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Strategies for Regional Collaboration

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Summer/Fall 2015   


Strategies for Regional Collaboration


      • Traditional regional thinking and planning focused largely on structural changes to address the challenges of providing public services.
      • Contemporary regional planning increasingly emphasizes forming cooperative relationships among local governments and stakeholders to collaborate on complex challenges unconstrained by political, geographical, racial, ethnic, and economic boundaries.
      • Cross-jurisdictional planning and problem-solving places new demands on local governments to develop the capacities necessary for successful collaborative governance.

“In the end, local action over time is what actually ratifies regional plans and determines their success or failure.”1

In the United States, policymakers and stakeholders are increasingly reaching across local jurisdictional boundaries to resolve common problems in the provision of public services and to achieve shared goals.2 Thinking regionally to address these issues is not new, but it has differed in focus over time. In 1909, architect and city planner Daniel Burnham drafted the Plan of Chicago that extended beyond the city’s borders to include planning for the development of the surrounding region. This was one of the earliest instances of regional planning in the U.S. and illustrates the city center-outward character of community planning early in the twentieth century (fig. 1).3 The nation also has a long history of local jurisdictions gaining some degree of regional planning authority through annexation or by expanding jurisdictional boundaries in anticipation of growth and larger tax bases. For example, the population of Sugar Land, Texas, grew 150 percent from 1991 to 2006 through a series of annexations that has furthered development in the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown metropolitan area.4

Attempts have also been made to resolve common problems within a region, such as fragmented governance, with local government consolidations. In 1970, for example, the city of Indianapolis and adjoining Marion County, with its 60 city, county, township, and special-purpose governments, were combined by state legislative action into a single jurisdiction, UniGov.5 The fact that the United States has seen only 40 such consolidations is attributed to the enormous amount of time and energy necessary to manage the political challenges of implementation.6 These structural-change solutions fall under what some label “old regionalism,” in contrast with solutions that emphasize forming cooperative relationships to work on regionally shared mutual interests, such as the regional tax-base sharing program adopted by the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area.7

A graphic noting three major waves of regionalism in U.S. history.
Source: Julie Cencula Olberding. 2002. “Diving Into the ‘Third Waves’ of Regional Governance and Economic Development Strategies: A Study of Regional Partnerships for Economic Development in U.S. Metropolitan Areas,” Economic Development Quarterly 16:3, 251–72.

Today, there is less public support for using structural changes to local government to achieve cost reductions and savings, broader tax bases, and increased efficiency while delivering services, and evidence suggests these actions may not achieve the intended outcomes or may have mixed results.8 In its periodic surveys of local governments, the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) finds an increasing interest in addressing common issues and problems through interlocal and regional partnerships and collaborations.9 In ICMA’s 2012 survey of local governments, city and county managers reported choosing to deliver at least some services collaboratively to achieve better outcomes (81%), leverage resources (84%), build relationships (77%), improve processes (69%), and because it’s “the right thing to do” (86%).10

In 2013, 8 out of 10 local governments were participating in regional councils of governments, metropolitan planning organizations, or regional planning agencies. Although initially established to meet federal funding requirements and state mandates, many of these groups have shifted their attention beyond regional comprehensive planning to addressing members’ local service delivery needs.11 ICMA reports that in 2013, the issues most often at the top of the planning agenda for these multijurisdictional organizations were roads and highways, economic development, and public transit. Participation in such regional planning organizations was greater in larger urban localities, such as metropolitan Denver, than in smaller, less-populated areas.12 Metropolitan Denver’s Regional Council of Governments consists of more than 50 local city and county governments that work collaboratively on growth management, transportation, traffic congestion, and air and water quality issues of concern throughout the region.13 By contrast, the eCityGov Alliance, a smaller, regional initiative, makes government services and municipal amenities available online to residents of nine cities in Washington’s Puget Sound region.14 Such intergovernmental collaboration is the most common form of partnership now used to plan and provide for public services.

