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21st Century Governing with 18th Century Tools

Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World was a highlight of my beach reading this summer. 

In the new preface to the paperback edition, Zakaria writes about the transnational nature of global challenges, but he could be describing the cross-border realities bedeviling America’s metropolitan areas… and the absolute inadequacy of both global and metropolitan forms of governance.

In Zakaria’s words: “[T]oday’s problems demand a multilateral solution even when one is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Consider almost any serious problem we face today: chances are it implicates more than one country. Terrorism, financial contagion, infectious diseases, energy, security--all these challenges require coordinated responses, and in some cases institutions that can implement them.”

Substitute “municipality” for “country” and the resemblance between global and metropolitan challenges--and their economic import--become quite clear. 

Concerns like global warming, other environmental issues, economic restructuring, housing foreclosures, and traffic congestion obviously do not respect artificial jurisdictional boundaries. 

But we don’t have the means to address them.

Governmentally, we are a hodgepodge of tens of thousands of fragmented cities and counties, school districts, special authorities, and the like. 

The origins of this fragmentation harken back to simpler times, and there are no doubt reasons to celebrate this diffusion of responsibility. The result, however, is that most metropolitan areas are not organized to tackle the super-sized challenges of the modern era: the ability to compete globally, grow in sustainable ways, build an educated and skilled workforce, and protect against natural or man-made disasters.

Fortunately, collaboration between cities and suburbs is on the rise across the country fueled by structural consolidations of cities and counties (as in Louisville), smart collaborative bodies like metropolitan planning organizations (as in Kansas City) and informal networks and causes of metropolitan mayors (as in Denver and Chicago). 

But we are at the “shallow end of the pool” in governance reform and initiative. The efforts to date are nascent and uneven and ill matched to our time.

Zakaria concludes his preface with the following passage: “[U]nless we find ways to expand and enhance the rules and institutions of global cooperation--around economics, energy, climate change, disease, drugs, migration and a host of other issues--the world will experience more crises and government responses will be hasty and ad hoc: too little, too late.”

Substitute “metropolitan” for “global” and “nation” for “world” and we have a useful summary of the challenge to American governance going forward. We have 18th century structures responsible for delivering 21st century solutions. 

Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings