Delivering local change: how collaboration across levels of government can unlock action
I n the United States, it is estimated that some 6.8 million new units of affordable housing need to be built to meet the current market gap. However, only about 110,000 units per year are currently being built. If that anaemic pace continues, the sluggish increase in supply will never meet the ever increasing demand. This is an enormous challenge that is crystallised by a desperate homelessness crisis; roughly half of all renting households spend more than 30% of their income on housing; and ever ballooning housing costs for everyone.
Addressing a challenge of this scale and complexity requires an integrated approach from all of government, and strong collaboration across levels of authority. The type of interlinked coordination required is akin to how matryoshka nesting dolls fit together. While affordable housing is a problem that may on the surface appear to be ‘owned’ at the city level, local government in the United States is only one layer involved in the public sector’s actions that respond to the challenge.
One area where collaboration is necessary in housing-related programs is funding. Local governments in the United States only spend a small percentage of their budgets on housing. In 2018, they directly spent $53.9bn on housing and community development programs––2.6% of their total direct general spending. However when taking a closer look at the source of those funds, local governments received more than two-thirds of that, or $37bn, from the federal government through initiatives such as the Community Development Block Grant program, the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as Section 8).
Another example where multi-level government coordination can be necessary to enable affordable housing activities is in the regulatory domain. NIMBYism (‘Not In My Back Yard’) is a potent force in local US politics that has led many cities to enact restrictive zoning laws, constraining development in residential neighbourhoods to only allow for single family dwellings on large plots of land, an expensive and exclusionary form of housing. To combat these types of zoning laws that are imposed by cities, multiple state legislatures have introduced laws that raise density restrictions or growth caps that are used to prevent affordable housing from being built in certain neighbourhoods. Thanks to the United States Constitution’s so-called ‘Supremacy Clause’, these laws set at the state and federal levels in reaction to local regulations take precedence and serve as a counteracting weight against NIMBYism.
A coordinated approach
For many other challenges facing cities — from improving their public transport services to deploying renewable energy infrastructure and combating climate change — local governments must collaborate with their partners at the regional, national and often international levels of government. This model of integrated multi-level activity can be cumbersome and complicated, demanding a high degree of coordination. A united and symbiotic direction of activity across multiple levels of authority requires that the civil servants working in these overlapping organisations recognise their specific role in addressing a shared challenge — even when one particular layer of the public sector could be perceived as the primary problem holder.
While traversing this multi-level interconnected connected scaffolding might sound straightforward, it’s extremely difficult to achieve. Each level of authority — and the multiple agencies operating within each — have to navigate between competing priorities, wrestle over finite resources, negotiate through bureaucratic processes and contend with the general capacity strains facing public sector organisations after years of disinvestment. Without a robust framework or approach to guide policy making processes through these complex and contentious tinderboxes, sparking the necessary change can be difficult.
Lessons from local missions
Through our experimentation with mission-oriented innovation at UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) alongside urban decision-makers, we have explored the approach and begun examining how the approach might be wielded to cut across the multi-level scales that can stymie urban action. Although the application of missions and their ability to mobilise activity in the face of this particular challenge has initially been unique to each city, there are two general lessons that may be beginning to emerge.
First, through the process of designing and implementing missions, new decision-making spaces are created which build trust and foster learning that can be used to develop new capabilities for addressing systemic challenges across individual levels of authority. In the case of Greater Manchester, a small number of groups have been created to dissect challenges analysing knowledge from organisations operating at multiple scales in order to create and trial innovative solutions that can impact the foundation of the challenge itself.
This new policy deliberation space has helped identify and overcome some of the barriers that are imposed by one level of authority onto another and constrain the potential for action. The new decision-making spaces that cities like Greater Manchester have established to drive their missions forward can help break down some of the blockages to urban action that are created through the opaqueness of the relationship between the different political levels of authority.
Secondly, city-level missions appear to be a framework with the potential to create shared understandings, commitment and political coalitions between organisations at different scales. For instance, the Clyde Mission in Scotland has begun to create a unified vision among a broad group of organisations in a region where collaboration will be needed to drive transformation because — in part due to an overlapping patchwork of legal, planning and funding authorities. The Scottish Government initially initiated the Clyde Mission, but a range of other public sector organisations from the hyper-local to national levels are beginning to take joint leadership over the missions and are beginning to see them as a co-owned agenda. This ability to create shared ownership and commitment for an ambition between organisations operating at multiple scales is a key function for missions in their capability for enabling urban change.
There’s no question that action at the local level is shaped by the decisions and frameworks set out at higher levels of political authority. In our work experimenting with missions at the local level with policymakers, emergent practice has begun to demonstrate how this new approach can be used to negotiate the complex challenge of designing and delivering policy through this nested landscape. While missions are not a catch-all remedy for this ever present challenge facing local decision-makers, it is a framework that has begun to demonstrate some opportunities for overcoming a longstanding impediment to transformation.
Through our recent Mission Bootcamp, we worked with ten cities from around the world to teach the cohort of mayors and senior administrators about missions and explore how the approach might be applied to address their key local challenges.
If you would like to learn more about our work with cities or the Mission Bootcamp programme, please contact Ryan Bellinson.