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Pooling Progress: Intercity Collaboration and Data-Driven Policy

Cities harness shared data to provide a necessary escape from governing silos as cities and counties face complex problems affecting their regions.

The Phoenix, Ariz., skyline.
Longtime players in formalized intercity collaboration, the Valley Benchmark Cities has created a collaborative network of 11 cities in the Phoenix metro area — Avondale, Chandler, Gilbert, Glendale, Goodyear, Mesa, Peoria, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Surprise, and Tempe — whose purpose is improving local government performance in Arizona. (Thomas Prior, Alliance for Innovation)
In Brief:
  • Regional collaborations aren’t new, but can have new applications that focus on the wealth of operational data cities and counties generate every day.
  • Collaborations should start small to build trust in the ability to collaborate successfully and then expand to more time and resource-heavy joint projects.
  • Regional governments collaborating with one another will be able to share the burden of addressing complex problems like climate sustainability or housing/food insecurity.

  • Cities are only separated by lines on a map and highways. In a high-data digital landscape, one major thing that connects cities with each other, and with counties beyond that, are the pieces of data that residents develop just by living their day-to-day lives. Data can inform the development of policies, processes and progress at the local level, and when shared among cities in the same region, can provide a map for governing that takes an entire region into consideration, not just pieces of the puzzle.

    Since the Beginning of Time

    The concept of intercity collaborations isn’t new. Cities have been collaborating on large and small scales practically from the dawn of their existence in human history. In the United States, regional organizations such as the American Municipal Association in 1924 — an organization that served as the precursor to the National League of Cities — made it possible for cities in the United States to come together to share information, material resources, and forge connections amongst leaders.

    In their co-authored article on intercity collaboration, Katharine Robb and her co-authors note that, “While ICCs [intercity collaborations] constitute a small share of city government activity, they have increased dramatically over the past two decades and this acceleration raises the need to understand their current landscape, challenges and potential.” Why the growth? Beyond the need to not go it alone, local officials have had time to come together as they navigate small- and large-scale issues that affect their regions, developing stronger relationships and trust that goes beyond the initial collaboration to forge a path for other collaborations in different areas or departments and local government.

    “This is the nature of whenever you’re trying to build trust, whether it’s between citizens and government or between governments themselves. It doesn’t happen overnight. But it is really important to effectively facilitate collaboration on any number of other things. Because once you have that trust, it’s not limited to benchmarking,” says David Swindell, director of Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation. “It facilitates the ability to work with all these other communities because you understand that you’re all swimming in the same direction and that you have a shared destiny because of your proximity to one another. There are all these benefits that come from having a good positive, trusting relationship amongst the institutions that are serving the residents here in the valley. And that’s true for any metropolitan area.”

    Shaping the Future

    Collaborations between cities and counties in a region are integral to shaping the future of government, providing avenues for cities and counties to share resources, solve regional problems, and develop strong relationships with places only a few minutes away. When cities work together to advance shared interests, their partnerships can range in scope from simply exchanging ideas or sharing data that builds better policy to partnering so that cities can work towards solving a systemic problem (i.e., homelessness, the opioid crisis, inequity in public transportation) that affects the region.

    Key to all of this is resource sharing. Resources range from material resources such as expensive construction vehicles to land banks that will help provide regional solutions for housing, and, of course, data. Data informs many of the justifications behind collaborations and policy within a region. When cities collaborate on data sharing, it can foster better relationships between departments and the local governments, resulting in streamlined processes. They can also provide ways for residents in the region to see how their communities measure up to one another via public data dashboards and documentation showing policy advances in the region based on said data.

    Doing It Right for a Long Time

    One of the long-running regional collaborations that exemplifies is Arizona’s Valley Benchmark Communities, a partnership between ASU’s Center for Urban Innovation and 13 municipalities in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Valley Benchmark Communities identifies common information about the municipalities’ demographics, financials and performance to develop benchmarks and data that are utilized to make changes to policy and public services across the Phoenix metropolitan area. Another consortium that emphasizes collaboration and data sharing for benchmarking is the Michigan Local Government Benchmarking Consortium (MLGBC). Like Valley Benchmark Communities, the MLGBC has communities in Michigan work in partnership with Michigan State University Extension to collect, analyze and share data with the shared goal of improving regional governments’ capabilities.

    However, intercity collaboration doesn’t have a single standardized look or feel. Collaborations can look like regional transportation initiatives that led to South Florida’s tri-county commuter rail initiative Tri-Rail. They can look like rural libraries facilitating interlibrary loan services within their region to lower the burden any one library has on their budget. Regional collaborations can also look like the University of Pittsburgh’s Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT), a multi-municipality congress focused on collective change in that region. CONNECT isn’t a benchmarking effort, but one that is focused on different areas and connected issues such as developing climate action plans, bringing law enforcement innovations to municipalities, and researching public health initiatives for systemic problems such as behavioral health issues. They can look like cities, towns and counties collaborating to tackle housing challenges on a regional level.

    But if that sounds daunting, intercity collaborations don’t have to be massive.

    In fact, the opposite is better in the beginning.

    A Small Step Forward ...

    “Most of the time, this kind of collaboration happens better incrementally, rather than jumping in full force. One of the things we know from the research is particularly cooperating by function will take sort of a small piecemeal approach,” says Dr. Jay Rickabaugh, assistant professor of public administration at Appalachian State University. “The idea in this is that you build up that trust and that reputation, show folks that you can you live up to your sides of the agreement, and make small adjustments while the program is still small, rather than diving in and merging too quickly.”

    This scaling up of projects as communities build trust in collaboration could look like a municipality’s parks and recreation department wanting to collaborate with the county’s department on projects. Instead of beginning with a massive project to standardize park features and bring in more modern public exercise equipment, start small with something like a joint sports league across the region. Initial collaborations could also look like a proposal for libraries in a region to share the costs of a craft seminar before moving forward to investing in regional library access to 3D printing services and machines. A collaborative effort among cities to form a regional transportation route could start small, by collaborating on research into bike-sharing programs and then expanding to regional bus routes that help commuters move around the region more efficiently.

    As cities and counties face increasingly complex issues without easy solutions — like climate sustainability or homelessness — regional government collaboration provides ways for cities to pool information, resources and time to tackle them.

    “There’s lots of really complex issues that require evidence-based policymaking and a recognition and trust in that evidence that span multiple jurisdictions,” Dr. Rickabaugh says. “We’ve got to have the evidence in place to make decisions that align with our values, and that help us develop ways of mitigating these really complex social circumstances, social problems that we can’t solve through the same silos we’ve been using.”
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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