood by key stakeholders?
Using this framework, they note, groups could, for example, explore which of the five dimensions might their region enhance to best tackle problem X or Y? Or, which indicators of capacity are likely to change in the future and how will those changes affect the group’s ability to tackle a certain issue?
The framework ultimately allows practitioners to shift their focus “the number or arrangement of local governments” to the capacity of a region to act across a range of issues. It also allows leaders to tailor the solutions to their own individual situation at a particular moment. Rather than a broad, one-size-fits-all approach, the exercise of assessing capacity to solve a specific problem remains focused on the “local/regional” situation. What works in Charlotte might not work in Boise.
The authors note several other strengths of this approach for analysts studying how and why some efforts at regional solutions work and some do not. Ultimately, the essay provides a fresh look at what regional governance entails and how we might break through the gridlock and distrust and forge fresh solutions to local issues.
The NLC “governance and civic engagement” site has much to offer. We urge you to check it out.