It is often said that Americans don’t like government. While that may be true in the singular, we certainly like it in the plural. That is, we like governments—and lots of them. There are more than 90,000 local governments in the United States: 38,910 “general purpose” governments (cities, counties, towns), 12,880 school districts, and 38,266 “special purpose” governments.
If you dig around in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Census of Governments, you’ll find some interesting trends. After World War II, the number of local governments declined, due mostly to school-district consolidations. (Believe it or not, we have one-fifth the number of school districts we had in the early 1950s.) Then, in the 1970s, the trend reversed itself and the number of local governments grew, slowly but steadily. The largest number of new governments were special purpose governments (things like sewer, parks, and transit districts), but there was also growth in municipalities.
I’ve seen it in Atlanta, where I live, which in recently years has sprouted cities in unincorporated suburban areas, brand new cities with names like Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Peachtree Corners, and so on. Atlanta has a lot of governments, but we are by no means the most fragmented region in the country. That title belongs to St. Louis, where there are 90 municipal governments in St. Louis County alone—not including the actual city of St. Louis. These are mostly small places, anonymous even to those a short distance away. One, the town of Champ, has somewhere between 12 and 14 residents, depending on who’s counting. Not kidding.
If you look around your own region and start counting the governments, you may be surprised by how many you find. Keep in mind: It isn’t just cities and counties, but those rapidly multiplying special districts as well. And don’t forget the federal and state governments. Almost any big issue—transportation, economic development, public safety—will involve multiple governments. As a test, next time your district attorney announces the results of a major drug bust, count the federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies represented on the podium behind her. You’ll need a tally sheet to keep track.
Point is, we live in a country that believes power is best exercised by a herd and not a shepherd. And while your city may be the largest member of the herd, it is still dependent on others—and most likely lots of others—if it wants to do anything important. The word we use for this cooperation by interests not compelled to cooperate is collaboration. If you want to take your reporting to a higher level, try seeing this cooperation (or its absence) and reporting on it. In doing so, you’ll find yourself at the heart of what makes governments successful, which is their ability to work together.
Caution: I’m not talking about, well, talk. Government leaders are good at praising cooperation. After all, most of us have had it drilled into our heads since kindergarten that we should play well together. Words, though, are one thing, actions another, and your job is to find where your city hall is doing important things with others, where it should be working with others but isn’t, how the effective collaborations work, and who’s behind them.
To understand the mechanics of collaboration, you might begin with a couple of things I’ve written. One is on how collaborations get started (and, yes, talk is a first step but only a step); the other is about the central skill involved in putting collaborations together. (You have to ask the right way.)
Then just start looking around. You may be surprised by the number of collaborations at work in your region and their importance in getting things done. I wrote a book a few years ago about how one civic project changed a city; what I discovered was it was created by a web of collaborations involving state and local governments, a public university, a host of elected officials, and numerous interests outside of government. My challenge in writing the book was to figure out who put these collaborations together and how they did it.
That’s yours, as well: See the collaboration, then figure out why it works and who made it happen. The result, I promise you, will be some of the most insightful reporting of your career—and probably the first of its kind for your news organization.
So, how do you find collaborations? I suggest two ways. First is the way I suggested in Lessons Two, Three, and Four (on where civic ideas come from, the role of city councils, and the art of compromise): Identify some big civic improvements of the last few years and reverse engineer them. This time, instead of looking for the idea path, the deal brokers, and the key compromises, ask: Who was involved in this effort? Why did they cooperate? And how were they persuaded to join in? To make the reporting interesting, look for those who did the persuading and ask: What did they say and why did it work?
This will work for big civic projects, but you’ll also learn there are everyday collaborations in your region. To find these, you’ll have to ask around. Start with the city planner’s office (planners have a good eye for these things). If your city has a downtown business improvement district, ask the BID’s director. (Like planners, BIDs are usually good at collaboration.) And, of course, pay a visit to your region’s council of governments. (Don’t know what that is? Read this.)
Then just look in some likely places for collaboration. Does your school system work with the local government on issues like pedestrian safety or recreation? Does your mayor ever meet with mayors from nearby cities? What comes from these meetings? If your region has more than one transit system, how do they manage transfers, and how do they manage fare-sharing? As you ask around, you may find that there are organizations that help with collaborations. The most obvious are the councils of governments, but you may find that civic leagues, professional organizations, and municipal associations also help introduce government leaders to one another.
Then ask this question: Where should governments be working together—but aren’t? You can interview public administration professors at a nearby university for their suggestions, but the answers may be obvious as you look around. Transit systems, for example, need to work with city planners so they can anticipate demand. Well . . . does yours? If so, how? As children walk to schools, they need safe passages. How does your school system work with the city to be sure they have them? How do your city’s public works officials coordinate with nearby cities on things like snow removal and street resurfacing projects? What kinds of mutual-assistance agreements are there between your city’s police and fire departments and those in cities nearby? How well have these worked in crises?
As you get into these stories, you’ll see the hidden structure of government, the way things actually work day to day, for better or worse. What you’ll discover is that this world is different from what is discussed at city council meetings—and radically different from what is talked about in campaigns. And during the next election cycle this will present you with a challenge: Do you bring this new understanding to your political coverage? And if so, how?
A postscript: Every region needs collaboration, even places like North Carolina and Texas where city governments tend to be big and powerful. After all, there are multiple governments even in those places, from school systems and transit authorities to state and federal agencies. But in places with lots of smaller governments, as in the Atlanta and St. Louis areas, collaboration isn’t just a good thing, it’s critical.
Because it is so fragmented, St. Louis has worried about its government structure for more than a half-century. Over that period, it has made numerous attempts at doing something about it, including full-scale government consolidation referendums. In fact, it’s still at it, through an organization called Better Together, which appears to be mounting yet another attempt at municipal merger. Good luck, since every other effort has failed, usually overwhelmingly.
If I could advise St. Louis leaders, I’d tell them to stop putting so much effort into consolidation and invest instead in collaboration. There are two reasons: First, this is likely to be much more successful in the short run. Second, in the long run, collaboration may be the best route to consolidation. That’s because as long as local leaders don’t know one another or the strengths and weaknesses of the city next door, they’re going to resist combining anything. But if their police and fire departments start coordinating activities and their planning departments work together, they’ll build the familiarity and trust that opens the door to combining services. And when there are enough combined services, who knows? The voters may decide it’s time to take the final step and just merge the cities.
This is one of a series of postings about better ways of understanding local government and writing about local politics. To read the introduction, please click here.
Photo by Vu Nguyen licensed under Creative Commons.