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A Tribute to Bruce McDowell

By Lisa Warnecke

The public administration community lost one of its most knowledgeable and dedicated pracademics in late 2017 with the passing of Bruce McDowell. The modest title of Bruce’s unpublished memoir, Crossing Boundaries: A Half Century of Public Service, understates his vast contribution to—and early groundbreaking work in—the design, development and practice of what he called the “interlocking system” of American government, particularly intergovernmental relations (IGR) and planning.

Working in the field since 1959—the year Congress created the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR) with a mission that epitomized his interests—Bruce dovetailed practical experience, meticulous research and firm and sustained dedication to substate regionalism, IGR and planning to accomplish better governing within the United States and beyond.

Carl Stenberg, ACIR assistant director in the 1970s, remembered Bruce “as a dedicated regionalist and passionate advocate for intergovernmental cooperation and consultation who skillfully navigated the worlds of research and practice.” For more than 50 years, Bruce applied his IGR, planning and regionalism expertise—and his advocacy—to many topics. Transportation and other public works, infrastructure, housing, wildland fire, emergency management, intergovernmental representation and voting are a few of the many issues that benefited from his expertise. His ability to apply his wisdom on many subjects of study was amazing across decades of service.

Bruce received a BA (1957) and PhD in Public Administration (1965) from American University and a Master’s in City Planning (1959) from Georgia Tech. Lee Schoenecker, who later worked for Bruce, said, “Quite remarkably, the essence of his dissertation became statutory federal law, first under Section 204 of the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966, and then the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act of 1968.”

Bruce was elected as a National Academy of Public Administration fellow in 1998, and as an American Institute of Certified Planners fellow in 2001. He chaired several American Planning Association (APA) and Transportation Research Board committees. In the 1970s and 1980s, he created the APA Intergovernmental Affairs Division and helped develop other divisions. As chair of the APA Division Council, he served as an ex officio member of APA’s board of directors. He maintained active, long-term affiliations with these organizations, as well as with ASPA, the American Association for Budget and Program Analysis, the American Political Science Association and other professional societies.

Though Bruce lived and worked his entire life in the Washington, DC area (except while getting his Master’s Degree at Georgia Tech), he had an extensive understanding of the entire nation. His work ethic, output, memory and attention to detail were known and admired throughout his long career. He was a devoted husband, father and grandfather, was active in his community and church, and assisted many colleagues in their work. He inspired many in public administration, planning and beyond.

I met Bruce while serving as a young town manager in Colorado more than 35 years ago. I needed help beyond my public administration degree, and state and local government experience in New York, to meet this challenge. He provided perspective and encouragement to learn the missions, roles, authorities, responsibilities and functions of nearby localities, county, state, federal and other service providers to acquire needed help for my town and develop partnerships to govern most effectively. It was excellent advice that remains relevant today.

Later, Bruce helped me be a better state government budget analyst and statewide technology coordinator. However, the vast depth and value of Bruce’s knowledge truly became apparent during my Master’s research on local governments nationwide, my PhD dissertation on the 50 states and research for several projects, including at the Academy where I learned even more while working with and for him.

Bruce’s knowledge of the American governing system was indeed vast, particularly about IGR and the often differing authorities, responsibilities and functions of the nation’s counties and municipalities, regional councils, metropolitan planning organizations, states and many individual federal agencies. Randy Johnson, former Commissioner for Hennepin County, Minnesota, and a past president of the National Association of Counties, said Bruce “always fully knew and promoted the importance of the federal government working with states and localities. He had a particularly keen understanding of the role of counties, which differs in each state.”

The quality and volume of Bruce’s work is quite remarkable across his 24 years with ACIR, 13 years at the Academy, 12 years as a practitioner in regional organizations and miscellaneous time with other projects. In total, Bruce authored or led more than 85 major publications, including government reports, journal and magazine articles and contributions to eight published books. He thoroughly analyzed his subjects, both in detail and in a broader context, and always had practical recommendations.

Bruce also drafted portions of federal bills dealing with IGR, regional planning coordination, federal aid simplification and regulatory relief for state and local governments; he influenced others. This work led him to similarly investigate and develop model state legislation on many topics, requiring his deep understanding of the varying authorities and other differences among the 50 states.

Bruce was known for his strong work ethic, output, memory and dedication, but also for his willingness to help others. He presented at various conferences and professional events, and at more than 12 academic institutions in the United States and abroad. He taught courses at his local community college and served on accreditation review teams for Master’s degree programs in planning at several universities.

