STATE OF THE FIELD – American Regionalism and the Constellation of Mechanisms for Cross-Boundary Cooperation [Part 2]

Co-Editors: Jen Nelles, Oxford Brookes University (UK) and
Jay Rickabaugh, Appalachian State University (US)

In this colloquium, we explore the variety of actors involved in the cross-boundary cooperation that we associate with American regional governance and the evolving connections and relationships between them. We aim to produce a cutting-edge review of the state of the field of American regionalism that is accessible, thought provoking, and forward looking. In bringing together scholarship on different mechanisms for cross-boundary cooperation, and highlighting common themes, we hope to transcend some of the barriers in our field and begin to develop a comprehensive, grounded, and modern understanding of the dimensions of regional governance. The contributing scholars approach this broad question of regional activity with original quantitative data, case studies, interviews, and new arguments for theory development or research. We further hope to spark some lively debate that can generate sustained interest in the important work happening in American regions. 

Brief synopses of all nine essays can be found at the end of this introduction.

Editorial Introduction: Developing Co-Regional Activity to Conceptualize Constellations of Governance Mechanisms 

Our (co-editors Rickabaugh and Nelles) journey into American intergovernmental relations has largely and recently centered around Regional Intergovernmental Organizations (RIGOs), a specifically defined regional institution meeting five criteria. This designation (and the open-access catalog) captures almost five hundred local-government led bodies like: councils of governments, regional planning commissions, development districts, regional councils that operate in forty-seven states. RIGOs also are the broadest of their kind in their policy scope and territory, recognized by their states and/or the federal government, and operate with a mission to serve the region.

This scholarship and the concept of RIGOs has found a substantial audience among both academics and practitioners. The genesis for this colloquium was a mini-conference held in Pittsburgh in February 2020 that convened academics investigating intergovernmental activity with executive directors of RIGOs from across the United States. A series of next steps were agreed upon by both academics and practitioners to continue the conversation and to bridge our two communities better; this open-access colloquium hosted by the Urban Affairs Forum is one of those steps. While the scholarship continues to emerge, we are humbled to play a small role in recognizing and supporting the crucial roles RIGOs perform for their member local governments, for state and federal government agencies, and in partnerships with civic and private sector partners to improve their region’s residents’ quality of life.

However, through the course of our work (along with George Dougherty and our late collaborator, David Y. Miller), we acknowledged that RIGOs were one kind of star in a constellation of regional activities. The definition of RIGOs presented in an article, “Order Out of Chaos…”, and in our book, Discovering American Regionalism, captures one category of nearly ubiquitous intergovernmental activity in the United States. But there are myriad edge cases, close cousins to RIGOs, and more distantly-related entities with whom RIGOs regularly interact that also play vital roles in the life of the region. We know that there are interactions and relationships at the regional scale among regional entities within a region, but that there has been minimal investigation beyond research where local governments are the unit of analysis.

In this editorial introduction, we develop a co-regional lens for understanding these constellations of regional activity and entities. Much of our understanding of regional governance is consumed by the extent to which it is: (1) a lateral act among general-purpose local governments (inter-local), (2) federally or state-mandated or incentivized (“top-down”), or (3) locally-initiated (“bottom-up”), however these categories are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. Regional entities broadly defined (e.g., special districts, multijurisdictional public authorities, regional intergovernmental organizations [RIGOs], Intermediate School Districts [ISDs], Metropolitan Planning Organizations [MPOs], Area Agencies on Aging [AAAs], etc.) also engage laterally with one another. As a result, nearly all American regions sustain a dynamic middle layer of collaboration “laterally” among regional entities with governing boards composed primarily of local elected officials, advocating on behalf of constituents’ interests, but charged with considering the whole region as well.

