New York City can be said to have the carcass of a federated system framework without its substance
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Multi-tier local government systems
adopted in many parts of the world
By Mayraj Fahim, Local government adviser*
13 August 2009: Anyone living in a region where there are counties, or similar counterparts with a different terminology, and municipal units, is familiar with what can be termed a federated (multi-tier) local system. However, what is not commonly known is that from the 1950s onwards, integrated federated frameworks were, and still are, being increasingly adapted for local regions in many countries.
| Evolution | Examples | Full version of article | Copyright |
The main reason for this rise is that by the 1950s populations generally started moving from rural to urban regions. Integrated frameworks allow both for an efficient interconnected system that can facilitate economic improvement and one that is also more grass roots-oriented, particularly when put into effect within the context of a city system that tends to deliver greater systemic equity across a region. Such systems have been established either by the linking up of neighboring units or by devolution. Integrated federated frameworks have been applied in citywide, countywide and multi-county frameworks.
Specific examples of integrated federated systems include the following: the new system in Montreal, Canada (as well as its predecessor, the Montreal Urban Community); Birmingham, UK, with its new changes, as well as the features it introduced in the 1980s; Paris, France, and London, UK; Miami-Dade County, Florida, and the Twin Cities Metro system, Minnesota; the non-urban county-district-parish county framework within the UK; the new changes in the city government structure of Los Angeles, California; the regional districts of British Columbia, Canada; Bogotá city government system and the many regional councils and councils of government in the US. All of the foregoing reflect applications of the methodology applied in different contexts in amplified and limited modes of operation.
However, the first integrated federated local system, which inspired other variations, was introduced in the latter half of the 18th Century in France. In the latter half of the 19th Century England was the first nation to adapt its framework, and to do so in the rural context as well as in addition to London’s urban example. To this day England and its former colonies are among the regions where this methodology has been applied. In fact, all the five new systems implemented between 2001 and 2003 were implemented in England or in her former colonies and/or by natives of those colonies. Nonetheless, it is in the nation of the pioneering 18th Century example that the most diverse reflections of this methodology can be found, with other nations mostly adapting parts of the same - though some adaptations possess features not found in the nation of origin.
These frameworks have been introduced in both incremental and wholesale efforts, with the five new systems implemented between 2001 and 2003 in five countries reflecting both ends of the spectrum. The way to identify an incremental phase is to see whether it can be evolved into a more amplified and substantial framework.
For instance, Birmingham’s current changes involve building on the neighborhood offices it put in place during the 1980s. Sydney, Australia, is establishing neighboring offices, and part of the new Los Angeles changes involve the setting up of sub-regional city government offices. However, neither Sydney nor Los Angeles is at the place that Birmingham is now evolving into.
In essence, integrated federated systems have two main variations that have spawned others.
The first citywide framework has inspired variations that establish substantial area-wide systems with defined powers and power sharing between the constituent parts. Today, such frameworks are no longer merely confined to city regions they are also applied in countywide and multi-county regional arrangements. In the US, the largest regional system - the Twin Cities, Minnesota, system - has delivered one of the principal features of this methodology: greater equity across the spectrum. In 30 years, it has been noted that inequality in the per capita tax base between the rich and poorer halves has been reduced from a ratio of 50-1 to 12-1. Other US states have in modified ways endeavored to emulate the Minnesota example. To the degree that they have done so, they have moved the US system towards more integrated frameworks. At the moment the US is characterized by having a majority of transitional mechanisms with a handful of more substantive frameworks.
Interlocal cooperative mechanisms
The 1890 introduction of intergovernmental cooperation units in France (which now has such mechanisms that cover the majority of its population) led to the later adaptation of such mechanisms in nations seeking a mechanism more limited in scope. Australia’s Tasmania regional council (1920s introduction) was an early foreign adaptation of this mechanism. Australia’s neighbor New Zealand has also implemented intergovernmental cooperative mechanisms following its lead in the region. The United States saw the implementation of such mechanisms implemented in the 1950s and thereafter. In the US, these mechanisms carry such terms as regional councils, councils of government and others. As in the nation of origin, the US mechanisms do not uniformly have the same role. However, in France, unlike the United States, such examples have had generations of variations, the most recent version being reflected in the system of the Nantes Urban Community covered by a City Mayors article.
