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Federated local government offers advantages
over more centralised or fragmented systems
By Mayraj Fahim, Local Government Adviser*
10 November 2009: The collective experiences of Europe, South East Asia (in particular China), Canada, the UK and the US offer instructive lessons on how to unlock the potential of substantive federated local government systemic frameworks - as well as offering demonstrative evidence of either successful or problematic adaptations.
In an era when even regions with no early history of applying the methodology are endeavouring to establish such a framework, such as Latin America, one may wish to consider the broader ramifications of undertaking this process productively.
Today, the challenge of adaptation is trickier than ever, as diversity of the applications having different levels of integration has led to counterproductive results when this critical element is missed or ignored by adapting parties (as London’s history has shown from the 1960s reforms era to the present time). Moreover, optimal productivity requires respecting changing ground conditions, which as Canadian examples have revealed, are ignored at their own peril. Since both the UK and Canada have long histories of successful adaptations, their problematic adaptations and efforts point to the need for careful assessment in the process of implementation for others even less familiar.
The importance of respecting the dynamics of each application
Even though federated systems were a rising force in the post-1950s era, appreciating the potential ramifications of applying different applications appears in some cases to not have been understood with clarity. A primary reason is that where individual applications are easy to identify, knowledge of the various applications in existence is not comprehensively realised. Further, knowledge of those succumbing to pitfalls in application; or failing to further evolve their systemic expression to meet changing ground conditions, is not appreciated. Lack of knowledge of existing alternatives, and the failure of the adapting policymakers to publicly admit to sources of inspiration - for one reason or another - further clouds the ability to make an adequate assessment by others (either on the part of their successors seeking to correct systemic flaws or others wishing to apply the methodological frameworks).
What must be kept in mind in this context is that different frameworks involve respecting different dynamics when upgrading or adapting different variations. From one generation to the next, new decision-makers fail when they do not take that into account.
A loose federated framework, such as that reflected in the US examples of Twin Cities Metro system (a seven county system) or the Portland Metro system (a three county system) has very different dynamics from a system that has regional government mechanisms of the South East Asian order. The integration level is higher in the latter.
Similarly, the Toronto Metro system (introduced in the 1950s) had very different dynamics from the one that Montreal is implementing now. In fact, what the Quebec Government has realised by transforming the Montreal Urban Community into the Montreal federated system, is that the different dynamics need to be respected when movement is from one level of integration to the next. As Quebec leaders illustrated by their new Montreal formula, which is a more integrated upgrade of the region’s adaptation of a Toronto-like framework (the Montreal Urban Community), the dynamics moved from a bottom-heavy system to one with a different weighting formula.
In the US, the first adaptation of the Toronto Metro system was (and remains) the Miami-Dade federated system which, ironically, has now outlasted its source of inspiration (as Ontario leaders consolidated the framework). Miami-Dade's system involved over 30 subtier units -whereas, at its high point Toronto only had 13 (12 suburbs, plus Toronto). In order to transform the system from the dynamics of the municipal-county relationship norm in the US, Miami-Dade reformers had to calibrate the system differently.
In this context, one should also keep in mind that if there are hybrids that are undertaken, one needs to be sensitive about issues of dynamics in that context as well. We are in an age where we are spoiled for choice, but, inherent in this also lie the hidden potential pitfalls that need to be appreciated for what they are, if one is to succeed in implementing an integrated federated framework for a local region.
Greater systemic integration
leads to greater productivity
In general, as revealed by existing examples, the higher the level of integration the more dynamic are the productive results of using this methodology. China and the Stuttgart Region have illustrated this in practice in vastly different environments. They illustrate by their performances that those with higher integration levels deliver results uncommon in less integrated applications (without support), or those lacking integration per se.
Why those envisioning the Dutch
Deltametropolis looked to Singapore
As noted in the material referenced below, today in the European and global marketplace, regions that open up to international dynamics have realised that it is city-regions that are facing each other as competitive entities, both within the nation and beyond its jurisdiction. In this environment, fragmentation inhibits the teamwork framework essential for delivering effective competitors in a high stakes enterprise that reflects changing environments. A fact, that in the more financially challenged era of the present time, makes the need more acute. In short, what is therefore required is an integrated regional network rather than a system that enables inter-jurisdictional competition that occurs all too often in systemic fragmentation sans adequate integration.