Expanding empirical research into this intermediate co-regional layer unpacks an array of mechanisms and factors undergirding the normative debate between institutional reform and public choice models. Central to these mechanisms are the strategies and decisions of these regional entities’ CAOs. Like many mesolevels, how regional actors (especially CAOs and professional staffs) interact with one another is a dynamic landscape of inter-organizational learning, negotiation, creation, absorption, adaptation, incubation and spawning off, and dissolution (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012). While there are certainly some latent political, psychological, and cultural factors that drive the directions of the dynamism within the landscape, the existing scholarship here is quite thin but the policy levers seem more accessible. The results of this co-regional activity are fundamental to understanding the concentration or diffusion of regional governance (in interlocal agreements, in special districts, in regional organizations, and up to and including, consolidation).

With this post, we hope to catalyze a deeper discussion about this dynamic co-regional layer of activity. We begin with some crucial assumptions and background in the self-directed but constrained nature of regional entities. These tenets are fundamental to how we describe the complexity of what “co-regional” means in this context and the necessity, at least initially, to frame this from any actor’s vantage point. In our conclusion, we look forward to the ways in which more research in this space connects to existing scholarship, professional development within regional entities, and chart some of the possible opportunities in the future.

Foundations of Co-Regional Activity

A fundamental assumption to investigating co-regional activity is that the entities that comprise the co-regional landscape are, in fact, institutions to which responsibility is delegated and at least some internal authority and discretion is granted. When a local government delegates functions to a regional entity and contracts professional staff to implement their will (individually or collectively), the principal-agent theory assumes that the agent (the entity’s professional staff) will have both some degree of discretion and its own set of incentives (Downs, 1965; Hawkins et al., 2006). As a result, the entity is not simply the will of the principal (or its collective principals). The agenda, information asymmetry, available decision sets, diplomacy, decision, and implementation of policy are intertwined in this principal-agent relationship.

Recognizing substate regional entities not only have incentives formed from below (by their local government members) and from above (by the state or federal governments)—but that incentives extend within the institution itself—is not a radical notion, but one would be hard-pressed to find investigations of this in the American regional governance literature. The Institutional Collective Action (ICA) framework largely distinguishes among the choices of local government members within their decision set to minimize transaction costs or to balance autonomy with cooperation (Kim et al., 2020). The Ecology of Games Framework (EGF) recognizes the interconnectedness of relationships among local government members across an array of interactions and regional activities, but often simplifies the contexts of the arenas in which these members interact (Lubell et al., 2010). These frameworks are both certainly important contributions, but delegation of authority to a regional institution and its subsequent decisions are not fait accompli. And yet, we have minimal information about how professional staff in these regional entities understand their incentives as leaders and diplomats in the regional context. Just as we often assume city managers and local elected officials have different expectations and norms in considering regional activity (Matkin & Frederickson, 2009), it seems quite plausible that regionally-delegated professional staff might have a third perspective.

We will use the term co-regional[1] to describe relationships and activities here, and use the term a bit loosely. We hope a more precise definition of this idea and some clearer methods to bound a “region” in this context can be a product of sparking this discussion. These regions are shared but not necessarily coterminous spaces, so referring to them as intra-regional only begs the question, “inside whose region?” Miller and Nelles (2019) consider these ideas in the relationships RIGOs maintain with other regional entities, particularly similar organizations (Miller uses the term IGOs) with smaller geographic footprints or with more freestanding MPOs. This description includes an in-depth typology distinguishing how RIGO and MPO territory overlap and subsequent discussion of embedded, hosted, affiliated, and detached relationships even where these two entities are integrated.

Key Concepts

-regional entities
-regional public sector organizations (RPSOs)
-regional intergovernmental organizations (RIGOs)
Regional interactions

Click here for detail and definitions

Figure 1 presents a model field of co-regional activity, extending Miller and Nelles’s framing to additional policy domains within the public sector and beyond. This perception of co-regional activity includes entities that are multijurisdictional, inclusive of those that are both state- and federally-designated and locally initiated. Not all local governments will be party to all activities within the field. These entities would include Regional Public Sector Organizations (RPSOs) as a genus of governance structure (Rickabaugh, 2021), but includes other substantially regional entities with differing governance structures. Directly-elected special districts maintain a different governance structure from RPSOs but still remain active in the co-regional space. Another example of a regional entity present in this landscape would be a drinking water authority with a board membership comprised of one or two jurisdictions, but where the authority maintains multiple extra-jurisdictional service contracts, and thus meaningful leverage, in the region beyond its board membership. More refinement is required to identify unambiguously measurable criteria and distinguish edge cases, but I trust these broad brushstrokes suffice for the purposes of this preliminary discussion.