Figure shows a list of requisites for thinking and acting regionally.
Source: Public Policy Research Institute at the University of Montana, cited in U.S. Economic Administration. 2009. “Crossing the Next Regional Frontier,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.
This trend toward regional thinking and collaboration (fig. 2) corresponds to the evolution of increasingly complex challenges that are unconstrained by political, geographical, racial, ethnic, and economic boundaries (see “Partnerships and Planning for Impact”). Today’s immediate challenges to local communities and regions stem from the effects of the Great Recession, demographic changes, diminishing tax bases and revenues, shrinking federal resources, new and greater demand for services, and the expansion of metropolitan economic regions that contain numerous local governmental entities, resulting in uneven and fragmented service delivery.15 Contextual conditions such as these, in tandem with motivations such as those named in the ICMA survey and other drivers, give rise to cross-jurisdictional collaboration.16

The participants in multiorganizational and interlocal government networks vary with the task at hand. Each actor brings applicable interests, assets, knowledge, and skills to the table. Typical actors include local governments, chambers of commerce, local development corporations, utilities, special districts, neighborhood associations, foundations, and private industry councils.17 This “public policy decision making and management that engage[s] people constructively across the boundaries of public agencies, levels of government, and/or the public, private and civic spheres in order to carry out a public purpose that could not otherwise be accomplished” is broadly described as collaborative governance.18

The increasing reliance on multigovernmental, multijurisdictional, and multisectoral approaches to challenges places new demands on local governments; the capacities required to collaborate are quite different from those needed to manage a single organization.19, 20 To help local jurisdictions plan collaborative action, the Enhanced Partnership of ICMA, along with the Alliance for Innovation and the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University, introduced an evidence-based Collaborative Services Decision Matrix Tool in 2014. This tool is designed to help users determine the assets, contract specification and monitoring requirements, labor, capital, costs, management competencies, and administrative stability needed for a collaborative effort. The tool also helps stakeholders weigh community factors that could affect outcomes, such as potential partners, council orientation and political environment, fiscal and economic health, unions, and public interests. Grounded in a synthesis of the literature and case study research, the tool also offers a rough estimate of the likelihood that a collaboration will be successful.21 The Enhanced Partnership contends that a comprehensive discussion of these factors allows the stakeholders to understand the soft and hard costs as well as the benefits involved in a plan to deliver public services collaboratively. At the same time, the tool begins the process through which relationships, mutual trust, and a capacity to problem-solve together grow.22

Similarly, the National League of Cities and the Alliance for Regional Stewardship provide an evidence-based guide to help local officials who, through collaboration, are “[seeking] cost savings and new efficiencies…[as well as] improving service delivery, achieving social equity, empowering disaffected groups, and addressing regional-scale problems more successfully.” When deciding whether to deliver a service directly or through regional collaboration, local leaders are counseled to choose regionalism when economies of scale can be achieved, when spillover is big, or when cross-jurisdictional coordination is necessary, among other factors. The guide identifies and discusses 17 regional collaboration options ranging from easy to difficult to implement (table 1).23

A collage of four photos showing a firetruck parked outside a fire station.
City and county governments work together on mutual issues of concern, including transportation, traffic congestion, emergency services, and air and water quality.
As local leaders decide to collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries, says Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow and regional governance expert Kathryn Foster, they face three big questions about the authority to plan and implement, how planning will be implemented and by whom, and in what territory. Because these relationships do not depend on legal authority to ensure that the goals are met, collaborative arrangements must rely on other forces and skills to create the cohesion necessary to achieve objectives — that is, there must be a transition from government to governance. Foster points to the importance in regional governance of having participants with political legitimacy, the authority to back policies, and respect for local jurisdictional decisions on policies with local impact. Also important to the process is “developed authority,” which can emerge from the synergy of all the elements of collaboration — “professional staff, ample expertise, high social capital with public entities, and policy sway resting in the persuasive powers of agency leaders and board members.”24

Feedback from local government officials about their experiences with collaboration emphasizes the importance of thinking regionally, building on existing relationships, being as inclusive as possible, involving the right partners with the needed expertise or authority, and being flexible.25 Members of an expert panel of practitioners consulted by the State and Local Government Review about interlocal collaboration also stressed the importance of preexisting relationships. In addition to the trust and confidence that are built over time in relationships, the transaction costs are lower if there is mutual recognition of problems and of opportunities to work together, as one panel member noted. Transaction costs rise with the need to convince and persuade an organization to collaborate.26