Singapore is a mega city that has set a standard for maximising its resources, and in doing so as a city-state it has presented itself as an example of how to maximise resources - which is the main reason why an integrated regional systemic framework is the desired process to begin with.
The example of West Bengal, India
Since 1978, the government of the Indian state of West Bengal has revived an integrated local government federated framework exported by the British during the colonial era that has played an important role in reducing poverty in the state. The West Bengal local system is three-tiered. The bottom tier, which corresponds to the UK parish council counterpart is termed gram panchayat; the middle tier, which corresponds to what is termed a district council in the UK context, is termed panchayat samithi. The top tier, which corresponds to county councils in the UK, is termed zila parishad. Like the original UK framework (as opposed to the more recent Birmingham model that has pioneered for England a one-unit federated system), the West Bengal system is stratified that is, it has different representatives serving in the different levels of the system.
In West Bengal, increasing people's participation in government through the panchayats has promoted increased productivity in “agriculture and small-scale production generally, greater empowerment of the poor, more equity in basic consumption patterns and a greater voice for ordinary people” as noted in the referenced article discussing a 2004 report on the system. In the past two decades, the state has experienced relatively expedited economic growth, compared with the rest of the country, and more importantly, unlike most of the country, small producers in all the major sectors have led this growth. The most remarkable acceleration of growth has taken place in agriculture. The state, described in the early 1980s as being in an agrarian rut, experienced the highest rates of productivity for the whole country. Further, this was led by small peasants, the prime movers in the West Bengal success story.
Less integrated systems are not as productive
In the US, the Twin Cities and Portland Metro regional systems are held up as examples of what they have achieved in curbing the downside of the runaway suburban explosion that is a nationwide phenomenon contributing to the downside of inter-jurisdictional competition. Whereas these systems have certainly succeeded in damage control, including reducing the downside of destructive ramifications in the competition between neighbouring units for attracting business, reducing the inequity within the region. However, their frameworks aren’t sufficiently integrated and consequently they are not geared in such a way so as to propel the constituents to a higher degree of productivity, as systems with high integration levels in examples as disparate as China and Stuttgart. Unlike these two example, economic improvement has not been a goal of these two US regions either. A Governing magazine article published in the November monthly issue in 2008 entitled “The Stuttgart Solution” failed to even mention either as it praised what Stuttgart a much younger system had delivered.
Federated city systems by enabling subregional turnaround increase productivity for the system as a whole
The London borough of Camden underwent a dramatic turnaround by changing from being very badly managed to becoming the UK's best performing local unit. Camden’s example was not possible for Brooklyn (a borough of New York that was once one of the 15 largest cities in the US), with a system that is centralised as opposed to being substantively federated.
Evolutionary developments have encouraged new variations
In their boldness in applying integrated local governance, leading Canadian appliers illustrate how relatively recent efforts can bear fruit quickly when the will is there. Whereas, France remains the nation with the most diverse variations in both amplified and limited applications; the variety of Canadian efforts illustrate that the comfiort of history need not be the foundation for embracing local government integration. Although, unlike the French, outside Montreal, they have not evolved regional bodies to meet the challenges of changing ground conditions whose absence haunts Canadiansystems and inhibits their potential. However, the various mechanisms such as the regional districts of British Columbia, the sub-regional role of city councillors in the Halifax/Toronto consolidated model as well as the four 2-tier governance bodies near Toronto (as Toronto Metro used to be) that Ontario delivered in the 1970s (the regional municipalities of Durhamj, Halton, Peel and York), nearby the original - which is the only such example of a virtual colony of integrated federated frameworks); together with the regional council municipality examples elsewhere; and, the new Quebec changes (unveiled at the beginning of this new century), including the most amplified example in the province of the Montreal regional system (the most amplified example of its kind in North America) illustrate the innovative Canadian bent.
