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How Can University Research Help Local Governments?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By James Bourey
March 17, 2023

As a local government manager for 37 years and consultant for another six, I have observed successful and failed city and county initiatives. Learning what had been successful and why was always critical knowledge for me. As essential as knowing what was done was why it was successful. Unfortunately, cities can follow the actions of an acclaimed project and still end up with very disappointing results. Learning the key ingredients which produced the desired result can be the key to achieving a great outcome. An example is the closing of main streets to traffic in downtowns across the country which were great successes in some places and abject failures in others.  

As a practitioner, I had in depth conversations with peers about what they were doing in their cities. At conferences, I focused on detailed presentations about acclaimed programs and projects, seeking to understand the “secret sauce” of their success. My professional reading focused on seeking key aspects of the accomplishments. If you read my last column you probably learned I pushed for innovative approaches in my communities much more than most of my peers. However, I always remembered a quote from a professor of mine in design school (architecture) who said, “The art of creativity is the art of covering your sources.”

This leads me to my recommendation, more aptly put, my plea to academicians: the most benefit you can provide to local government practitioners is to focus your research and writing on in-depth case studies of successful local government efforts. In doing so, please focus on the biggest challenges of our time. In my book, A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges (Bourey, 2022) each chapter addresses a major area of focus for local governments. These include:

  • Social justice
  • Local government finance
  • Land use planning and regulation
  • Environmental stewardship
  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Public facilities/infrastructure
  • Economic development
  • Education
  • Health care
  • Intergovernmental relations
  • Technology
  • Public engagement

Within each of these general areas are approaches and programs urgently needed to address the most pressing concerns. The book contains many recommendations and some are also detailed in my past PA Times columns. I will provide some examples and suggest an approach that needs to be studied. My past columns are referenced where appropriate.

While there are so many issues that would come under the heading of social justice, I believe correcting the socio-economic disparities is paramount. Previously, in PA Times I argue this needs to be done by leveling the playing field by enabling everyone to be able to compete and be successful in the modern day economy.

While the challenges of local government finance are great, a road map for long range financial planning would be most helpful for cities.

After so many years of domination by traditional zoning, we are finally seeing some real reform in land use planning and development. I believe most critical focus for research should be on land use controls that promote a more dense yet livable urban pattern to address global warming.

That study would obviously promote environmental stewardship. Another major focus should be on how the end products, after the useful life of the things we make, can end up in a fully recycled subsequent use.

As we look at housing, most would likely argue that solving the affordability issue and homelessness are most important. As intractable as these issues appear to be, we are beginning to see some successful approaches. These are worthy of detailed study.

Most everyone loves to talk about transportation, largely to complain about travel times or cost or other issues. The vital link of land use and transportation is talked about a lot but rarely fully implemented. It holds a key to addressing our mobility needs.

In a previous column, I wrote about the need to ensure that adequate public facilities/infrastructure exist at the time of land development. More detailed documentation of its success needs to be introduced to the mainstream of local government knowledge.

Economic development seems to always be top of mind for council members. They love splashy deals to bring new businesses to a community. However, when you get down to the essential needs of a community, it so often is how to transition a labor force, many of whom grew up in a different age, to the modern economy and skills required in the businesses of today.

The final area I will include is public engagement because this is so vital to local government success. While many aspects of this need to be addressed, I have advocated the critical importance of telling your own story. There are some excellent communication tools to do this including the program I detail in my previous PA Times column.

I have provided these examples of important areas of research. The contributions of the academic community can be even more vital to the profession with an increased emphasis on case studies that can guide the way for local government managers.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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