Policy Innovation and Diffusion at the City Level

During my Masters in Public Administration, I had a seminar class about theories of the policy process. One of the theories that I enjoyed was policy innovation and diffusion theory in which a policy introduced in one jurisdiction gained traction and was subsequently introduced and adopted within another jurisdiction. Networks, physical proximity, and other characteristics of jurisdictions influence whether or not a policy is likely to diffuse to a new jurisdiction. Policy can diffuse vertically, moving up from counties to states to the national government (or backward) and can diffuse horizontally across cities in a state or sates in a nation or across nations on Earth.

 

In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak discuss diffusion at the city level. They argue that, “New Localism reflects a new horizontal rather than vertical mechanism for societies to solve hard problems.” Most innovation and diffusion research that I studied in the United States was related to states. The question is usually, if a state adopts a new law to address an issue, what factors make it likely that other states will or will not adopt a similar law? And how many states need to adopt a regulation before the federal government institutes the regulation nationwide? States have historically been the main laboratories of democracy, but Katz and Nowak suggest that in the future they will not be. Rather than having a state adopt policy and filter that policy down to the counties, cities, and local governments for implementation, it is cities that are now the ones experimenting with new policy.

 

“Cities are constantly crafting new ways to address challenges that are urgent, immediate, and often highly visible. Solutions that are concrete imaginative, and tested on the ground do not stay local for long. Instead, they are adapted to other cities’ situations, tailored to the different economic and social starting points and the fiscal conditions of different cities.” 

 

A big piece of new localism is its non-partisan nature. Flood drainage, snow removal, and local zoning ordinances are not Republican or Democrat issues, they are local issues directly relating to the lives of citizens. This allows people who might otherwise disagree with each other to come together and cooperate to find solutions to the immediate problems of a locality. Focusing on local strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) allows local stakeholders to develop long-term plans and to find innovations to novel problems. Once these solutions have been identified and implemented, city leaders, especially people in the business community, can share their insights and solutions with groups from other cities. These policy innovations diffuse horizontally from city or metropolitan region to other cities and metros. State governments are not the ones innovating. Cities are developing the new networks and innovations that diffuse across state lines, across the country, and even across national boarders. Each solution is adjusted and tailored where appropriate for local contexts and in line with local SWOT analysis. This local problem solving and horizontal city level diffusion is the best current answer to global challenges and problems and to improve the lives of people through new innovations.

Who Does What in Society?

The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak is titled as if it were a new development in local governance and problem solving, but the authors suggest that New Localism is really more of a return to historical problem solving and idea formation. Over the last few decades, the national government has captured more attention and focus in national media and public debates about problems, policies, and solutions. However, it has always been the case that the place where people actually experience and live out any problems, policies, or solutions is in a local context. We have all felt the disparity between regions when an economy is “strong” or “in free-fall.” We know that things can be great for our neighborhood, but a total train-wreck in the next, town, or even just a few blocks away.

 

Katz and Nowak reassert the importance of local action and problem solving. The authors describe a current phenomenon in the United States where people, businesses, non-profits, foundations, and civic groups are rediscovering local authority and collaborative institutions to achieve meaningful goals at the local level where people live and experience the problems we actually face.

 

Katz and Nowak write, “Correcting the confusion over who does what in societies is an essential act of civic education and a necessary first step toward national progress.”

 

Countering the intuition that solutions must be national is an important first step toward addressing our real problems. Learning what it means to be connected and organized locally to implement solutions quickly with the support of the public and private organizations is the heart of New Localism. Deferring action toward higher levels of government is effectively an abdication of the authority and ability of local actors to make changes that work in their region. A standard playbook and actor chart cannot be developed across all cities and communities, but each individual community can rediscover the impact that local individuals and local businesses can have moving our societies forward.

 

What the quote also addresses is the confusion we have over who can and should take action in problem solving. It is easy to think that a problem is the responsibility of someone else and that some other governmental agency or some other public actor will step in to make a change. It is hard to remember that it is the people experiencing the problem and living in the area where the problem exists who are the ones that can best respond. Businesses often complain about regulations or public decisions, but don’t always make the investments in the institutions which make those decisions. Citizens often complain about an issue, but don’t often form a group or make decisions that would actually address the issue. We don’t have a good sense of how the public can work with government or how communities can organize around a solution to make the places we live better places to be. Everyone is busy and under a lot of pressure, so learning how things work and taking the time to be involved is understandably challenging, but bringing visibility to the roles that we need citizens and businesses to play in problem solving is important as we rediscover what local governance looks like.