Photo shows people walking on a sidewalk with a light rail train stopped next to them.
Public transit is one the highest priorities on the planning agendas of multijurisdictional organizations.
Whether governmental collaborations and partnerships can be deemed successful requires careful study. Success stories are commonly reported, but failed experiments are mentioned less often. More research that extends beyond case studies is needed (see “Partnerships and Planning for Impact”). Reviews and analyses of case study literature reveal a large emphasis on the collaborative process itself, rather than policy or management outcomes, although some studies do have this focus. Bel and Warner analyzed available research on cost savings from intermunicipal cooperation for service delivery and found a few instances of services, such as solid waste management, in which economies of scale permitted reduced service costs, although this finding might be of greater benefit to smaller municipalities than to larger ones. Bel and Warner also noted that the transaction costs of collaborative governance were likely to rise with the number of actors involved.27 In another analysis of a diverse set of 137 case studies of collaborative governance, Ansell and Gash discovered a lack of common language, missing data, very few evaluations of outcomes, and no comparisons with outcomes from other forms of governance. By identifying the most frequent and common findings from the sample of collaboration cases, these scholars found four types of variables frequently discussed in their sample of studies: starting conditions, institutional design, leadership, and the collaborative process. The overarching conclusion of this meta-analysis was that the success of collaborative governance depends on adequate time for the process as well as on trust and interdependence among the participants. 28

A focus among case studies on the complex collaborative process may in itself be significant because it is both hard to do and “inherently fragile.”29 The diversity of needs, skills, and interests brought to collaboration requires whatever time and synergy it takes to construct a space in which mutual understandings and commitments are reached, thus producing public value. It is this product, McGuire et al. propose, that should be viewed “not simply a means to an end, but as an end [in] itself.”30 As these hypotheses are tested and research and experience with regionalism and collaborative governance accrue, what constitutes a successful arrangement for delivering particular services in unique local conditions and how to weigh the actual costs and benefits of collaboration will become increasingly clear.

A table categorizing collaborative options for local government as easy or hard to implement.

Source: John Parr, Joan Riem, and Christiana McFarland. 2006. Guide to Successful Local Government Collaboration in America’s Regions, Washington, DC: National League of Cities.