Figure 1: A visual model of the field of co-regional activity

Crucial to this discussion is the potential for variation within this field of co-regional activity. Figure 1 represents a broadly typical region that is at neither end of the public choice-institutional reform continuum. A public choice model prefers a dispersed plethora of specific regional activities (identified by triangles) and the concomitant necessary network of relationships among these entities to keep the region in efficient working order. An ideal type institutional reform model sees a larger role for internalized collaborations presented here as contained within the RIGO (but could also be in a directly-elected, governing body with more legal authority like Portland Metro). Moving in this direction could mean expanding the RIGO box to encompass more regional entities and folding them into the present governance structure and/or providing the RIGO with more authority than they have presently.

We also recognize this landscape often includes major regional civic and private sector stakeholders with touchpoints and leverage within the policy process (e.g., chambers of commerce, foundations, anchor institutions, non-profit human service providers, etc.), but they are largely not the present focus. Often, these civic and private sector representatives have a minority or non-voting seat in regional entities with locally-appointed boards (Dougherty and Miller, 2018). These civic and private sector regional anchors have a long history of influencing local government structure and authority, particularly at a regional scale (Glass, 2011; Teaford, 1990). We place our attention here on entities with a primarily governmental constituency, however the influence of these stakeholders cannot be overlooked.

The existing scholarship focusing on the costs and benefits to local governments of interlocal cooperation benefits from investigating the complex incentive structures and diplomacy of co-regional activity. Evaluating the quality or quantity of regional governance by measuring how it impacts local government members is one crucial measure of effectiveness and has a substantial empirical record (An & Bostic, 2020; Goodman & Leland, 2019). However, understanding the internal governance mechanisms of regional entities—and the levers they have to alter member costs and benefits—requires making the regional organizations themselves the units of analysis (Rickabaugh, 2021). This requires a principal-agent reframing that recognizes the self-directed action of regional entities in a co-regional landscape, constrained in their decision sets by their members.

The limited investigation of the internal mechanisms of regional entities (and thus, co-regional activity) suggests that these entities are the self-sustaining, dutiful, static products of watchmaker local governments, rather than evolving and interactive components of governance networks. Bollens (1997) highlights three key characteristics of a regional institution that largely echo through the literature still today: “(1) its scientific-technical emphasis, (2) its single-purpose compartmentalization of regional policy, and (3) its institutional insularity” (117). This was seemingly an accurate characterization at the time, but these ideas are now worth re-examining. Whether our understanding of governance networks has evolved since the time of his writing or whether the networks themselves have evolved (or the extent of both occurring simultaneously) is important, but lies outside the present question.

However, the empirical record overwhelmingly asks research questions that treat Bollens’s three characteristics as assumptions at one end of a continuum rather than variables. Often, a focus on outputs reinforces the present blind spots of outcomes. An analysis of Iowa’s 2013 consolidation of Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) focuses on its impacts to Home and Community-Based Services as a single-purpose, scientific-technical output AAAs provide (Arora et al., 2020). However, the broader quality of life outcomes where AAAs interface with co-regional entities (livable community planning, housing authorities, emergency preparedness, public safety, etc.) were not a component of this analysis.  Researchers in other areas and other governance structures also often simplify to a single policy domain, but recognize the limitations of doing so (Greer et al., 2018; Stephens, 1998). One notable example that pushes back against the assumption of institutional insularity is Mullin’s (2009) investigation of the often-contentious political processes inherent within water districts. In part, we question these same assumptions from a different angle.

Investigating the co-regional landscape requires challenging Bollens’s three characteristics. Relaxing these assumptions permits investigation into how regional entities (triangles in Figure 1) coordinate with one another and leverage their capacity to implement together. The meaningful, potential research questions that flow from looking into this co-regional layer of activity abound, but also have important practitioner impact.

