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Bay Area Regional Governance: A Counterpoint

Doug Henton / Apr 12 2013

For Release Friday, April 12, 2013

Doug HentonBill Dodge’s April 6 Citiwire article proposed that a “Bay Area Grand Bargain” will stimulate an important discussion about regional decision-making in my region. However, I disagree with a number of his premises. In the spirit of dialogue with a Citistates colleague, I outline them below.

First, what’s the best unit of analysis when focusing on this dynamic region? It’s true, Silicon Valley – my base – has a strong relationship to San Francisco based on a shared workforce, commute patterns and an increasingly integrated business community. This was not the case a decade ago, when technology industries tended to locate in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, while San Francisco was still dominated by headquarters of finance, professional and business service firms as well as culture and tourism. Silicon Valley and San Francisco have become more fully integrated, due to the explosive growth of social media firms and tightly linked commute patterns in both directions.

The traditional nine-county definition of the Bay Area used by regional agencies is less relevant today than when it was established in the 1960s. The East Bay, including Alameda and Contra Costa counties, is now developing its own economic identity around UC Berkeley and its national labs, the port of Oakland, the Tri Valley including Bishop Ranch, as well as the emerging Livermore Valley. Likewise, Napa and Sonoma counties are developing their own unique economic identify focused on world-class wine, tourism and experience industries.

We have several regional economies in the Bay Area that are both distinct and networked – not one Bay Area economy.

Defining regional stewardship

Second, while Dodge focuses on regional governance, his idea of a regional charter appears more related to government planning than either new economic or civic realities. In seeking to address the challenge of regional decision making, he tends to assume the need for a central decision maker at the regional level – one to solve challenges and to be held accountable for finding solutions.

But in reality, we are in a new era of regional collaborative governance. As the late John Parr and I found in a 2006 monograph for the Alliance for Regional Stewardship, regional problem-solving has progressed significantly.

The first phase, dating to the 1800s, involved government mergers. Some 20th-century examples from the 1960s and ’70s are Indianapolis-Marion County and Nashville-Davidson County. A second phase, starting in the late 1950s, focused on regional planning and coordination of local government activities, stimulated in part by federal grant requirements. It also included the creation of regional agencies such as the Metropolitan Council in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

More recently, we have seen experiments involving networks of regional stewards working in their metropolitan or rural areas, influencing regional direction through ad hoc approaches, rather than new formal government structures. Joint Venture Silicon Valley was created in 1993 as an alternative to regional government and has become a recognized model for collaborative regional governance engaging business, civic and government leaders.

Unfortunately, the regional charter Dodge proposes is not based on an ad hoc approach to civic regionalism that reflects the complexity of this region or its recent history. Rather, it seems based on government decision-making and approval and would require government action to create, through either a charter commission or an existing regional organization.

As he indicates, “The regional charter could be prepared like other charters by a charter commission, appointed or elected. Or initiated by one or more regional organizations, such as Joint Venture Silicon Valley in the Bay Area. Finally, the regional charter would be submitted to local governments and voters and be approved by state and federal government agencies.”

My rejoinder is that the political and economic institutional environment is much too complex for a single organization to create this charter.

‘Muddling through’ to success?

Do we truly need a “regional charter” approved by government – exploring all regional challenges, developing a process to address each, monitoring progress, submitting plans to the public for approval?

A clear alternative was defined by my professor at Yale, political economist Charles Lindblom, in his classic 1959 article, The science of “muddling through.” Beyond the simplest policy problems, Lindblom argued, the seemingly rational, unified approach to policy making is not even possible. Instead, he advocated for an incremental approach to policy making in which value tradeoffs and policy tradeoffs are intertwined. Among the advantages of this approach is that values do not have to be agreed upon among policy makers: “Agreement on policy thus becomes the only practicable test of the policy’s correctness.”

At a fundamental level, Lindblom maintains that decision making is inherently fragmented. Thus policy making based on decentralized, partial adjustment among a variety of groups and organizations is a preferred approach to central decision making. Modern complexity theory makes the same point when it finds that solutions that emerge “bottom up” based on trial and error are usually better than “top down” decision making made with imperfect information.

What makes Silicon Valley and the broader region so vital is its dynamic economy as well as the diversity of its many sub-regions and rich networks of regional stewards. John W. Gardner reinforced the importance of these networks when he said “it is about people and relationships, not organizations.”

Our focus should be on creating and reinforcing these networks that help regional stewards promote new forms of collaborative governance based on civic regionalism without returning to prior models of either government consolidation or regional planning and coordination of local governments. A regional charter for the nine-county Bay Area would be not only difficult to create and adopt, it would focus on the wrong geography. And it would assume that we need a single regional governing body to answer Dodge’s basic question: “take me to your leader.”

Doug Henton is chairman and CEO of Collaborative Economics and a co-founder of Joint Venture Silicon Valley. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to

One Comment

  1. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted May 17, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I think you need to look at the big picture. Demographically time is not your friend. The window of opportunity is actually shrinking. Once 2011 babies start school the trend will become more solidified and harder to change.
    It doesn’t matter, if there are different economies within a region. Regional governance is supposed to work with diversity and encourage it. In fact, this is why decentralized of city governance is one element of regional governance. Maybe missing factor in US;but, that is not the case in growing number of examples outside the United States.