Former ACIR Executive Director John Kincaid remarked that Bruce “was a hardworking, competent and meticulous director who ensured quality and timeliness in contract performance.” Sharon Lawrence, a former staff member, said it was “an honor to work with him. His knowledge base was immense, his dedication to the cause tremendous and his kind and gentle nature made him the sort of person you considered yourself lucky to know.”

Pat Atkins, former staffer at the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC), remembered that her PhD dissertation committee could include an external member. “There was only one outside expert that was qualified and needed, and that was Bruce. He was professional, thoughtful, generous and facilitative. Bruce’s place in my life as a colleague and a friend was beyond what most are blessed in this way to have.”

Bruce was a unique “go to” person for so many in public administration, planning and other disciplines about IGR, states, regions and localities nationwide, as well as federal agencies. He provided details, citations, history, insight, contacts and other resources to understand the complexities and nuances of American government that was hard to find elsewhere. As former Academy Vice President Bill Gadsby said, “Bruce was a credit to himself, his profession and the country. Godspeed.”

A review of Bruce’s career in his memoir reveals several accomplishments and innovations unique at the time and still significant today. After acquiring his Master’s in City Planning, Bruce was a planner at the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a recognized innovator in planning practices. Bruce worked in many staff roles and initiated creative improvements, such as automating the updates of parcel-based land use information with some of the earliest planning uses of computers back then (in the early 1960s). His Commission experience and mentorship by his director, George Allen, helped lead him to pursue a PhD in public administration. He applied his PhD courses at his work to design a new program budgeting system, which the Commission ultimately adopted.

While at the Commission, Bruce learned about and became fascinated with ACIR priorities: the proliferation of federal grants and metropolitan areas. He focused his dissertation to investigate, understand and develop recommendations about federal programs providing grants to state and local governments. ACIR hired Bruce in 1963, enabling him to dovetail academic work with his “day” job.

Bruce’s thorough investigation of 43 federal aid programs and impacts on localities was included in an ACIR report in 1964, as well as in his 1965 dissertation. He also prepared recommendations to promote and facilitate coordination of federal aid programs by state and local governments. He did this to enable projects to be larger and more integrated, flexible, efficient and effective. Bruce suggested various ways to “be regionable” by promoting consultation and advice on pending federal grant-in-aid applications generated by local governments, and coordination through Councils of Governments (COGs).

The U.S. Bureau of the Budget, now the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, issued Circular Number A-95 in 1969 to implement the 1966 and 1968 laws mentioned above, which incorporated Bruce’s recommendations. Gubernatorial designation of metropolitan and non-metropolitan areawide planning agencies, as well as central state planning agencies, occurred through OMB’s A-95 edict. Planning agencies were encouraged to become clearinghouses for the review and comment of proposed local grant-in-aid applications to the federal government.

Scores of such planning agencies were eventually designated by governors in most states to synchronize grants and improve outcomes, particularly from a substate regional perspective. Though A-95 no longer exists, more than 500 regional councils, most frequently COGs or Regional Planning Agencies (RPAs), now actively coordinate activities for both elected officials and staffs of nearby local governments throughout the country.

In 1964, Bruce joined the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) to help implement what he envisioned should be done regionally. He was MWCOG’s first Regional Management Information Service (RMIS) director, and advanced to become Director of Program Coordination before he left eight years later.

Bruce applied demonstration funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to achieve consensus about and implement metropolitan planning data needs, including a metropolitan-wide land use data file that included almost every parcel of land in the region. Precise data definitions and the means to compile data from the diverse local data systems were developed. HUD distributed the final project nationally. It helped spawn a nationwide effort to automate land use information and other data that continues today, augmented by widespread use of geographic information systems (GIS) and related technology.

MWCOG was one of the first federally designated COGs to administer federal aid review, as Bruce had described it in the aforementioned 1964 ACIR report, and that approach became federal law. He was responsible for this review process, developed a manual to do so, and frequently spoke to national audiences about it. He also developed the Fair Share Housing Formula for Metropolitan Washington, one of the first in the country. It won a HUD award, was used as a model by others and is still significant today. Bruce and others at MWCOG also helped organize the first nationwide meeting of regional councils in 1967, from which NARC emerged and thrives today.

Bruce returned to ACIR in 1972 where, with the exception of two years, he worked full-time until ACIR’s closure in 1996. Lee Schoenecker describes the period of 1965-1980 as the “high-water mark” of federal financial planning assistance, and Bruce “developed various evaluations of these programs, particularly at metropolitan and non-metropolitan regional levels.” Carl Stenberg, then ACIR’s Assistant Director for Policy Implementation, said Bruce’s work on substate regionalism was “especially noteworthy, drawing on his rich practical experience and dissertation research.”

