STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation

Call for Contributions: Urban Affairs Forum Colloquium

Guest Editors: Jen Nelles and Jay Rickabaugh

The question of how local governments coordinate policies and projects across jurisdictional boundaries fascinates a small subset of scholars across a broad range of disciplines. In the social sciences, research focuses on (among other things) governance, institutions, the consequences of political fragmentation, collective action, and the practicalities of service and infrastructure provision. Much of the literature questions the suitability of the institutions that have emerged in response to multiplying cross-boundary problems and highlights concerns of effectiveness, equity, and accountability. Most scholars active in this field are aware of the range of instruments available to tackle regional issues and grasp collective opportunities; the existing literature, however, reveals a field rife with both explicit and unconscious biases. Dividing lines exist between tribes that favor and focus on specific approaches, which only occasionally transcend disciplinary silos. Ten years ago, the conversation about metropolitan or regional governance “[lacked] coherence, cohesiveness, and consistency” (Norris, Phares, and Zimmerman 2009, 26). In the ten years since, our field still struggles to absorb, or to communicate, the considerable body of advances that have been made in both the institutional evolution and our knowledge of these mechanisms of cross-boundary coordination.

 In 2019, we published a book – Discovering American Regionalism – that proposed a framework to bring some coherence to one corner of this fragmented literature. In it, we argued that voluntary, intergovernmental, multipurpose cross-boundary partnerships have been both relatively neglected and potentially poorly understood in the literature. In part, this is because research has been both narrow and reliant on now outdated sources. Similarly, the wide variety of naming conventions for this type of organization has meant that research has sometimes missed the breadth of cases and, as a result, underestimated the prevalence of these kinds of cross-boundary solutions. This book shed some new light on what we termed Regional Intergovernmental Organizations (RIGOs) identifying 477 cases in almost every part of the country and launched what we hope is a new era of research on this significant (we think) mechanism of cross-boundary coordination.

However, in the process we were forced to confront an interesting phenomenon. While RIGOs are a distinct class of organization sharing similar traits, there is tremendous variation in how they are structured and their functions. As we explored different organizational configurations, we noted that RIGOs evolved from different origins in rural and metropolitan areas but look remarkably similar today. We uncovered that RIGOs often are structured independently of Census Bureau definitions of urbanized areas and metropolitan statistical areas, creating attendant functional differences (for example, in the growth and fragmentation of MPOs) and attendant methodological differences for geospatial analysis. Furthermore, our research shows some RIGOs include provisions for representation of other regional organizations in their boards (such as intergovernmental organizations that operate at smaller, subregional scales or other civic organizations) and that these board structures themselves change as localities grow and decline both relatively within the region and absolutely across the region.

In other words, not only are RIGOs just one of many potential solutions to cross-boundary issues, often many different solutions coexist in any given region and these configurations are dynamic and evolving. While this first point has long been recognized by literature on American regionalism, the second has been relatively neglected. Yet this realization may be the lever that helps us, as scholars of regionalism, transcend some of the barriers in our field and begin to develop a comprehensive, grounded, and modern understanding of the dimensions of cross-boundary policy coordination.

Through the contributions to this colloquium, we hope to provide (1) an interdisciplinary survey of the state of the field seeking out scholars from political science, public administration, geography, economics, and regional planning; and (2) a novel approach to understanding regionalism by looking at the constellation of regional governance arrangements through the lens of a given type of cross-boundary solution. Our contributors will be experts in specific types of organizations, regions, regional issues, and/or regions. Their short and accessible articles will be guided by the following questions:

·       What are the advantages and disadvantages of the cross-boundary coordination solution you study? Specifically, what tensions and opportunities do they embody? If appropriate, how have these changed over time?

·       What are the most prominent gaps in our understanding of this type of arrangement?

·       How does this type of arrangement fit into the constellation of regional actors active in debating, shaping, and implementing regional policy?

Our core objective is to use these contributions to triangulate perspectives across disciplinary and typological boundaries to identify common themes, concerns, debates, and knowledge gaps. We will summarize these in an editorial introduction and will invite and welcome comments from the broader community of scholars and practitioners interested in American regionalism. Our intention, ironically in parallel with the organizations we study is to break down barriers, to provoke discussion, and ideally to catalyze collaboration in the pursuit of a better understanding of American regionalism.


