It’s time for the New Localism

I just finished reading Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book, “The New Localism, How Cities can Thrive in the Age of Populism.” Perhaps not surprisingly, my friends and family members gave me plenty of privacy when they saw what I was reading (they usually nodded politely and then scurried away), but it was worth the few hours of isolation. Katz and Nowak are calling on local leaders to step up and lead in a whole new way. True students of local government should read the book.

The authors argue cities and villages have more power than they think and more problem-solving capacity than they know, but they need to organize differently. “Conventional wisdom holds that cities are powerless, mere creatures of the state, subordinate political units of nations. But conventional wisdom is wrong. It mistakenly treats cities as just another layer of government rather than as what they truly are: powerful networks of institutions and ecosystems of actors that coproduce the economy and co-solve problems.”

Katz and Nowak affirmed something that I often notice about Wisconsin’s best municipal leaders: they seem to make things happen without doing anything at all. “Conventional leadership norms do not quite fit the configuration of localities. The path to collective problem solving relies on leaders who can navigate and leverage the networked reality of urban power. Cities are neither vertically integrated companies nor governments that have a set command-and-control structure. Rather, they are networks of public, private and civic institutions that coproduce the economy and cogovern critical aspects of city life. The essence of a successful local leader, therefore, is the ability to bring groups of people together to solve problems and do grand things that they cannot do as individuals. To reflect the distributed genius of the city, leaders must be adept at creating and stewarding horizontal relationships rather than issuing and executing hierarchical mandates.”

While I tend to get a little cross-eyed when people start talking about infrastructure and municipal finance, the book proposes an intriguing new twist on the national infrastructure debate. Rather than ask the President and Congress to design a new program of roads and bridges, complete with new forms and regulations, why not turn the process around? “Infrastructure is a complex business, comprised of multiple investment sectors as diverse as a water treatment plant, a river or lake reclamation, an airport or port expansion, a road, rail, or transit hub retrofit, a rail station redevelopment. Each is different in terms of project design, revenue streams, and market impacts, and in how they are governed, regulated, owned and operated. As such federal plans for infrastructure often are not responsive enough to local needs and concerns. What if we reversed the process to flow from the local level to the federal? What if several governors, mayors and county executives, from across both parties, nominated a group of emblematic projects? A trusted intermediary could use a uniform template that made the business case for each project and then sorted out options for federal financing. In this way, Congress could ultimately enact legislation and provide tools fit to purpose and designed to succeed.”

Leading thru networks? Congress in reactive funding mode, listening to local practitioners, as opposed to command-and-control mode, dictating to them? Sounds revolutionary. On the other hand, maybe that’s just enough revolution to help move us all forward.