Syndicated Features Archive
Under Pressure To Change
New Paradigm For Local Government
By Dennis Church
The pressure on governments
at all levels to change they way they do business is growing steadily.
Public confidence in governmental institutions is low. Polls show
many people feel a deep anxiety about the future. People no longer
take a better future for their children as an article of faith.
For local government,
increasing demands for services and more and more mandates from higher
levels of government are straining budgets at a time when there is
little prospect for a sustained growth in revenues. Citizens expect
and are demanding more and better facilities and services and at the
same time want relief from taxes.
These pressures are forcing
many to rethink their assumptions about how local government should
be managed, and interest in new and creative approaches is high. There
is much talk of "reinventing government," and the political
climate is creating an opportunity to make basic structural reforms
that hold the promise of improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness
of public management.
The conditions that permit
basic changes in outlook develop slowly. They often develop almost
invisibly, until one day people suddenly notice that they are seeing
things differently. We all see the world with the aid of what might
be called "mental maps" -- those recalled patterns which
give shape and definition to the world around us. They help us make
sense of the world for a time, but gradually more and more of reality
just doesn't fit. Eventually the old maps simply don't work anymore,
new ways of seeing are suggested, and a spasm of change occurs. We
throw out the old maps and adopt new ones which make much better sense
of the world.
The role and concept of
local government is now on the brink of such a change. The textbook
on leading and managing local governments is being rewritten. The
old and the new can of course be characterized in many ways, but this
change can best be described as a shift in how relationships are understood.
There are at least four basic relationships involved:
- Between the local government
and the community it governs.
- Between local government
and higher levels of government.
- Between a local government
and the local governments of surrounding communities.
- Between the leaders
of a local government and that government's workforce.
Authority -- command and
control -- is increasingly being recognized as simply an ineffective
and inefficient way to get many things done. Communities and businesses
are reaching the limits of their tolerance for command and control
regulation from local government, and attention is shifting to market
based approaches, incentives, assistance programs, and so on. Local
governments are likewise reaching the limits of their tolerance for
mandates from above. More and more local leaders are speaking out
on the irrationally of applying uniform federal or even state bureaucratic
controls on diverse communities, and the insights born of this process
are in turn influencing their attitudes toward the regulation of their
own communities. Regional cooperation is a matter of serious attention
in many areas, but big cities have learned that they can't just push
around their smaller neighbors and state governments won't do the
shoving for them. And finally, local government managers are abandoning
the idea that their bureaucracies can be simply commanded to perform
better -- forced to do so by tighter systems of accountability and
Instead of relying so
heavily on authority and command, local governments are shifting to
- Demand management.
Taxing and spending (one of the most burdensome forms of governmental
authority) to meet every community need and want has, to say the
least, fallen from favor. Cities are moving away from meeting growing
community needs by automatically increasing the supply of urban
facilities and services. Increasing supply requires more taxes.
Instead, cities are moving toward an across the board incorporation
of what is coming to be known as demand management. Demand management
frees up existing supply to serve new needs or to better serve the
existing community. It means increased efficiency in our use of
energy, water, land, transportation systems, and other natural and
manmade resources. And it means prevention -- of crime, fires, disaster
impacts, illness, pollution, and so on.
Cities are moving away from paternalism and toward active partnerships
with the community. These partnerships take the form of joint efforts
with citizens, community-serving organizations and businesses. Constant
increases in taxing and spending are part of the "sit down, be quiet,
and we'll take care of it" school of local government. Demand management
means change to a "stand up, get involved, and work with us"
school of government. Reducing demand and preventing problems before
they happen requires community involvement -- from citizens, from
businesses, from non-profits -- from everyone. Demand management,
because it involves self-help, because it systematically promotes
the more efficient use of facilities and services, and because it
prevents problems, tends to be much less costly for government budgets.
- Democratic participation.
Cities are moving away from unchallenged managerial control and
toward a more democratically controlled if tumultuous mode of governance.
This too flows from a shift away from a sole reliance on expanding
services. Expanding services requires --first and foremost -- efficient
management. Government as a service and facility provider should
be managed in a businesslike fashion. Managing demand, on the other
hand, requires a much greater emphasis on education, persuasion
and (sometimes) regulation. This, in turn, requires a level of community
and interest group "buy-in" that only democratic participation
- Incentives. Both
people and institutions tend to respond more rapidly, more effectively
and efficiently, and more creatively to incentives than they do
to commands. Private utilities that have been given a profit incentive
to do so are aggressively pursuing conservation. Better consumer
information, whether for cars, appliances or homes, gives consumers
the incentive to make more energy efficient and thus more economical
choices. Cities are opting to provide free recycling but charge
for garbage service by the unit rather than mandate recycling. Developers
respond by building the right things in the right places when given
tax and fee relief incentives to do so. Cities zone for balanced
land uses when regional tax sharing programs provide incentives
to do so. Cities respond to environmental mandates from above better
when state and federal infrastructure funding is based on good planning.