City Power

Where does power and authority come from? I think this is an interesting question to ask ourselves. What is it that makes a nation, a state, a city, or an institution powerful and authoritative? Thousands to hundreds of years ago we solved this question by outsourcing – we decided that a divine being had vested power and authority in a single individual. Today, what creates authority for our mayor, the supreme court, and our nation is not divine, but public trust, cooperation, and economic prospects. Building society with these blocks isn’t always perfect, but it has managed to work for humans for a few hundred years now.

 

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak look at the implications of the authority and power philosophy I described above in their book The New Localism. They write, “The power of cities and counties is not like the power of nations or states. It is grounded in markets and civics more than in constitutions or charters.” The authors make a split between the local and national in terms of how power and authority play out to create a social structure of trust. Nations and states tend to be based on written charters agreed to by relatively diverse populations. Cities and local counties tend to be based on shared values, experiences, and backgrounds with shared economic prospects and motives being the ultimate binding glue.

 

I think there are two things that we can understand about national versus local systems from the description provided by Katz and Nowak. Nations and states, with authority grounded in written constitutions and charters, have a more permanent and stable feel to them. changing something in a drastic manner requires a change to the written founding documents. This gives national and state governments more structure and a form that is more likely to endure longer into the future, but at the cost of making them rigid and hard to adapt to changes in the economy, in social preferences, and other trends.

 

As a contrast, city and local governments, which are based more on shared interests, engaged civic actors, and local economic contexts are more flexible and adaptable to trends, changing social preferences, and new economic developments. This gives local and state governments the flexibility that is needed to take advantage of new innovations and technologies. It allows the governments to solve problems through the power of collective action, but it also leave them vulnerable to wild swings in economic fortunes and broader sociopolitical forces.

 

While nations are able to define their populaces and establish binding rules for citizens across decades or centuries, cities often find it hard to create structures and institutions that are guaranteed to last as long. City populations are more prone to leave when things go south, and the strength of institutions can be greatly diminished when the population falls and a few actors exert undue influence in local decision making. Nevertheless, humans seem to be drawn toward cities and seem to be willing to reinvent cities on a continual basis. This creates the dynamic power that cities are exerting today to solve problems and address global challenges that seem to be paralyzing nations.

City Strengths

Cities are incredible organizational units that human beings organically developed long before larger political boundaries and units could be conceived. Cities were the first forms of collaborative human living for our ancestors, before we could think of nations or states. But even though the idea of cities is ancient, they are still dynamic and evolving. In an age where everything is online, where virtual human connections are common, and where goods, services, and products can be obtained from almost any couch in the United States, cities are nevertheless growing. Despite video chat and meet-up software, companies still like to have private offices and there still seems to be value in face to face communication and interaction. Cities, it seems, are here to stay in our globalized and digital world.

 

In The New Localism authors Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak lay out a vision of new structures of governance that hinge on the flexibility, adaptability, and inventiveness of cities. The authors explain why they think cities are natural and fitting leaders to manage globalization and help drive solutions to the problems that face the entire globe.

 

“The ability of local communities in the United States to become effective problem solvers should not come as a surprise. Cities and towns developed in the absence of any intentional federal urban policy during most of the nation’s history. Historically, city building was more of a bottom-up and relatively chaotic enterprise, involving builders and investors, merchants and workers, civic associations, immigration and immigrant entrepreneurs, and local government. It was never the result of a top-down policy so much as it was a self-organizing market and civic practice.”

 

Top down solutions to problems in the United States have not been super successful in recent years. The most pressing problems we face as a planet don’t have a structure that allows them to be addressed in a top down manner. Cities, however, operate best by adjusting to local pressures, demands, and opportunities. In a bottom-up way, cities are well positioned to respond to the challenges the world faces and to develop new technologies, new trends, and new organizational structures that can respond to threats. The chaotic and constantly evolving nature of cities can lead them to be administratively hard to wrangle and can make many of their decisions appear non-rational, but it also allows them to adapt and coalesce around shared goals that can drive the innovation that the planet needs for progress.

Institutional Vehicles

In a public policy class, I had a professor once ask, “What is an institution?” One student responded that another professor once answered that question by stating that an institution was something you could kick. That’s true for some institutions (you can kick the supreme court, the city hall, and the local police department), but not all. We recognize marriage as an institution but you can’t kick it, and you certainly can’t kick equal protection under the law even though you theoretically could kick the actual paper on which the 14th amendment was written. Our institutions are sometimes physical buildings (or housed in them), but they are often processes, ideas, and systemic structures that guide our interactions, thoughts, and societies.

 

Our institutions only exist and function because we chose to place both trust and authority in our institutions. They can only operate when those within them and those who recognize them from the outside are aligned and coordinated together to recognize and legitimize action and outcomes from our institutions. In the book The New Localism, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak explain what this means as problem-solving and initiative-taking move from Federal levels of governance to local levels of governance. They write, “New Localism refers to multi-sectoral networks that work together to solve problems, as well as the institutional vehicles they invent to get things done.”

 

Coalition building is an important part of politics, but it is also just an important part of life in general. If you want your family to go to Tahiti for the holidays instead of Grandma’s house, then you need to build the right family coalition to get everyone to agree. If you want to work on a specific project in the office, if you want to do a job a certain way, and if you want to reorganize the workplace, you need to build coalitions to get people on board to follow your direction. Coalition building is super complex at the national level, but at the local level where a smaller handful of actors can generate a bigger (relative) push, then coalition building is possible and creating or inventing institutional vehicles to move policy can be a powerful tool.

 

Networks are key in new localism because they open the possible avenues for movement via new institutional vehicles. Connections and shared goals behind key stakeholders make new localism possible with coalitions created through networks of like-minded community leaders. Those who have an interest in seeing reinvention, seeing successful policy development, and seeing adaptable and resilient communities can come together to form new coalitions, pulling people from varying public, civic, and private sector organizations. These groups can then think about the structures shaping our lives, our decisions, and our interactions, and how new institutions can alter the status quo to solve problems in new ways that are unique to a given city, metro, or region.

Ground Level Problem Solving

Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, in their 2017 book The New Localism, argue that problem solving and policy solutions to our pressing problems will not be found at the national level as we move forward, but rather at the local level. Large, established, and nationalized organizations will be less able to take on the problems of our new economy and evolving societies, but smaller, more responsive, and more local organizations and arrangements can address these challenges.

 

The authors write, “problem solving close to the ground rather than policy-making from a remote national or state capital has the tangible benefit of customization. A local solution can be a more efficient use of resources since it is more aligned with the distinctive needs of a particular place.”

 

Cities and states across the nation have competing and conflicting problems. What might be a major challenge in your city may not be a problem at all in another city. The solutions that would work to address a problem in your city might be completely ineffective someplace else. Economic structures, environmental concerns, resources, and human capital will all shape how a problem can be addressed, and every city and metropolitan region in the nation has a different mix of these variables to use to address challenges.

 

Even within a state, conditions can be drastically different from one region or county to another. I live in Reno, Nevada, and we are having major housing challenges as we receive an influx of companies and employees from the Bay Area in California. Our housing challenges, and the resources we have to address our problem is completely different than the problems being faced in Las Vegas. Introducing policy on a state level to address the issues we face in Reno may cause entirely different problems in Las Vegas housing markets.

 

If you are not going to address problems purely with policy from a state legislature or from Congress, then you need to address problems with local stakeholders and organizations. This includes philanthropic organizations who can back projects that don’t have a clear ROI and would be risky for a government agency to support. Local problem solving also includes local businesses and organizations that can coordinate and align on development goals. Public agencies have a role to play by ensuring that expertise and resources are being used in a way that is consistent with state law and policy. Each group of actors can help coordinate and push different parts of the solutions that individually they could not propel forward. This is what allows local problem solving to be efficient, effective, and innovative in tackling today’s problems.

Problem Solving Locally

“As politics has become nationalized, problem solving has become localized,” write Jeremy Nowak and Bruce Katz in The New Localism. National politics is all about identity. It is all about the question of whether people like me are favored and socially rewarded on a nationwide scale. People like me might be men, intellectuals, Ford truck drivers, snowboarders, retail workers, stockbrokers, veterans, or evangelicals (note: I am not all of these things). We constantly have debates and shift our discussion of what identities are valuable and best reflect the America we desire to be, and at a national level, there is no real answer to these questions. Political decisions and policies become tied up in these identity questions, and it is hard to avoid having an opinion or becoming consumed with the values questions that these identity debates spark.

 

Meanwhile, daily life continues and human societies rely on systems and structures to guide our interactions and facilitate a peaceful flourishing for all individuals (ideally but maybe not what we always see). We rely on government to avoid tragedies of our commons, to ensure the products we use and depend on for our ways of life are safe, and to protect our individual and group rights from being infringed by others.

 

Problems will always exist in the organization and interaction of human beings, and when our national government is subsumed by questions of identity and debates that can never be fully settled, solving the daily challenges of human existence moves downward toward the locality where life is actually lived. Our states, our metropolitan areas, and especially our individual communities are the places where we can make changes and improve our situation.

 

These localities are innovating and connecting with new groups in unique ways. The interactions between private businesses, charitable foundations, and public agencies are being reinvented based on local situations and opportunities to drive forward new solutions to wicked problems. Challenges that cannot be introduced on a national level, where issues of identity fracture alliances and coordinated effort, are evaded at the local level where we all have a stake and a greater voice in addressing the challenges we face. Communities can produce a groundswell of support for innovative approaches to challenges new and old, and can dynamically adapt by creating new connections and structures between the stakeholders and organizations with the power to enact change. This is one way which governance can adapt in the future, and one way that we can overcome division to continue to make the world a more cohesive and better place.

Why the City-State is Returning to Prominence

I live in Nevada which is in an interesting state driven largely by two main metropolitan areas: Las Vegas in Southern Nevada and Reno in Northern Nevada. States today are relying on dynamic cities in order to get things done and to jump-start their economies. In my home state, Las Vegas in a tourism driven town that has remained an attractive hub for people looking to get away, have a chance to win some money, and to escape into a desert paradise. Reno has begun to reinvent itself by serving as an extension of San Francisco/San Jose tech companies who need more space and cheaper labor than is available in the Bay Area. Our state is in a sense two city-states that make decisions, interact with private companies, and coordinate citizens for economic growth and development. Government at the state level doesn’t forget our rural communities, but seems to often focus on what can be done to make sure Las Vegas and Reno can continue to grow and develop in the best way possible.

 

One reason why the city-state is becoming a powerful engine in the United States is that the Federal Government is pulling back from is role in making overarching national policy. Part of this is a result of deliberate choice as one political party attempts to reduce the overall impact, size, and function of the Federal Government. As Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak write in The New Localism, “The stated aspiration of the Trump administration to deconstruct the administrative state is ironically elevating the city-state as the locus of problem-solving activity.”

 

The authors write that the city-state has risen in an ironic result of the Trump administration’s actions because the nation’s most dynamic metropolitan regions generally seems to oppose the policies of the Trump administration. In the 2016 election most major metropolitan areas voted in favor of Hilary Clinton and Democrat candidates for other offices. Republican’s who felt left behind in rural areas generally favored Trump and Republican candidates and wanted a federal policy that did not leave their areas behind while focusing on the growth and expansion of dynamic cities. However, by abdicating decision-making responsibility, the Federal Government may be doing exactly that.

 

Decreasing the role of the Federal Government in effect gives cities the green light to take the lead on issues ranging from climate change to biomedical research and we see cities passing ordinances to reduce carbon emissions and encourage more spending and development in technological advancements (in Boston it is biomedical research and in Reno it is battery development). Cities can move fast and offer attractive amenities, tax breaks, and living environments for companies and organizations that want to change the world, a big contrast to the Federal Government that is characterized by gridlock.

 

When the Federal Government takes a hands-off approach, it is American cities, where people live and innovative cities are taking hold, that are able to engage in place-making to develop new structures and institutions. These cities work out the solution to the challenges and problems our country is facing, and then export those solutions from one metropolitan region to another. It is a city driven model of federalism which brings even more irony to the table. The Republican party has long been the advocate of federalism (at a state level) encouraging states to be able to adopt policies without interference of the Federal Government. In the past, these were often policies that maintained traditionalist values, as opposed to the new policies we see from states that address problems that the Republican Party would rather ignore. Federalism has shifted from states to the cities and is spreading in a new way as the Trump Administration creates confusion and incoherence at the Federal Level.

Charitable Advertisements

Charitable behavior says something about us. It is a way for us to advertise ourselves to the world in a discrete manner, so that everyone can see us and take away a message without us having to tell each person something about ourselves in a direct manner. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The most obvious thing we advertise is wealth, or in the case of volunteer work, spare time.”

It seems strange that we would use charity in this way. I hear arguments from time to time that we should just have higher taxes and use government systems and structures to address social problems. As a change to the current system, we could build more government agencies and provide more support for the kinds of programs and functions that we currently ask non-profits and charities to assist with. A frequent argument against this idea is that it would be inefficient and we couldn’t rely on government to consistently address the kinds of problems that charities and non-profits pop up to address. An argument that I don’t hear very often, but that I think plays a role, is that we would not be able to signal our generosity and extra wealth if we just expanded taxes and the role of government.

“In effect, charitable behavior says to our audiences, I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry,” continue Simler and Hanson. The fact that our donations are often public and are often directed to causes that make us feel warm and fuzzy are evidence that we are not really using our donations to try to solve real problems. Asking the government to step in and play a bigger role might really address the problems that are out there, but it wouldn’t give us the warm fuzzy feeling we are looking for, and wouldn’t allow us to advertise to others about how charitable we are. This is why it is so hard to say no to people soliciting donations at grocery stores. We don’t know anything about the charitable cause they are asking us to support, but if we don’t take the chance to advertise how generous we are, we inadvertently advertise how inconsiderate we might be, or how little resources we have to spare. These little charitable behaviors end up being more about ourselves than about the good we are trying to do.

A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.