Order out of Chaos: The Case for a New Conceptualization of the Cross-Boundary Instruments of American Regionalism

By David Miller (University of Pittsburgh) and Jen Nelles (Hunter College, CUNY)

American regions are made up of interdependent local governments. Their interdependencies stem from the fact that many problems, opportunities, and issues routinely ignore and transcend the clear jurisdictional boundaries between neighboring cities, counties, and towns. Figuring out how to work across those boundaries has proved both elusive and a challenging.  That said, state and local governments have, over time, awkwardly, and with much experimenting, developed mechanisms of regional governance.

One such mechanism are cross-boundary organizations representing those local governments of the region. Such institutions have emerged to manage the collective interests of their members. We call such organizations Regional Intergovernmental Organizations (RIGOs).  RIGOs now do a wide variety of things essential to the cross-boundary world we live in.  They are actively engaged in, among and with others: air quality; clean water supply and removal of dirty water; solid waste and litter control; urban and rural transportation and transit; public safety including jails and emergency responses; social services from pre-school education through support of senior citizens; economic and workforce development; and community development from housing to parks and playgrounds. Not all RIGOs do all of these and few do them alone. But, they are no longer mere adjuncts to the traditional body politics (counties and municipalities) we usually associate with those policy issues. They are now critical instruments within and of a region.  RIGOs make it possible for citizens to cross jurisdictional boundaries unconsciously and without friction as they go about their daily lives.

We identify them using a five-criteria framework (constituted by local governments, engaged in multiple policy areas, legitimate in the eyes of state and federal officials, ambition to represent the interests of the region, and scaled equivalent to the metropolitan region). Although there are many cross-boundary organizations in most regions, there is only one per region that meets all of our criteria. Although they are not governments themselves, they bring together local governments to coordinate policies across jurisdictional boundaries. As such they do have a measure of political authority delegated to them from state and federal governments and through the voluntary participation of their membership of local, general-purpose governments. With these resources RIGOs quietly and sometimes almost invisibly work to further regional interests and mitigate cross-boundary irritations.

Even as some have proclaimed a dearth of regionalism most of these organizations have been active for over forty years. That they have been difficult to discern is due partly to happenstance and partly to design. The fact that there is no common naming convention for RIGOs means that they are rarely considered as a single organizational class even though they all do approximately the same things. They are known by all sorts of different names: Associations of Governments (AOGs), Councils of Governments (COGs), Economic Development Districts (EDDs), Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs), or Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs), among others.  Perhaps the one thing each of these names hold in common is their bureaucratic wonkishness that might scare away even the most energetic of engaged citizens. The relatively haphazard way that these organizations were established and named across states and regions has meant that, while many have engaged with the idea of regional governance organizations, few have discovered how prevalent they truly are.

A second reason for their relative invisibility – to citizens, academics, and policy makers – is, we suspect, that they operate under the radar by design. Operating in a political culture that privileges local autonomy, that regards the idea of regional government with suspicion, and with mandates that require the buy-in of their local government members, these organizations have an incentive to shun the spotlight to get things done. With few exceptions, their successes (and failures) are not publicly celebrated or debated.

Yet, RIGOs now do a wide variety of things essential to the cross-boundary world we live in.  They are actively engaged in, among and with others: air quality; clean water supply and removal of dirty water; solid waste and litter control; urban and rural transportation and transit; public safety including jails and emergency responses; social services from pre-school education through support of senior citizens; economic and workforce development; and community development from housing to parks and playgrounds. Not all RIGOs do all of these and few do them alone. But, they are no longer mere adjuncts to the traditional body politics (counties and municipalities) we usually associate with those policy issues. They are now critical instruments within and of a region.  RIGOs make it possible for citizens to cross jurisdictional boundaries unconsciously and without friction as they go about their daily lives.

We offer a sampling of the self-portraits provided by RIGOs.  We selected these examples to represent:  different geographic regions; different size populations served by the organization; and, perhaps most importantly, the assortment of names that are used. The Kisatchie-Delta Regional Planning and Development District (Louisiana) “serves the region as analyst, strategist, and catalyst.” The Stanislaus Council of Governments (California) is “a public organization that works with local governments and citizens in its region by dealing with issues and needs that cross city and county boundaries”. The Two Rivers Regional Council of Public Officials (Illinois) provides “leadership.” The Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (Ohio) “takes pride in bringing communities of all sizes and interests together to collaborate on best practices and plan for the future of [the] growing region”. The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (Pennsylvania) is “the cooperative forum for regional collaboration, planning, and public decision-making”. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (D.C. area) is in the business of “managing growth—and ensuring a well-maintained transportation system, clean air, water, and land, safe and healthy communities, and a vibrant economy all of which requires regional partnership […] (We are) the hub for regional partnership”. The Atlanta Regional Commission is “a regional convener, bringing diverse stakeholders to the table to address the most important issues facing metro Atlanta”.

We have mapped out America to show that RIGOs are virtually everywhere. There are 477 cross-boundary organizations in the United States that meet our criteria. Overall, 272.8 million Americans (83% of the US population) live in one. And of those Americans, 154.6 million live in one of forty-nine (49) RIGOs that represent a population of more than 1,000,000 residents. As such, they are in most of our most urban of regions. Conversely, 11.9 million Americans live in one of 138 RIGOs that have fewer than 250,000 inhabitants. As such, they are in many of our rural regions as well.

For the past three years, we have been identifying, classifying, and collecting data about RIGOs. We have a lot to learn about their evolution, their governance, and the challenges they face in coordinating across local boundaries. What we have compiled to date is available at: https://www.rigos.pitt.edu/data-visualizations .  We invite scholars interested in regional governance in America to engage with us, and our dataset, to learn more about these ubiquitous organizations.

Read the article here.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Author Biographies

David Miller is a professor of Public Policy and Management at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA). In addition to journal articles and book chapters on regional governance, regional financing of urban services, and municipal fiscal distress, Dr. Miller is the co-author of Governing the Metropolitan Region: America’s Newest Frontier (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2014) and author of The Regional Governing of Metropolitan America (Boulder: Westview Press, 2002).

Jen Nelles is a visiting professor in the Department Urban Public Policy at Hunter College (CUNY) in New York City. Her work focuses on improving coordination between local authorities to address social, economic, and environmental issues that transcend geographical and jurisdictional boundaries. She is the author of Comparative Metropolitan Policy: Governing Beyond Boundaries in the Imagined Metropolis (London and New York: Routledge, 2012) and co-author of A Quiet Evolution: The Emergence of Indigenous-Municipal Intergovernmental Partnerships in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016).

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