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Searching for Fiscal Sustainability: A Collaborative Research Effort, Part 1

This article is part one of two. Watch for Part 2, which includes the research findings, this Thursday, March 1, 2012.

Rich Callahan, Mark Pisano

An argument could be made that the central challenge for leaders in the public sector is how to create fiscal sustainability at the local, state, and federal levels of government. The tool of strategy has been developed for addressing complex conditions over the past 50 years in the private sector and more recently in the public sector. For career, appointed, and elected officials the question that emerges is: can leaders apply strategy to advance fiscal sustainability in government. We developed a research team to search for cases where leaders applied strategy in local government to develop fiscal sustainability.

A research team developed with practitioners who collectively working in local government for over 60 years, Rich Callahan and Mark Pisano, and experienced researchers across two universities, led by Principal Investigator, Yan Tang, in partnership with the leadership of the National Civic League, Gloria Rubio-Cortes and Mike McGrath. This research partnership has been funded for three years, starting in 2010 by The John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation. The research team is conducting original research on leadership in developing strategy for Southern California governments to adapt to the current fiscal challenges and related changes in social, economic, and cultural environments, and is highlighting the regions innovation and capacity to respond to these structural challenges. The research team also is developing new governance models for Southern California local governments, as well as for use by the National Civic league in their periodic update of the Leagues model city and county charters.

The Turbulent Context
The premise underlying the research is that a wide range of long-term structural changes in the economic and institutional environments have shaped the current fiscal challenges facing local jurisdictions in California. Some of the changes identified include: the slowing of the economy and growth in California and nationally, increased public expectations for collective goods, skyrocketing costs of running governments, an increasing number of institutional obstacles, more limited flexibility for government budgeting, and increased skepticism of whether governments can spend tax dollars wisely and whether many public problems can be solved by public and social policy. This research team’s focus on fiscal sustainability shares with Public Administration Review’s efforts led by Frank Thompson to revisit the Winters Commission on the future of local government.

A Process of Finding Successes in Local Government
The research team leveraged their existing networks from working in or with the public sector to identify individuals and organizations with in-depth knowledge of local governments in the Southern California region. The cases were selected through a process that involved asking for recommendations from state–wide associations, including the California State Associations of Counties and the League of Cities, as well as through discussion with researchers and senior executives with 20 or more years of local government experience. The organizations we consulted include the following:

  • The American Society of Public Administration
  • National Academy of Public Administration fellows
  • California State Associations of Counties
  • The International Management Association
  • The League of California Cities
  • The Institute for Local Government
  • The National Civic League Board
  • The Southern California Association of Governments
  • Common Sense California

The process of outreach found four case studies of successes in local government fiscal sustainability. The four Southern California case studies included one of the country’s largest county (LA County), two cities—one small and one large (Brea in Orange County, and Long Beach) and a small school district in LA County (Whittier Union High School District).

Rich Callahan is an associate professor at the University of San Francisco. Email: [email protected]

Mark Pisano is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Bedrosian Center on Governance. Email: [email protected]

We would like to gratefully acknowledge and express our appreciation for the support of The John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, along with the partnership with our valued research colleagues: Yan Tang the research director for the USC Bedrosian Center, Gloria Rubio-Cortes the president of the National Civic League, and Mike McGrath the editor of the National Civic Review.

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