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A 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 performance measurement.

Instead of relying so heavily on authority and command, local governments are shifting to alternative means:

  • 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.

  • Partnerships. 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 will create.

  • 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.

  • Empowerment. 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.

    Collaborative planning 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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