Bruce’s unique expertise and fortitude was also exhibited during this time when he served as a major editor and author of a seminal Green Book published by APA in cooperation with the International City Management Association as part of their Municipal Management Series. The Practice of State and Regional Planning, published in 1986, was an unparalleled resource for practitioners and academics alike, with more than 650 pages and 24 chapters.

Bruce became director of governmental studies at the National Council on Public Works Improvement in 1986. He was responsible for a wide range of management, planning and IGR studies as part of a comprehensive national study of public works infrastructure issues mandated by Congress. He wrote major portions of reports to the President and Congress. Bruce said in his memoir that this role enabled him to establish long lasting relationships with many public works and civil engineering organizations, and to investigate new technologies on the cutting edge for public works, which helped him years later.

John Kincaid, as ACIR’s new executive director, invited Bruce back to ACIR in 1988 as director of government policy research. Bruce oversaw production of many policy and information reports, including some that were contracted out due to budget constraints, but also several that he wrote. ACIR reports issued under his supervision included, among others, disability rights mandates, state constitutions, state ACIRs, water resources management, federal preemption of state authority, criminal justice, local government autonomy, federal regulation of state and local governments, federally induced costs on states and localities and federal mandate relief. One of his last reports, mostly prepared by him and published in 1995, was MPO Capacity: Improving the Capacity of Metropolitan Planning Organizations to Help Implement National Transportation Policies. Bruce stayed at ACIR until Congress defunded it in 1996.

While others might have retired after such a full career, Bruce began work at NAPA two weeks later. I had recently started work on a big project there and Bill Shields, now ASPA Executive Director, was on the staff at the time. It was great to have Bruce join our project, which needed more IGR expertise, as so many do when addressing American government. Bill Gadsby, former NAPA vice president, reflected that Bruce was one of a handful of highly skilled professionals who had recently retired from successful federal government careers, but who wanted to continue improving government operations by leading and participating in projects funded by Congress and Executive Branch agencies for that purpose. During his 13 years there, Bruce served as Project Director for 15 Academy  reports, including six about wildland fire management, arguably one of the most complex intergovernmental challenges in America. Bruce worked on other projects that also provided opportunities to learn and apply his vast knowledge. Bruce also was an active Fellow on Academy committees and panels.

Bill Gadsby said that what impressed him most about Bruce was “his unmatched ability to undertake a project in an area that he knew little about and develop an understanding of and competency in within a short number of months. When at a meeting with top level agency officials at the start of a project, they were the experts. But three or four months later, Bruce had become the expert and clearly had a better feel for program operations than they did. Bruce always established a deep understanding of programs and issues to generate recommendations. I saw this repeat itself time and time again during the 10 years we worked together.”

This was Bruce’s approach and legacy for his entire career. Pat Atkins, who first became acquainted with Bruce while working at NARC more than 30 years ago, remarked, “A report from Bruce was always a document to be emulated. His analysis and insight often made a reader marvel at his meticulous, creative, and fully readable work.” Carl Stenberg said that, while at ACIR, Bruce “insisted that approaches considered by Commission members would be forward-looking, politically acceptable and administratively feasible.”

Bruce’s last professional work, except for diligent work on his memoir, was helping the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) concerning sustainable development. He stated in his memoir that the project focused on creating a report to “design public works and other infrastructure to support economically, socially and environmentally sustainable growth and development of planet Earth” that multiple professions and associations could endorse.

Bruce donated much time to this excellent capstone topic of his career, which benefited greatly through his expertise. A report was completed, but it was difficult to reach consensus with others beyond ASCE. Bruce said that he was reminded, “It is often as difficult to work across the boundaries of professional disciplines as it is to work across diverse governments, agencies and sectors of the economy.” Bruce’s wisdom continues to challenge us to work toward his vision of better governing by “crossing boundaries,” the title of his unpublished memoir.

Bruce subsequently served as the only non-engineer on ASCE’s Sustainable Infrastructure Education Committee and helped develop a certification program with 12 online courses and exams. He described the effort as “arduous but fascinating,” as we might expect from Bruce! He also helped the committee develop materials for ASCE’s Continuing Education programs. Cliff Davidson, current committee chair, said that Bruce was “a terrific help to all of us … He always had great insights and critiques. We greatly benefited by his high standards of excellence–once he gave his approval, we knew the material was good.”