A Joint Academic & Practitioner Research Agenda for Fields of Co-Regional Activity

We conclude with some ideas and directions that research into fields of co-regional activity can take that benefit both scholars and practitioners of intergovernmental relations. Questioning Bollens’s assumptions almost twenty-five years later and investigating regional entities as evolving and interacting institutions in and of themselves unlocks a series of fascinating research questions for regional governance. We outline first a rare example from AAAs that examines their impact co-regionally and what it can mean for the study of other regional entities.

One space where academic investigation into co-regional activities and relationships has progressed is within Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs). AAAs represent an important example of the variation in governance structures, but with a consistent function (as defined initially in the 1973 Older Americans Act). The National Association for Area Agencies on Aging’s 2017 study found that almost 40% of responding AAAs were independent non-profits, 27% were embedded within individual local governments, and 28% were either an independent RPSO or embedded in some kind of multi-jurisdictional organization (including RIGOs).  This same study found that 70% of AAAs are “involved in efforts to make communities more livable and/or dementia-friendly” (National Survey of Area Agencies on Aging: Serving America’s Older Adults, 2017). To accomplish this, AAAs maintain co-regional relationships with regional transportation planners and providers, housing authorities, and multi-jurisdictional emergency preparedness or other public safety organizations.

Because the research on AAAs has been published primarily in public health and gerontology journals, it has fallen largely outside of the purview of most urban and regional affairs scholars. Brewster and colleagues (2018) demonstrate the variation in both reach and formality of the co-regional relationships AAAs maintain. They further demonstrate that broader and deeper co-regional relationships correlate to substantial regional benefits for multiple health policy outcomes (Brewster et al., 2018). These existing co-regional partnerships poised AAAs to be both leaders and conveners in the response to the covid-19 pandemic (Wilson et al., 2020).

This example from AAAs could be meaningfully translated to other co-regional activities generating substantial benefit. As an example, future research can assess how major regional economic development projects with a transportation component are accomplished. What constitutes effective communication and coordination will likely be different when the Economic Development District and MPO are distinct peer organizations than when they are co-located in a single organization. Challenging Bollens’s assumptions opens our eyes to rural broadband authorities, regional library systems, and intermediate school districts collectively moving beyond the scientific-technical infrastructure or throughput questions of internet provision and collaborating to promote regional equity. This battery of research questions contributes in at least three ways: (1) to the mechanisms present in the public choice and institutional reform debate, (2) to promote the skills practitioners in these regional entities need to operate in their present environment, and (3) to design policies and intergovernmental systems with improved attention to their co-regional impacts.

Future research can also zoom out to capture better the factors that create variation in the fields of co-regional activity. We fully expect substantial co-regional variation in the number and form of entities, their relationships, and their activities. We further suspect that this variation is in part a product of geographic, political, economic, historical, and psychological factors (among many others). Foster’s Regional Impulses (1997) framework is one starting point to parse out these influences. For example, the most prominent regional activities in a rural area may focus on capturing economies of scale over sparsely populated areas (e.g., regional libraries, broadband authorities, AAAs, or water districts) and a more urban region may skew more towards coordinating activities with substantial externalities (and disputes over those externalities) like transportation or economic development.

In addition to the explanations rooted in political economy, we can expect co-regional decision-making to be influenced by historical animosity or amity, cultural homo- or heterogeneity (both in the specific sense of identity and in the more global sense of a worldview), and other factors less rooted in strictly economic rational action. Like interlocal activities, co-regional activities rely on human interaction, relationships, and decision making (Wright, 1988). One of these challenges is recognizing the cultural components embedded in the existing co-regional landscape. Visser’s cultural model of interlocal relations (2002) initially applied to local government administrators, but is seemingly worthy of investigation co-regionally: “It is in the values, biases, philosophies, and professional actions and experiences of administrators as they relate to interlocal relations that we may find motivational support for experimentation and interorganizational outreach or, conversely, for parochial self-preservation” (54).

