Regionalism Is About Respect, Collaboration, Forum Expert Says

By on March 8, 2018

by Tom Finan, Executive Director, Construction Forum STL

Regionalism isn’t about how many units of government you have: It’s about how the representatives of those units respect one another and work together (or not).

Dr. David Miller, right, with Forum President Joe Blanner.

That was the message that Dr. David Miller, University of Pittsburgh brought during a three-day stay organized by the Forum. While he was here, Miller met with regional leaders from Swansea, IL to St. Charles, MO and points in between.

Wednesday (March 7) he presented his insights from years in government and as an academic and from his meetings here. (To download the PowerPoint of his presentation, click here.) He is the author of several books. His latest book, due out soon, is Discovering American Regionalism: An Introduction to Regional Intergovernmental Organizations. The book is a study of  the operations and effectiveness of 477 Regional Intergovernmental Organizations  (East-West Gateway Council of Governments being the example here).

How Many Governments Are Too Many?

Miller says that Pittsburgh and its surrounding Allegheny County have St. Louis City and County beat (not in a good way), with 130 governments there, compared to the 90 governments here. But he demonstrated how those governments, and governments in other cities, have found effective ways to collaborate for their regions.

St Louis 2018 Miller, who worked for years in governmental positions, including as director of the office of management and budget for the City of Pittsburgh before coming to academia, tells a story of arriving early for a panel presentation at a conference and hearing a fellow panelist bemoan that he had “too many governments” to deal with. Miller asked him how many.

“Six,” the man replied. Miller said it occurred to him that if he spent the rest of his career helping to reduce the number of cities in the Pittsburgh region and they got it down to 60, he would still have 10 times what the other leader was complaining about.

At that point he decided to instead focus his passion for regionalism on determining what the structure of effective regional government looks like. His Forum presentation Wednesday was titled, “Organizing the Region to Govern in the 21st Century”.

Over 500 people registered for Wednesday’s presentation. “There are only two cities in the United States where my talking about regional governance would draw 500 people — St. Louis and Pittsburgh,” Miller said. “Both regions angst more, study more, convene more, rinse and repeat more about how to organize ourselves than anyone else.”

Scalability With Skin in the Game

Key to successful efforts at regionalism is scalability Miller said. That’s where the RIGO organizations come in. But the RIGO must create scalability in such a manner that everyone feels that they have skin in the game. Municipal units are the “building blocks” of a regional strategy, he said, because their leaders must have an eye both to their constituents, and to the overall welfare of the region. “You can’t be just a brick, you have to be part of the house,” he said.

He paraphrased the remark of one participant in meeting he had Monday with the Municipal League of Metro St. Louis: “I don’t want to be a good city in a bad region.”  He said that instead of focusing on “fragmentation,” a word he said he strongly dislikes when applied to regions, the emphasis should be on solving the consequences of many governments. Miller stressed that every region has the same types of institutions. What differs is the structure and efficacy of their efforts to get those pieces to work together.

Building a Region on Trust

If municipalities are the building blocks of regionalism in Miller’s lexicon, then trust is the cornerstone. He cites the mantra of David Warm, executive director of Kansas City’s wildly successful Mid-America Regional Council (MARC). MARC serves 119 cities, two counties, and two states. “David Warm says, ‘Everything we do is about trust.’,” Miller said.

Miller’s own Pittsburgh region has a strong example of municipalities building both trust and collective clout in the CONNECT organization that he helped to found. The core city is the focal point of a region and because the municipalities immediately surrounding the core city share many common issues, he stated. Miller and his convened an organization whose membership was comprised of the City of Pittsburgh and the 39 municipalities which share a common border with the city. Together the City of Pittsburgh and those municipalities have a population of 715,000 people out of Pittsburgh’s regional population of 2.6 million. Over the years CONNECT has been very effective in addressing issues such as access to transportation and opioid abuse, he said.

Miller also presented analyses of regional governmental organization in Chicago, Boston, and Vancouver, and rated each of those region’s strengths and weaknesses. In St. Louis, Miller’s analysis credited East-West’s inclusion of the region’s large governments, inclusion of non governmental officials on the agency’s board, the role played by Bi-State Development, and the presence of smaller inter-governmental units, which could help in organizing municipal units regionally.

The St. Louis Picture

On the negative side he cited the indirect nature of  East-West Gateway’s engagement with municipalities, the lack of clarity (at least in the public eye) of the relationship between East-West Gateway and Bi-State, Bi-State’s lack of connection to local government units, little communication between players at the regional level, and “Lack of leadership role(s) of St. Louis City or County in regional institutions.”

Challenges facing the St. Louis region (and regions that do these things well), according to Miller, are:

  • How do you connect the institutions of regional governance into a more cohesive network? (Boston, Chicago, and Vancouver)
  • How do you integrate the center city (county) into the network of regional institutions? (Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Vancouver)
  • How do you distribute power between local governments to maximize investment and participation by those local governments in regional institutions? (Boston, Chicago, Vancouver)
  • How do you bring non-governmental voices (civic and business) to the intergovernmental table? (Boston)



About Tom Finan

One Comment

  1. Renee

    03/12/2018 at 12:52 PM

    The Power Point Link doesn’t work