“Rightsizing” Governance: A Brief Look at Alternative Models for Regionalism

By May 31, 2017Blog

By Nicholas Samuel

Project Manager & Director of Research

The question of the correct size of government is a continuing debate within American political life, yet, seldom do we discuss at what scale government should be applied. In the US, the basic form of Federal, State, and County/Municipality government are well known and thought of as almost innately the geographic expanses in which governments should exist. In the sphere of economic development, regional planning allows for the appropriate utilization of resources and promotion of assets. This is also the case for long-range planning of transportation infrastructure and land use. Yet, the institutions that act at these scales typically lack the necessary authority to make their own decision on governance. This is significant because exercises in planning are often dependent of the ability of policies to incentivize, regulate, and direct private decisions.  

The roots of social and economic problems for individual cities are rarely unique to the locality. Yet, we often speak about social and economic problems as though individual cities alone can solve them (such as traffic, growth, water, etc.). Cities, and even rural areas, have social and economic problems that are not contained by the boundaries of a single municipality. Thus, cooperation between cities is necessary and municipalities and counties must create institutions that have some authority on regional issues.

Without the existence of regional governments, institutions of regional governance have developed. Regional governance can be defined as “deliberate efforts by multiple actors to achieve goals in multi-jurisdictional environments” (Barnes and Foster, 2012). Common structures for regional governance in the US include Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and Councils of Governments (COGs). MPOs generally have authority over developing regional plans for transportation infrastructure, economic development, workforce development, and, sometimes, future land-use planning. COGs operate within similar areas, but are generally formed to bring local governments together and plan on common issues. Texas has 24 Regional Councils, COGs, as authorized by the state’s local government code. Chapter 391 authorizes local governments to “encourage and permit” the establishment of these councils.

MPOs and COGs typically have authority for plan-making, yet lack authority for plan-implementing. Implementation across multiple jurisdictions requires considerable cooperation and the ability to make decisions. Thus, for real impact on regional issues to be made regional governance must be given the authority to make decisions as an entity; not simply coordinate other actors.

An early example of regional governance, the Metropolitan Council in the Twin Cities was created in 1967 by Minnesota state legislature to deal with water contamination issues, but eventually gained a role in transportation service for the region. Current the Metropolitan Council has authority over Metro Transit, environmental quality services (such as water supply/quality and sewage treatment), urban growth boundary, and long-range planning. They are governed by a 17 member council (with one at-large chair) appointed by the Governor of Minnesota. The region includes 7 counties. The Council’s ability to solve regional issues is based on the authority over the delivery of services, such as water treatment and transit.

Portland’s Metro follows a similar structure to the Metropolitan Council, but differs in one key way. Metro was founded in 1979 as the region’s MPO, but received “home-rule” status in 1992. Metro has authority over land use planning, maintaining the urban growth boundary, transportation planning, parks and natural areas, and TriMet, among other functions. It is governed by 6 locally-elected district representatives and one council president (at-large). Currently Metro serves 3 counties and 25 cities. Their ability to solve regional issues is based on the political powers given to the institution. Thus, they have greater legitimacy, along with the authority, to take on issues affecting the region.

In Regional governance structures can distribute both the benefits and costs associated with urban growth. It is typically the case that central cities tend to see the greatest burden on providing services that can benefit their wider region, as illustrated most clearly in the case of public transportation. Regional governance structures allow for a wider base to provide for these kinds of services. Additionally, regional governance entities may build greater capacity for formal or informal regional networks (such as those between businesses or artists) to develop. This is beneficial to the development of new businesses, as well as the capacity for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Why do so few cities follow the regional governance models of Portland and Minneapolis? Is the political will of municipal actors and elected officials not in favor handing over authority to other entities? If so, there would be few municipalities and counties that follow the plans of MPOs and COGs. Finally, is regional-level governance a good model in itself or should social and economic issues be addressed at the level of government that they are found? This question is tough to answer, but it reflects a greater reality of planning for economic development, which is: what scale is most appropriate to guide economies? My answer would be that a globalized economy will always offer challenges outside of the control of individual governments. Yet, regional variation is still a fact of our national economy and that regional governance can help to both make regional planning more effective, but also make it more responsive to the needs of each region.

While they don’t have the same governing abilities as Portland’s Metro or Minneapolis’ Metropolitan Council, regional economic development agencies – the ones that really ‘get it’ – are among the most successful economic development agencies in the country. What makes them successful in achieving their goals is not their perceived or actual authority, but their ability to develop and communicate a shared vision for the region. They don’t generally have the authority to implement policy, but their local partners buy into the process of regional economic development knowing they had significant influence in developing the region’s vision and that they stand to benefit when that vision is achieved.

In a follow-up article to be featured next month, we will continue to explore the issue of regionalism and economic development.

If you would like to see how Angeloueconomics can help you with a regional plan for your community, take a look at the economic development strategic plan we created for the areas surrounding El Paso; Juárez, Chihuahua; and southern New Mexico, including Las Cruces:


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