There is a wide berth to explore this variation in co-regional activity that will require all manner of research techniques. Quantitatively cataloging these regional entities and their relative strength to map the landscape, investigating individual entities’ historic and present purposes, and capturing how leaders at all levels (local, regional, state, and federal) perceive the decision-making processes all necessitate thoughtful qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. There are certainly some theories from other subfields of political science and public administration worth testing abductively, but inductive approaches that rely on practitioner experience will capture important information as well.

With an understanding of a region’s landscape of co-regional activities, the cultural and communication components that drive co-regional decision making, the appropriate incentives and constraints to nudge the networks are then both clearer in focus and more effective in practice. Widespread structural shifts in the way regions function, in either a public choice or institutional reform direction, seem unlikely in the near term. In the absence of such shifts, stronger foundations and a corps of more knowledgeable co-regional leaders can identify the incremental changes that improve the performance of their networks. In the event that a policy window opens to make structural changes to these systems, a more informed faction of co-regional leaders from across the ideological spectrums can help state and federal leaders design reforms that balance what regions need with where regions are.

Posts Included in this Colloquium:

Part 1

The Future of Collaborative Leadership in Contemporary Regional Entities

This contribution by George Dougherty (University of Pittsburgh) and Suzanne Leland (University of North Carolina at Charlotte) reminds us that although the landscapes of American regional activity are populated by organizations, those organizations are made up of people. While we often discuss these organizations in the abstract – as entities with agendas, and responsibilities, capacity, and legal agency – these are decided on and executed by individuals. As this piece highlights, the people that lead these organizations often have years (and sometimes decades) of experience and are often instrumental in facilitating the kinds of activities that we take for granted that RIGOs, and other regional entities, can perform. In this context, the coming wave of executive director retirements, and the weakness of succession planning, may impact organizational effectiveness and could potentially diminish regional capacity. Observers of American regionalism should be aware of leadership transitions in these organizations and be prepared to study their potential effects on regional governance and collective action. More broadly, this is one of many potential threats to effective regions and serves as a reminder that regional collaboration should not be taken for granted. As organizations like RIGOs evolve, their trajectories will not necessarily involve a linear intensification of regionalism. The sources of dynamics such as intensification and retrenchment, and their link to internal factors like leadership, is an important gap in our knowledge base.

Race, Activism, and Localism in the Metropolis: Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Atlanta and Chicago

Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) are one of the most recognizable forms of regional governance in America. Because they are federally mandated for all large communities and require the collective development of transportation plans, they are often regarded as the de facto regional public sector organizations. Recent research has shown that MPOs actually have formal relationships with and are connected to other types of regional organizations, such as RIGOs. In this contribution, Margaret Weir (Brown University) explores the potential and limitations of MPOs in using transportation policy to tackle metropolitan inequalities. She finds that MPOs that are part of RIGOs in both Atlanta and Chicago have encountered barriers to enacting equity agendas and notes the limitations inherent in regional organizations to overcome entrenched interests. Weir suggests that the federal government may play a role in incentivizing greater attention to equity in transportation planning processes, a move that might also have knock-on effects for regional planning in other areas for the RIGOs of which they are part. 

Elevating the Scale of Cross-Boundary Cooperation: Mechanisms for Cross-Regional Policy Coordination

This contribution focuses on metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to demonstrate that even in places where there are instruments of regional governance in place, there can still be a need to coordinate policies beyond those regional boundaries. This necessitates cooperation between regional public sector organizations. In making this observation, Soyoung Kim (Seoul National University of Science and Technology) pushes us to think about metropolitan spaces and geographies of governance differently. In line with our call to consider the constellation of actors involved in regional governance, she argues that these geographies sometimes necessitate a patchwork of actors constructing and coordinating their own metropolitan spaces, which will often not align with those of other entities. In so doing, she raises important questions about the appropriate, and optimal, roles for different types of actors. When should such cross-boundary activities be coordinated by or within a RIGO, for example, versus through a potentially more flexible and focused network of MPOs? When should states be involved in this coordinating effort? What do these collaborative mechanisms substitute for and at what scales? Furthermore, what are the limits of scale? How large can and should our conceptions of regionalism be when contemplating cross-regional collaboration? These questions and more should challenge us to understand regions and regionalism as multifaceted and to consider with a critical eye the alternative, competing, and complementary configurations of governance that may coexist. 

