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A once-in-a-generation chance for regionalism

Rural transit bus.

Short buses are the rule in rural transit. (Julie Van Pelt)

Regionalism is a term that gets thrown around a lot during election seasons. Candidates talk about the need to work more closely with other governments, to forge service-delivery partnerships and to build stronger collaborative relationships. Then, after the election, everyone goes back to working in the same governmental silos. Sometimes incremental changes are made, usually driven by external forces, but the status quo is not seriously challenged. After all, you don’t get elected with votes from those other districts.

This year could be different in King County.

Both county executive candidates Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison have made improving the county’s relationship with other governments a part of their campaigns. Both have called for a senior management position charged with the responsibility of building stronger partnerships with other governments. This is a good first step, but real change will depend on a much richer strategy for collaboration than just another box on the organizational chart.

Just as the financial crisis facing the Metro bus system offers a rare opportunity to redefine public transportation, the fiscal meltdown engulfing county government offers a chance to re-invent how this region works.

First, a little primer. King County is a complex place located in a complex region. As former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice and Eastside business leader John Stanton observed in their study of our regional transportation system, there are more than 100 public agencies with some piece of of our regional transportation system. King County has 39 cities, plus multiple special purpose districts. We have state and federal governments with many more loosely coupled agencies.

Each of these institutions has its own set of objectives set by hundreds of elected officials and legions of staffers. This reality is not going to change soon, so the challenge of forging working partnerships must be accomplished in this rich soup of relationships. How can this be done? I’ve worked out a few guidelines, from my years of trying to make music together:

First, realize that we won’t always agree and often our interests will diverge. In such cases good fences make for good neighbors. Care should be put into defining those boundaries.

Expanding the scope of a problem by making it easier to solve it. An example is the 20-40-40 allocation of Metro bus service, which looks like a conflict but actually provides an opportunity for a more creative way of allocating service to meet the needs of taxpayers and riders, as well as resoliving some wider regional goals.

Expanding the scope of an issue may seem to be a recipe for making the difficult impossible, but it’s also a way to find shared interests. In the case of 20-40-40 allocation (20 percent for Seattle and 40 percent each for the Eastside and South King County), the suburban interest isn’t in assuring that service be allocated according to tax contributions (a political calculation) but with providing their constituents with local and regional mobility.

Developing multi-modal transportation strategies that support regional growth management plans would provide us a more rational way to allocate transportation resources and give us a performance-based way to measure results. For example, sending a greater level of Metro service to communities such as Eastgate or SeaTac, two places willing to absorb more density, would both move more people and help guide regional development. This is a much more rational approach than the current, parochial method of service allocation by political formula.

Monitor equity issues by a performance-based focus. Effective partnerships require a clear articulation of the roles, accountability, and authority of each partner. This approach brings a discipline to partnership discussions, underscored when obligations and outcomes are measured by results rather than effort and vague promises.

Let’s look at the current jail situation as an example. The county recently instituted a policy whereby the Maleng Regional Justice Center does not take prisoner bookings after business hours, thereby causing local police agencies to transport prisoners to the downtown Seattle jail. This pound-foolish policy for saving from one budget for King County has a perverse result: It takes many suburban police officers off patrol for longer trips to the Seattle pokey. A regional, performance-based focus would see that savings accruing to King County comes at the expense of many suburban jurisdictions.

Partnerships in Olympia start with partnerships in the region. One can’t race down I-5 to Olympia expecting a warm reception without first laying the ground work locally, since each agency, as well as each class of agency, has a presence in Olympia. Moreover, success in Olympia requires an alignment of public, private and non-profit interests.

On the Eastside, we have built a collaborative team to represent our citizens and cities in Olympia. We work before session to agree on our agenda, and then divide responsibilities during session. We meet regularly during session to check progress and to make additional assignments to move the agenda forward. We bring local elected officials into this process as partners both at the beginning of the processes as well as during session. Seattle needs to do the same, and build partnerships across the county and Puget Sound region.

The relationships need to extend horizontally. Of course it is useful for the senior elected and appointed officials to communicate regularly. Building open and robust communication at this level must be a priority for the next executive. But the real work of delivering services to King County’s residents happens at the front lines, where county and city employees connect with their customers. Often, these employees work completely within their jurisdiction, but more often services require cooperation between city, county, state, and non-profit sector employees.

These relationships must be organized and managed horizontally, meaning between the levels of collaboration, not vertically by the management and leadership of each organization. These techniques are common in the private sector and responsible for improvement in performance, but less well known in the public sector.

The county must be the leader in building regional trust. King County has a lot of work to do to build the kind of respect and credibility necessary to forge true working partnerships. The institutional arrogance that has characterized much of the county’s dealing with other governments can be seen in the recent decision by south county cities to build their own misdemeanant jail and in the current brouhaha over animal control.

Jails and animal control were regional services which should have been managed to build partnerships and trust to benefit the region. Instead, the suburban cities experienced the opposite of partnership — the senior partner imposing its position. South King County cities are building a jail in large part so they have cost control and certainty. The lack of more innovative thinking about sharing differential benefits will mean higher incarceration costs for the whole region.

And recently, PAWS announced it would be taking on some of the animal control functions of the county for north county cities. The regional partnership on animal control dates back decades, yet the county decided unilaterally to terminate the partnership.

I don’t mean to absolve cities, but the county should lead the region by its walk not just its talk. Partnerships imply give-and-take, accommodating the interests of both partners. Too often, cities are made to feel captive to the county’s interest rather than a partner in delivering public services. Fixing this will require both outreach from the county and changes in law. A good first step would be partnering to work with the legislature to enact reforms to local taxing authority.

Local taxing authority is constrained by rules designed to keep elected and appointed officials from making mistakes — at least, mistakes from the perspective of the legislature. But these constraints often prevent innovation in delivery of public services. The current economic crisis could make the 2010 legislative session a good time to relax or eliminate some of these barriers.

Rebuilding relationships always will be harder than building them in the first place and there is much history between King County and its cities to overcome. But our region has some rare opportunities. One is this fall’s changes in leadership in King County and Seattle. The economic realities and the service cuts that are getting the public’s attention underscore the need for creative ways to deliver more, better and less expensive public services. It adds up to a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get serious about regional efficiencies.

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