The recent trend by lawmakers in Michigan and other states to coerce cooperation and consolidation amongst local units of government misses the bigger picture when it comes to making areas economically competitive.
When we were kids our parents would often say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” With respect to cities, a similar case can be made that two unsustainable communities combining into one does not create a vibrant place. Data and common sense tells us that providing essential services (public safety, downtown development, infrastructure, etc) is paramount to building a strong local economy. Yet many local governments, having experienced years of financial strife and scores of burdensome unfunded mandates from their state and federal partners, have gone from attempting to provide ‘more with less’ to simply providing what they can. In many cases the output just doesn’t add up anymore, making local governmental structures prime targets for fiscally minded reformers and small government advocates.
So where are we today? Scores of state legislatures, including Michigan’s, are tinkering with ideas to combine services or consolidate local governments all together. While these proposals have merit and are worth pursuing in many cases, they miss the larger point.
Simply stated, government service delivery needs more innovation. I cringe when I hear the phrase that we should “run government like a business” because it has basically become a throwaway line for politicians who know little about providing essential services within a confined structure, but in the case of innovation local governments have much to learn from their private peers.
Innovation happens at the edges of our core competencies. Trying new approaches and taking big risks are just part of the process for those who seek to find new ways of providing services and creating new industries. Getting it wrong is part of the deal, too, so much so that noted innovation expert Jeff DeGraff describes the entire process as “accelerating the failure curve.” However, in local government this behavior is often frowned upon. The general public is leery of new ideas and state legislatures often discourage the practice through restrictive and antiquated enabling legislation.
In a healthy corporate culture successful innovation is followed by optimization- taking the idea to market, if you will. The same approach needs to occur in dealing with struggling local governments. We must first find new and better ways of providing the services needed to make places come alive in the 21st Century then seek ways to structure them for the most favorable outcome. Let’s not give into the current tear-it-all-down climate and put the (un) optimize cart before the innovation horse. Our places depend on it.