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in Philadelphia and their Potential as Regional Actors

Highly localized business improvement districts (BIDs) may seem like an unlikely entry in a colloquium on regional governance. However, in this piece, Richardson Dilworth (Drexel University) invites us to consider how BIDs exist as a form of collective action that, like other types of regional entities, form to leverage common resources to solve problems and seize opportunities that do not easily correspond to political jurisdictions. He argues that whether these entities are cross-boundary (as some are) or fully contained within a single jurisdiction, their origin stories and experiences can offer lessons to observers of American regionalism. Furthermore, he speculates that BIDs may have the potential to evolve along several pathways to participate in processes: either through generating hyperlocal cross-boundary entities, forming federations or blocs, or by establishing chains of related and similarly designed regional entities across a metropolitan area. These offer tantalizing insights into how the regional governance landscape might evolve from below. Finally, Dilworth injects a critical perspective, noting that even as cross-boundary partnerships are mechanisms of collective action and cooperation, they are also (mostly unintentionally) instruments of exclusion and fragmentation to the extent that they focus benefits internally. This is a theme that is also worth considering across the other contributions to this colloquium.

 Part 2

Tightening Networks and Deepening Co-Regionalism: The Evolution of Cross-Boundary Cooperation to Combat the Opiate Epidemic in Washington State

Often, scholars investigate co-regional actions by evaluating them in their final form: an interlocal agreement, the charter of a regional authority, or the decisions of a Regional Intergovernmental Organization board. In this post, Lachezar G. Anguelov (The Evergreen State College) introduces us to an embryonic informal network addressing drug addiction and overdoses with stakeholders crossing jurisdictional, sectoral, and policy boundaries. In this case, the coordination that he observes between actors operating at different scales highlights how constellations of actors can leverage strengths to work across boundaries and generate effective solutions. A key point is that it is unlikely that the opioid crisis could be effectively tackled by a single organization operating at an “optimal” scale; therefore challenging the tendency in scholarship on regionalism to seek, promote, or critique ideal types of regional organizing and to dismiss entities that fall short (with respect to resources, authority, or reach, for example). Here there is power in truly shared, decentralized, flexible, and evolving collective action – a fact that could easily be overlooked in focusing solely on formalized entities and agreements. At present, it is not clear whether the networks he observes will crystallize into a more formally institutionalized structure. However, studying such cases and the genesis and evolution stories of networks are necessary to improve scholarly understanding of the final forms of co-regional action and to provide actionable recommendations for local leaders developing these networks in their communities.

Investing in Emerging Regional Institutions to Promote Equitable Climate-Ready Regions

In this contribution, Catherine Ashcraft (University of New Hampshire) and Christina Rosan (Temple University) explore the potential for regional planning solutions to the climate crisis in a case study of two initiatives in New England. They note that climate change, like many wicked problems, is a complex set of issues that faces numerous political barriers, and that solutions are unlikely to be unlocked at one level of government. They see the region as an important scale to coordinate local action but aligning “problemshed” and “solutionshed” means thinking flexibly about defining that scale – this means adopting more creative solutions that do not necessarily rely on strong institutionalization. This doesn’t mean we should stop thinking about creating powerful regional institutions but that shouldn’t be our only focus. In the interim, there are many tools to make progress on wicked problems, such as climate change, at the regional scale. They argue that we should explore the network of institutions emerging in the U.S. that already “does regional work.” In short, this means leveraging the constellation of (regional) actors that can contribute to collaborative solutions and focus on coordination, learning about localized needs and capacities, and making impacts (no matter how small). Relying on such a broader network has the added benefits of tapping into and giving voice to local knowledge and experience and of creating opportunities to center social justice and equity through inclusion. The focus on the strength of informal relationships in this contribution has strong parallels with Lucky Anguelov’s exploration of networks that have formed around the opioid crisis in the Pacific Northwest, reinforcing the point that our focus on “formal” and “visible” forms of regionalism may be overlooking the important impact that ad hoc forms of regionalism can have. Together, these findings suggest that, in the absence of or in tandem with “powerful” centralized leadership or regulatory authority, some solutions to the wickedest problems – associated with housing, climate change, equity, public health, and more – may be effectively found in the humble and improvised comings together of existing actors.