  1. Ethan Seltzer and Armando Carbonell. 2011. "Regional Practice, Regional Prospect," in Regional Planning in America: Practice and Prospect, Ethan Seltzer and Armando Carbonell, eds. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 269.
  2. William R. Barnes and Kathryn A. Foster. 2012. "Toward a More Useful Way of Understanding Regional Governance," paper presented at conference of the European Urban Research Association, Vienna, Austria.
  3. M.J. Breheny and P.W.J. Batey. 1981. "The History of Planning Methodology: A Preliminary Sketch," Built Environment 7:2, 111–14; Greg Hise. 2009. "Whither the Region? Periods and Periodicity in Planning History," Journal of Planning History 8:4, 295–307.
  4. John Parr, Joan Riem, and Christiana McFarland. 2006. Guide to Successful Local Government Collaboration in America's Regions. Washington, DC: National League of Cities, 27–8.
  5. Jeff Wachter. 2014. "40 Years After Unigov: Indianapolis and Marion County's Experience With Consolidated Government," Baltimore, Maryland: the Abell Foundation  ( Accessed 19 October.
  6. National League of Cities. 2013. "List of Consolidated City-County Governments" ( Accessed 19 October 2015.
  7. Lisa Benton-Short. 2014. Cities of North America: Contemporary Challenge in U.S. and Canadian Cities, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 184–91.
  8. See Stephen Calabrese, Glenn Cassidy, and Dennis Epple. 2002. "Local Government Fiscal Structure and Metropolitan Consolidation," Project Muse, Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs; Joseph N. Heiney. 2012. "Can State & Local Government Consolidation Really Save Money?" Journal of Business & Economics Research10:10, 539–46; Joseph Martin and Eric A. Scorsone. 2011. "Cost Ramifications of Municipal Consolidation: A Comparative Analysis," Journal of Public Budgeting, Accounting & Financial Management 23:3, 311–37; Frank Gamrat and Jake Haulk. 2005. "Merging Governments: Lessons from Louisville, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia," Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.
  9. Cheryl Hilvert and David Swindell. 2013. "Collaborative Service Delivery: What Every Local Government Manager Should Know," State and Local Government Review 45:4, 242.
  10. Ibid., 245.
  11. National League of Cities. 2012. "Metropolitan Councils" ( Accessed 19 October 2015.
  12. International City/County Management Association. 2013. "Regional Solutions to Regional Problems" ( Accessed 14 September 2015.
  13. Denver Regional Council of Governments. 2009. "With One Voice" ( Accessed 14 September 2015; Also notable, the DRCOG provides resources for its member governments through technical assistance, high-quality digital aerial photography services to help with mapping and planning, training, centralized firefighter testing, elevator/escalator safety inspection, and aging services for the metropolitan area's elderly residents.
  14. David Swindell and Cheryl Hilvert. 2014. "Contemplating Collaboration." PM Magazine (August) ( Accessed 15 September 2015; eCityGov Alliance. 2014. "About Us" ( Accessed 15 September 2015.
  15. Michael Abels. 2014. Strategic Alignment for the New Normal: Collaboration, Sustainability, and Deliberation in Local Government Across Boundaries," State and Local Government Review 46:3, 211–18; Government Finance Officers Association. 2007. "Alternative Service Delivery: Shared Services."
  16. Kirk Emerson, Tina Nabatchi, and Stephen Balogh. 2012. "An Integrative Framework for Collaborative Governance," Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 22:1, 1–30.
  17. Robert Agranoff and Michael McGuire. 1998. "Multinetwork Management: Collaboration and the Hollow State in Local Economic Policy," Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8:1, 67–91.
  18. Emerson et al.
  19. Michael Abels. 2012. "Managing through Collaborative Networks: A Twenty-First Century Mandate for Local Government," State and Local Government Review 44:S, 30S–43S; Kathryn A. Foster. 2010. "Challenges ahead for US regional planning governance," Town Planning Review 81:5, 485–503.
  20. Robert Agranoff and Michael McGuire. 1998. "Multinetwork Management: Collaboration and the Hollow State in Local Economic Policy," Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8:1, 67–91; Robert Agranoff and Michael McGuire. 2003. Collaborative Public Management: New Strategies for Local Governments, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
  21. Enhanced Partnership of the ICMA, the Alliance for Innovation, and the Center for Urban Innovation at Arizona State University. 2014. "The Collaborative Service Delivery Matrix: A Decision Tool to Assist Local Governments," "A Summary of the Research Behind the Decision Matrix Tool," and "Bibliographic Resources on Collaborative Service Delivery Arrangements" ( Accessed 19 October 2015.
  22. Swindell and Hilvert 2014.
  23. Parr et al.
  24. Kathryn A. Foster 2010, 499.
  25. Parr et al. 47–52.
  26. Bruce J. Perlman. 2015. "Trust and Timing: The Importance of Relationship and Opportunity for Interlocal Collaboration and Agreements," State and Local Government Review 47:2, 116–26.
  27. Germà Bel and Mildred E. Warner. 2015. "Intermunicipal cooperation and costs: Expectations and evidence," Public Administration 93:1, 52–67.
  28. Chris Ansell and Alison Gash. 2007. "Collaborative Governance in Theory and Practice," Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 18, 43–71.
  29. Ann Marie Thomson and James L. Perry. 2006. "Collaboration Processes: Inside the Black Box," Public Administration Review (Special Issue: December), 20–32.
  30. Michael McGuire, Robert Agranoff and Chris Silvia. 2011. "Putting the 'Public' Back into Collaborative Public Management," paper presented at the Public Management Research Conference, Syracuse, NY, 1–4 June.


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