The largest US mechanism is the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). SCAG’s efforts to deliver a plan for the regional units, which has been tried several times and failed to secure willingness, also reveals the limitations of this mechanism in delivering substantive change. In the nation of origin, France, recognition of this weakness is demonstrated by the fact that it introduced in the mid-20th Century regional bodies that incrementally gained power and are now elected bodies that form a unit of government above the county level. This is despite the fact that interlocal cooperative mechanisms have been upgraded in France as well.
In the US, two regions have managed to upgrade their intergovernmental cooperative mechanisms to establish a region-wide system. These are the Portland Metro system of Oregon (covering three counties) and the Twin Cities Metro system of Minnesota (covering seven counties). As regional experts in the US (such as Anthony Downs of Brookings) have noted, more US regions could benefit if the examples of the exceptions were emulated.
Failed examples and challenged examples:
In general, such a framework has performed optimally when it is sufficiently integrated and fails when it is not. Further, it is important to maintain the right balance in the power dynamics within the region, and to recognize when growing pains require modification to address changing ground conditions. Consistent support of state/provinces and/or national government, whatever the case may be, also facilitates evolution as British Columbia’s example shows.
New York City
Today, with its city council, borough presidents and community boards, New York City can be said to have the carcass of a federated system framework without its substance. It is ironic that this first pioneering effort in North America is in a region where successful and enduring examples exist both in the United States and Canada.
London, during the term of the former mayor, Ken Livingstone, was having its structure scrutinized for changes. This is not the first time this has taken place. Today, London’s system remains shortchanged by one aspect of its 1960s restructuring, which reduced the integration levels of the system without compensating for it. In addition, London’s top tier government’s powers were trimmed in the 1960s and these have reduced the mayor’s ability to deal effectively with area-wide concerns.
The London Commission, like its predecessors, has failed to address the persistent weakness of the London governmental structure..
Developing county examples
South East Asia and South Asia have been venues of new systems since the 1980s. However, the larger cities of Turkey and Bogotá reveal that it is not just in these regions that such systems can be found.
In South East Asia, the most ambitious country has been China (though examples can also be found in South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and to a lesser degree, Cambodia). Please see this author’s article on Chinese urban systems for this discussion.
At present, there are two different types of system in South Asia. Please see this author’s articles on Indian cities and Karachi city government for further discussion.
Integrated federated local systems provide a structural answer to the changing ground conditions of growing urban regions that thereby also need to provide inclusive decision-making frameworks and more grass roots-oriented systems. For this reason, there is a rising trend in their implementation among those familiar with its methodology.
*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 with 'Federated system' in the subject line. Please also supply your name and, if applicable, your organisation/company/academic institution.
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London’s top tier government’s powers were trimmed in the 1960s and these have reduced the mayor’s ability to deal effectively with area-wide concerns.
Also by Mayraj Fahim
Arguments for and
against term limits
Term Limits can be a productive if not blunt instrument despite the powerful passions they may evoke. Term limits are currently a revived topic for action at both state and local level in the United States. New York City and San Antonio are two major cities where this subject, the bane of elected officials and favored by their electorate, is once again on the front burner. In February 2008, California voters, rejected a move to alter the term limits earlier imposed by them, while in October 2008, New York City Council voted in favor to extend term limits from two to three consecutive terms of fours years for elected officials including the mayor.
Where the 1990s saw a nationwide rise in the application of term limits on elected representatives at state and local level, there is now a backlash underway against them, mostly on the part of the elected representatives. Yet term limits have ancient roots in both American history and democracy itself - but in the modern era of a professional political class this subject has proved to be controversial.
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