Bruce remained active professionally and continued to be a voracious reader and helpful fixture at relevant DC based events until he became ill. He never allowed himself to become stale about his areas of expertise. During our last lunch together, he told me he had participated in more Transportation Research Board annual conferences, held every January in Washington, than anyone he knew. He also had been working on his memoir for a few years, so he described the content of each chapter in vivid detail. It sounded like a fascinating review of his career, including reflections and perspective with future applicability. Sadly, he never quite finished it before he became ill. I knew the memoir would be a good read in any state of completion—and it is. Interested readers can contact Bill Shields at ASPA to review the very informative memoir about Bruce’s career, but also the history of intergovernmental relations, ACIR and other aspects of public administration.

One of the many memories about Bruce that stands out to us was his large volume of research materials, including items still not online or necessarily available elsewhere. Pat Atkins recalled, “He literally was one of the last out the door at ACIR, transporting on his way as much documentation as he could save of the treasure trove of intergovernmental research that ACIR had amassed.” I still have some of the material from our work together that was destined for the Academy dumpster when our office moved from 12thand G near Metro Center in DC. When Bruce and his wife, Virginia, downsized, Bill Gadsby and I asked Paul Posner if George Mason University could take some of Bruce’s documents to keep both of them happy. Paul obliged, and the materials not still in Bruce’s old office at home are at Mason. 2017 was indeed a sad year in PA, since we lost these two pillars of IGR. (See Tonya Neaves’ article about Paul in PA TIMES, Fall 2018).

On the personal side, many remember that Bruce was (almost) always very health conscious, frequently lunching on plain turkey sandwiches. However, Bill Gadsby remembers some hot dog escapes to the stand near the Academy. Bruce had an amazingly fast trot—I recall many walks to project agency visits or meetings in downtown DC, of course dragging materials with us. Though often deeply immersed in work either at the office or home, Bruce always packed it in to meet Virginia for their regular Friday night dinner date.

Last year’s devastating California wildfires and recent floods and hurricanes remind me that Bruce would have said that better understanding and application of applicable local, state and federal authorities, roles and responsibilities and IGR are necessary to address these governing challenges. He would have been right. Sadly Bruce is unavailable to help, but he left an intriguing and informative memoir, many authored and led documents and articles, and a collection of materials that would be a gold mine for wise research about many aspects of the American federal system. Anyone interested can contact Bill Shields at ASPA to make connections with Bruce’s wife, Virginia.

Truly, much of Bruce’s work and many recommendations are as relevant today as before. For example, Carl Stenberg recently found a lapel button in his files from their work together—“Be Regionable”—that was distributed by what is now NARC. This powerful and enduring message aptly reflects Bruce’s commitments and contributions to IGR and public management. John Kincaid said that Bruce “would be pleased to know that some of his old ACIR friends testified before Congress in 2018 on a bill to create a new ACIR-like agency.”

Many thanks are offered to colleagues named here, to Virginia, and to others who helped me to develop this tribute to Bruce. Our work with him spanned more than 40 years. He is a loss to American governance when our country increasingly needs more people with his expertise and character. We enjoyed working with and miss Bruce very much.

PS. On March 8, ASPA’s Section on Intergovernmental Administration and Management (SIAM) hosted the annual Deil Wright Symposium at the 2019 annual conference in Washington, DC. The SIAM business meeting was held immediately following the Symposium, and began with a Bruce McDowell tribute. Speakers included Pat Atkins, John Kincaid, Lee Schoenecker, Carl Stenberg, and Lisa Warnecke, as well as Bruce’s widow, Virginia McDowell. Personal memories about Bruce were shared with SIAM attendees, as well as descriptions about his long lasting impact on careers and the public administration and planning professions nationwide for over 50 years. Virginia spoke about Bruce’s dedication and commitment for his entire professional life to improving government.  Bruce’s son, Kenneth, also was in attendance and visited with SIAM members after the tribute. At the end of the business meeting, David Miller, SIAM Chair, also spoke about Bruce’s importance to the PA community, and shared some personal reflections about their work together over the years. As part of Bruce’s continuing legacy, the McDowell family will support a continuing SIAM award about intergovernmental relations in Bruce’s name beginning in 2020.

Announced at the business meeting is a pilot effort to help scholars and professionals create a digital archive to preserve important and rare materials about intergovernmental relations. Initial focus is on regional councils and the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC) through a large donation of related documents from Pat Atkins (former SIAM Chair, staff member at NARC, and professor with the Institute of Public Policy at George Washington University). The pilot effort is being coordinated by Jay Rickabaugh (SIAM member, Appalachian State University). He will report results and future directions to SIAM, including how others can develop their digital archives.

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