Water Utility Districts as Facilitators of Regional Climate Change Partnerships

Unlike much of the literature on regional activity that centers on how general-purpose local governments choose to respond to externalities or other cross-boundary drivers, Jayce Farmer (University of Nevada-Las Vegas) centers existing water utility districts as the key independent variable. He demonstrates that their presence substantially encourages general-purpose local governments to participate in regional climate change partnerships. This finding reaffirms a pattern consistent across the colloquium: creating a regional entity with a specific set of powers and authorities (like a water utility district) is more than a single response to a collective action problem; that new entity then has its own independent agency, discretion, and internal incentives constrained by the regional network in which it operates. Other posts have considered agency and incentives: co-regionally; cross-regionally; and in the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities leaders of regional entities need to help these organizations thrive. Here, Farmer examines the reverse-directionality of the local-regional loop: when regional entities take independent action to promote specific activities for general-purpose local governments to undertake.

Projects Not Systems: Why New York Doesn’t Have a RIGO

The greater New York City region is both a substantial population and financial center in the United States, making it a highly contested political territory. Despite (and perhaps because of) its value in this regard, Cameron Gordon (Australian National University), Richard Flanagan (City University of New York), and Jonathan Peters (City University of New York) argue that intense fragmentation in the region creates hurdles to effective regionalism. Interestingly, and of particular interest to this colloquium, it is not that the New York region has failed to produce regional entities at all but that their geographical configuration and overlapping areas of influence often make coordination politically difficult. In this region, the challenge for transportation planning is less about the magnitude of jurisdictional fragmentation (which is, nonetheless, extensive) and power struggles between individual communities and more about the failure of established cross-boundary organizations to consistently perceive the region beyond their institutional boundaries. In this sense, in the New York metropolitan area, the constellation of regional actors exhibits a collective parochialism that inhibits this major hub’s ability to govern itself in sustainable, just, and prudent ways. This post highlights, using history and four case studies, how institutional legacies of partial regionalism have resulted in an inability to form a geographically broad, policy diverse, deliberative, and locally representative body (as RIGOs do) and the consequences for regional progress. This perspective provides a critical contrast to other work in this series, such as pieces by Ashcraft & Rosan and Anguelov, that emphasizes the power of informal and ad hoc approaches to complex regional problems. Taken as a group, these contributions open up the possibility that different types of regionalism may be appropriate to different types of regional problems.

Envisioning a Role for RIGOs in Cross-Boundary Land Use Regulation

The acknowledged value of regional planning is evident in the proliferation of state and federal policies that require coordination between local authorities. However, as Skuzinski and Hernandez note, even while regional planning efforts exist the plans themselves lack teeth and land use regulation remains a predominantly local activity. This phenomenon is at the heart of one of the most common critiques of American regionalism: regional entities, such as RIGOs, may exist but they typically have few statutory powers. If their responsibilities and ambitions do not align with their authority, then how effective can they be? This piece lays out the problem and promise of regional land use planning and highlights the challenges that regional entities face in executing collaboratively established visions. It also explores how RIGOs are able to work within these constraints to influence outcomes in regional land use. In so doing, Skuzinski and Hernandez set out a blueprint for how the role of RIGOs, and other regional entities, might be intensified in this policy area. Their note contributes to a broader conversation about how RIGOs can influence outcomes in other policy domains where they are idea-rich but authority-poor.


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[1] This terminology is also used to distinguish co-regional activities and relationships from what might better be described as cross-regional activities and relationships. Cross-regional interactions would include the vast epistemic and advocacy communities of like entities that help develop best practices for more effective governance and lobby 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), Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (AMPO), and a plethora of additional national, statewide, and multi-state associations. We use “cross-regional” because, except in very rare cases, these like entities do not have coinciding geographic space. For more information about how we are using language in this colloquium, see this link:

Cover Photo by Yifan Gu on Unsplash

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