A recent article in Governing magazine on the lack of a regional mechanism on the US side and the contrast in the Niagara Falls border highlights how Canada’s integrated local governance holds up in close comparison with its American counterpart. [See: “How Bureaucracy and Bickering Brought Down Niagara Falls”} The U.S. side is the one, that doesn’t have a regional council municipality, or its equivalent.
The new innovations implemented in Pakistan, Canada and France illustrate the flexibility that is inherent in this methodology, which enables tailored solutions with an ever-growing list of variations. Where Pakistan does not have the different variations of France, and to a lesser extent Canada, it has pioneered a new application and added features that other federated systems lack, including the integration of participatory democracy and participatory budgeting mechanisms as additional features of its new frameworks. However, Pakistan, might soon see regression, as has happened in France (reason why the country’s system is not as advanced as it could have been), UK (ditto), and Canada (Toronto Metro , Winnipeg and other consolidations where a unitary system replaced a two-tier one)
Stratified, Bottom-Up and Top-Down
In general, stratified or separate representation between tiers is the most common variation. However, a rising trend is common-representation across the tiers. The Halifax/Toronto framework offers a top-down alternative, adapted in Los Angeles with its new systemic restructuring. In Birmingham - which LA’s changes resemble more closely, although in a more modified fashion - the city councillors also serve as councillors in the subregions, with delegated powers provided to parish councils. Birmgham has taken the Halifax/Toronto formula to its greatest level of amplification, whereas the Los Angeles example (with seven mini city halls and localised services along with subregional roles for city councillors) lies between the two extremes.
However, Canada’s regional council municipality norm is a bottom-up representational framework; as is the new Montreal framework, where borough leaders represent their constituencies as city councillors.
Pakistan’s new systems extend this formula by making the neighbourhood the core unit in the urban regions with its representatives at the urban level (termed union councils) being included in both upper levels of its three-tier system. Pakistan’s system, unlike the rest, integrates the neighbourhood level in a bottom-up variant.
The Bottom-Up Difference
Whereas a bottom-up framework is more grass roots oriented, it has an added element in that the knowledge-capital is retained at the bottom. Top-down systems can be vulnerable to the vagaries of succeeding leaders in the top level ’losing the plot’, so to speak - or worse, to play power games at the expense of their constituent parts. And being recipients of policy without having a substantial say in how it is framed, can lead to disastrous results that are harmful to systemic productivity. This is what happened in Manitoba (Winnipeg consolidation), Ontario (Toronto Metro consolidation) and also in the UK.
All countries applying this methodology can learn from one another in relation to their successes, innovations and errors. Of course, it is easier to see if one already has an understanding of the various applications of this methodology, and how local dynamics and methods of adaptation and/or innovation deliver individual results that may not be reflected elsewhere in quite the same way, and where they are most likely to be found. The most active appliers have used this skill to evolve their systems and to innovate.
It is important to note that the structure makes a difference, even within applications of a similar methodological framework. A general rule of thumb is that greater integration means greater productivity. So far, as shown by Singapore and West Bengal, governments with ambitious goals are most willing to seek greater integration across their systems. The goals of the decision-makers who developed the Portland Metro and Twin Cities systems were of a very different order from those of the Singapore and West Bengal governments. It all depends upon goals. That is a good starting point for determining whether the framework desired is to be less or more integrated. It is also a good starting point for further refining the desired parameters of the system to be implemented.
With the exception of France, other countries have shown - even in those countries with a long commitment to this methodology that succeeding leaders can deliver counterproductive results by either not ‘domesticating’ adaptations, that is, not adapting innovations of others in a way that comports with local ground conditions, or by failing to evolve their systems to keep up with changing local ground conditions.
But as a whole, those nations implementing federated local systems are generally ahead of the curve, as this methodology produces productivity that eludes centralised and/or fragmented systems (the reason why the Dutch with no history thereof are actively seeking guidance and hoping to develop an integrated federated system for themselves) and is also more responsive to changing ground conditions as well as being more grass roots oriented.
*Mayraj Fahim, the author of this article, is a local government adviser. Her occupational focus in local government has been in the areas of municipal finance in the United States and in municipal finance monitoring internationally. She also advises on local government reorganization in the United States and internationally. The full version of this article can be obtained free of charge by emailing the editor, with 'Federated local government' in the subject line.
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