Editor’s Note: Last year, Urban Affairs Review ran a Mini-Symposium on Urban Governance that featured by articles by Allison Bramwell and Jon Pierre (New Community Spaces), Susan Clarke (Local Place Based Urban Governance), and Jill Simone Gross (Hybridization and Urban Governance). We are now fortunate to have a set of follow-up pieces on Urban Governance written by the same authors to share with you on the Forum. Additionally, the authors have done a fantastic podcast in which they discuss and debate their research (Click to listen: Part 1 and Part 2).
Today’s post is from Susan E. Clarke. Susan E. Clarke is Professor Emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is the author of numerous books and articles on urban politics and policy. She is also the former co-editor of Urban Affairs Review.
By Susan E. Clarke
The deck is stacked against the cross sector and interjurisdictional cooperation American cities need to deal with complex, interdependent problems–sustainability, infrastructure, family well-being—increasingly evident on local agendas. These issues are beyond the capacity of any one organization to resolve but very real disincentives for local cooperation are embedded in our political structures: interjurisdictional competition for investment weakens incentives to cooperate across city limits while the short time horizons of local elected officials hamper their ability to engage in politically risky, long-term initiatives.
Yet we see a renaissance in place-based, cross-sector local collaboratives in American cities. These differ from familiar inter-local service delivery agreements and other functional arrangements providing technical, managerial solutions to cross-boundary problems. In contrast, collaborative governance requires “more deliberative, intense interactions” featuring value consensus, “shared strategies and joint implementation” to address complex problems. Despite disincentives to collaborate, cities are experimenting with diverse collaborative designs, distinguished by their values, strategies and actors. Not all collaboration is the same: the wide range of institutional designs and configurations reflects the normative ideas and implicit values shaping collaborative governance. These variations shape the viability of local collaborative efforts.
Although public agency–initiated collaborations are most common, civil society–initiated collaboratives—many drawing on the Collective Impact framework—are emerging in American cities. As a result, the centrality of state power is problematic; we need to assess when, how, and why state power and authority is important in collaborative governance efforts. This analysis compares early stages of two collaborative initiatives—one relying on the traditional state-centric model and the other on civil society models—in Denver, Colorado.
Denver is rich in collaborative efforts, particularly since a 1989 voter-approved initiative for cross-jurisdictional taxing districts became the “blueprint” for constructing regional cultural, scientific, and athletic facilities. Most recently, the FasTracks initiative (2004) is a complex public-sector effort involving multiple jurisdictions, private-sector partners, and civic organizations in developing a regional transit system. The civil society centered Children’s Corridor, spearheaded by the Piton Foundation, links efforts of local government, multiple nonprofit organizations, and private providers to improve children’s well-being in a targeted area. The focus here is on how these collaborative governance models respond to unanticipated governance challenges in moving from initiation to implementation rather than their eventual effectiveness. Despite Denver’s history of state-centric models, the initial expectation is that FasTracks’ ambitious, complex regional scale presents greater governance challenges—especially related to transaction costs, diverse interests, and problematic trust across jurisdictions.
Indeed, this appeared to be the case. Rising costs of construction materials, declining sales tax revenue during the 2008 recession (the major local financing stream), Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s ratcheting up of right of way costs, and equity challenges imperiled the FasTracks project. Outlying communities threatened to defect when transit line construction was delayed. In contrast, the Children’s Corridor’s deliberative and intense efforts to achieve consensus on strategies and values moved along smoothly until the family owned Piton Foundation shifted away from spatial targeting to impact investing. This unanticipated disruption meant the smaller-scale, non-hierarchical Children’s Corridor collaborative fared less well. Eventually, its focus narrowed to shared indicators and the Corridor was transformed into a regional initiative.
Both FasTracks and the Children’s Corridor faced early difficulties in maintaining shared visions and backbone organizations. Working at the interface of collaboration and hierarchy, the resilience of the large-scale FasTracks collaborative appeared contingent on “bridging th(is) collaborative divide” with dynamic scaling to accommodate multiple governance challenges. That is, FasTracks sought intergovernmental funding, allowed international construction firms to privatize some transit lines, embraced local organizations demanding greater attention to equity, created regional TOD funding, and provided hybrid transit to rebellious northern communities. These agile responses redefined governance membership but, in blurring many decision arenas, complicate future political processes.
Sovereign authority and taxation powers enjoyed by FasTracks might seem an obvious explanation for FasTracks’ success and the Children’s Corridors’ decline. But there are many failed or stalled state-centric regional transportation collaboratives and FasTracks contended with ongoing defection threats and attacks on its legitimacy and transparency. Funding is also a necessary but not sufficient explanation. FasTracks suffered fiscal volatility while the vagaries of foundation funding undermined the Children Corridor’s prospects. Indeed, the Corridor offers a sobering counter- point to those banking on civil society and philanthropic organizations as local champions. Finally, note that FasTracks and Piton exuded institutional capacity yet faltered in the face of multiple challenges. The adept bridging and scaling processes FasTracks used to bolster collaborative governance processes merit further attention in other analyses of local collaborative governance.