Next week I will be (virtually) attending the California Association of Councils of Governments’ Regional Leadership Forum, and I have to admit that I am excited. To be honest, it is not because I am a big fan of virtual conferences in this pandemic world, but really it’s because I truly appreciate the folks who work at the regional level. To me, there is a special place in Heaven for regional leaders and thinkers because, out of the various strata of government, their jobs are at once some of the most difficult and also most important.
In California, local governments (cities and counties) are most often the front-line service delivery providers and make much of the land use decisions as well. However, because of the severely local nature of their work, leaders at this level of government can be very focused on specific, localized problems and therefore fixate on solutions that might only benefit their community to the detriment of neighbors or the world at large. On the other hand, the state government in California sees broadly the needs to address, and can often either through controlling funding streams or utilizing the regulatory process affect wide swaths of change. Unfortunately, these broad strokes too often either miss the mark or are interpreted into such wide variants to become less effective in their aim. The Federal government is so far outside the realm, for so many reasons, that we don’t even need to discuss it at this point.
But regional governments, at least in California, are right in the sweet spot of policy development and planning. They are able to recognize the state’s broad and noble aims, and dispatch their resources as best they can to try and accomplish those aims without undue influence at the local level. At the same time, they are carefully monitored and responsive to local concerns because their boards are comprised of locally-elected officials. At their best, regional agencies can knit together the peculiarities of the communities that share their region and come out with a better collective than the sum of its parts.
If vision alone were all it took to provide strong regional leadership, then these regional agencies would be the seat of power. Unfortunately, while given some tools for implementing grand visions, these agencies are generally little more than planning entities who can describe the pareto optimal solutions for any issue but have limited ability to secure such solutions. Instead, these organizations must persuade their local agencies of the best way to plan their land use and utilize their resources. Thus their work can sometimes be frustratingly difficult when locals can’t see past their own needs.
This is why regional governments impress me so much. They have the vision for a better tomorrow, but the challenge of convincing (not directing) others to choose the steps necessary to achieve that vision. They sit at the crux of many of our societal problems with solutions in hand, and then work each day to persuade others that those solutions can fit in their communities. While it may sound like a challenging position to be in, it is the very challenge that makes these organizations so important. And frankly, without the unsung heroes at our regional governments, we would all be much worse off. This is why I have such respect for these folks, and look forward to seeing many of them next week!