Employees work smarter and more creatively when given the incentives
of pay for performance, recognition, and promotion for good performance.
And drivers would shorten commutes and use alternatives more if
given the incentive of not having to pay for the roadway facilities
they don't use.
People, acting as individuals or as decision makers for public or
private institutions, often want to do "the right thing."
Most people want to do "a good job." Barriers and disincentives
often block these inclinations. Flexible and proactive planning
allows developers to build a good product at a profit. Technical
assistance programs give industrial managers the tools to reduce
pollution and toxics affordably. Where regulation is needed, performance
(accomplish this) rather than proscriptive (do this) regulation
gives room to be creative. State enabling legislation can give local
governments the tools to plan cooperatively with adjacent communities.
Employees are empowered by pushing authority downward, by flattening
hierarchies, and by direction given in terms of what to accomplish
rather that specifically how to do it. Employees are also empowered
by respect and attention. Often employees understand the reality
of their situation better than anyone, and they will come up with
the best means to accomplish many objectives.
- Collaborative planning.
Cities are moving away from unilateral local decision making and
toward regional planning in collaboration with neighboring communities.
Managing demand only works when what might be called the "demand
shed" -- the geographic area from which a given demand pulls
forth a supply -- works together. Garret Hardin, in his seminal
essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," describes the tragedy
that occurs when a common grazing area is destroyed by the uncontrolled
growth of every shepherd's herd. No individual shepherd has an incentive
to hold down the size of his herd because that action will only
allow another shepherd's herd to grow larger still. When the inevitable
destruction of the grazing commons occurs and every shepherd's herd
is starving, the one entering the crisis with the smallest herd
is the most likely to be wiped out entirely. The only path that
makes sense, that will prevent a "tragedy of the commons,"
is to develop and enforce rules that will control the growth of
every shepherd's herd.
From a local government
perspective, such things as the regional transportation network
and the regional housing supply constitute "commons."
Local governments have no incentive to hold down imbalanced job
growth or accept affordable housing unless their neighboring communities
do likewise. Voluntary unilateral restraint or acceptance of responsibility
achieves no benefit -- job growth in neighboring communities still
congests the shared roadway system and drives up the cost of housing
throughout the region -- but it does leave the party practicing
restraint in a weaker fiscal position than would otherwise have
been the case. Just as with the shepherds and their herds, the
only solution is to make and enforce rules governing access to
and use of the "commons."
Cities are discovering
that such rules are best developed, and realistically perhaps
only developed, in a collaborative process between local governments.
Even if regional or state governments might be persuaded to impose
multi-jurisdictional plans, local governments are recognizing
that a bottom up multi-lateral movement to cooperation might be
preferable -- might leave more local autonomy and flexibility
to accommodate local conditions. In many ways, this desire to
retain a healthy measure of local control is a constructive impulse.
Local control is, after all, much more consistent with the decentralization
required by demand management.
as a concept also applies within communities. The strategies of
infill, densification and mixed use that promote environmental
objectives are difficult to achieve with traditional planning
approaches. Developers see too much risk. Neighborhoods oppose
reflexively. Such strategies are best implemented through proactive
collaborative planning. Cities facilitate developer and neighborhood
participation in planning efforts that define what can serve everyone's
interests. Such plans, once developed, are more stable and can
be implemented more quickly (reducing developer risks and costs),
and such plans can incorporate design features, mitigations, and
facility improvements that benefit neighborhoods.
The whole is often greater
than the sum of the parts. Just as both environmental problems and
environmental solutions interact synergistically, so too non-authority-based
techniques of governance and management reinforce each other. The
concepts of demand management, partnerships, democratic participation,
incentives, empowerment, and collaborative planning are clearly overlapping
and mutually reinforcing. Together, they represent a new paradigm
for local government leadership and management.
Dennis Church is the president
of EcoIQ. He has written numerous articles and speeches on the subject
of creating sustainable communities. He founded The Global Cities Project
for Earthday 1990, and wrote Building Sustainable Communities: An
Environmental Guide for Local Government for the Project.
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