Potential Contribution Proposal:

Co-Regionalism and RIGOs

Jay Rickabaugh (Appalachian State University)

Regional solutions that engage organizations to cross-boundary policy concerns (ex: single purpose districts, RIGOs, non-profit organizations with regional missions) have a wide array of relationships not yet well explored. These organizations are self-directed actors despite constraints in their decision sets to maintain positive relations with their local constituencies (both governmental and non-governmental), state governments, and in some cases, federal agencies. Scholars understand substantially less about the inter-regional relationships in which these organizations engage. How do we consider these organizations as self-directed actors within and among their own kind? 

There are two ways we can understand “inter-regional” in this approach, both of which lack a deeper understanding. The first are the vast epistemic communities of like entities that help develop best practices for more effective governance and advocate on members’ behalf to state and federal agencies. These include organizations like the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO), National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A), Development Districts of Appalachia Association (DDAA), National Association of Regional Councils (NARC), Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO), and a plethora of statewide and multi-state associations. This subset might be better described as “cross-regional.” I use this term because (except in very rare cases) these like entities do not have coinciding geographic space.

The second way we can understand “inter-regional” might be better described as “co-regional.” In co-regional relationships, we can examine different entities operating across organizational boundaries but in coinciding geographic space. For example, this strand of research would investigate why MPOs and RIGOs representing overlapping localities might be functionally separate or unified (or somewhere in between) and the relationships among these organizations both as self-directed actors and among constituent members. These are shared but not necessarily coterminous spaces, so referring to them as intra-regional only begs the question “inside whose region?” These kinds of co-regional relationships are one starting point to approximate the constellations of regional solutions present throughout America.

These co-regional relationships would also include the dynamic acts of creation and unification of organizations within these constellations. My particular research focus is on RIGOs, so I consider them centrally to this process. However, this lens could be applied to a different class of organizations. What considerations does a RIGO weigh and under what conditions does a RIGO change the functions it undertakes? There are at least four broad categories of responses: (1) expand and maintain the new function internal to the RIGO, (2) expand to temporarily incubate and spawn off a new regional organization, (3) the choice to not expand (the function may not be provided or another organization may expand), and (4) the RIGO may cease to provide a function (including those functions subsequently undertaken by another organization). There are cases that could, under slightly different conditions, fit into multiple categories. For example, a financially struggling nonprofit with a regional mission may be absorbed by a RIGO, either temporarily or permanently. Furthermore, the intention at the outset could be temporary, but the result ends up permanent.

In this submission for the colloquium, I would share three stories of RIGO executive directors and the considerations they weigh in these decisions (interviews not yet confirmed). The Western Piedmont Council of Governments (NC) serves four counties, in and around the city of Hickory (2010 RIGO Population: 365,497). In this RIGO, the executive director actively tries to expand and bring more functions internally. The Isothermal Planning Commission (NC) serves four counties west of Charlotte, including Rutherfordton (2010 RIGO Population: 231,394). Here, the executive director inherited an organization depleted by the ceasing of functions and is now seeking to expand and play new roles in the region. Finally, the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission (2010 RIGO Population: 330,918) includes the City of Roanoke, five counties, and two additional independent cities. This executive director takes pride in the successful incubation and spin-off of multiple organizations that improve regional quality of life and now exist independently of the RIGO. This submission will relate these stories and draw some conclusions about what this means for interpreting the constellation of organizations active governing across jurisdictional boundaries in American regions and implications for the study of regionalism.

We hope to proceed along the following timeline:

  • Expressions of interest by October 6, 2020 – please email Jen Nelles (j.nelles@sheffield.ac.uk) indicating your interest in contributing and as much detail as you feel comfortable sharing about the themes you want to explore.
  • Proposals by October 6, 2020 – About 200 words about your proposed topic that addresses the question of what we can learn about RIGOs and/or their place in the constellation of actors involved in cross-boundary governance.
  • Final papers by TBD – At this stage, we’re leaving the final delivery date open because life is pretty complicated and we don’t know how many submissions we’re going to get. At this point, we’re aiming for early Spring 2021, but that may be subject to extensions. We expect final submissions to be around 3,000 words and submissions will be peer-reviewed internally by fellow contributors before being submitted for final editorial approval.

As a reminder, while this is an online forum, these submissions will be internally peer-reviewed and our aim is to make our contributions as accessible as possible in order to better advance scholarship and debate in this area where we’ve all agreed material can be sparse. We hope, however, that these contributions may be a prelude to an edited collection or special issue that will further help fill these gaps.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash