This week I received an email from a student writing a report on "Which level of government is best equipped for planning and zoning administration?" What a question!

People may be surprised to know that this is a question we have debated at great length at Community Growth Institute. With the very bright people we have in our organization, along with the close, professional colleagues we have included in these discussions, we really have not found a consensus. It's an open issue.

So let's start by identifying the possible choices. In Minnesota they are: 

  • Federal Gov't
  • State Gov't
  • County (Regional) Gov't
  • Cities and Townships 

Let's look at this issue in the theoretical sense. Assume (and this might be a leap for some) that all of these levels of government are equally competent, operate in a transparent manner, are responsive to what is going on in the world and, in a general sense, are going to do a good job. So we are not dealing with competence in this discussion. (A good argument can be made that you can't discount this, but we will for this discussion. We've seen great and disastrous at every level of government.)

In the theoretical sense then, my answer would be: All of the above, but with different responsibilities.

Federal and state governments are best-suited for policy-level planning. They function best when setting the goals and the overall strategy (then creating the right incentive framework for implementation). Federal and state governments can budget money for studies. They can gather statistics and measure results. When political involvement is limited to oversight, they can also balance competing interests in the policy realm.  They tend to become very inefficient, rigid and bureaucratic when they are involved in the day to day application of standards. 

Cities and townships, our local governments, are best suited to making most day-to-day decisions on implementation. We've found that most local government officials are quite conscientious and, when a federal or state policy makes sense (and most often even when it doesn't), these officials do their best to implement it. And when the policy doesn't make sense, they provide a valuable check on the system that should alert policy-makers that something isn't working. They have the ability to talk with people, smooth over rough edges and, in an efficient way, make things work. Give them a good policy with the right incentives, and they can get it done.

That leaves counties, which to me are the fulcrum in this system. A well-functioning county or regional government should be sophisticated enough to take policy from federal and state governments and translate it into the "local language". That means they need to be smart, proactive and well-functioning. That is doubly true because a good county government should also be able to guide and oversee (and correct where necessary) a robust local implementation program. In other words, they are the go-between.

When we have this discussion internally, I find it easiest to use a military analogy. The federal government is like a general and the state government is like a major or a colonel. They are giving the overall guidance and direction. In military-speak: they set the mission. Cities and townships are your enlisted troops. In the U.S. Army, you give them the mission, some sophisticated training and as much latitude as possible and they can accomplish amazing things. 

In this analogy, counties are your non-commissioned officers, captains and lieutenants. These are the toughest jobs in a combat situation. They don't set the policy, they carry it out. But they don't actually do the work. Their job is to ensure that others get the mission done.  A captain/lieutenant or NCO gets it from above and below, but without them, nothing would work.

If I were a federal or state policy-maker today, I would focus on strengthening the planning operations and roles of counties. Great things can happen when a county planning department sees its role as a regional leader, working with the state and federal governments to establish policy while working with local governments to implement. The greatest breakdowns we see today are where counties lack sophistication, where they are territorial and adversarial to their local governments or where they are disconnected from the public (or, in the worst case, all three).

So, for the student working on the project, my opinion is that each level has a critical role to play. Where they are competent in filling that role, great things happen. Where they aren't, the government tends to be....well.....government.

In a related note, if you are interested in seeing what a sophisticated, well-operating county planning and zoning department looks like, check out Stearns County, Minnesota. While they don't do everything perfect (shocker - nobody does), they understand their role, are very smart and play well with others. They do vastly more right than wrong, which is a standard they should be judged by. If we could clone them a thousand times across this county, we'd solve a ton of problems.