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Federalism For the 21st Century
Published on Monday, September 26, 2005 by the Seattle Times
Federalism For the 21st Century
by Neal Peirce

WASHINGTON, DC -- If the nation's heart in responding to the challenges of Hurricane Katrina is even half as large as President Bush now says it is, we face a set of perplexing "how's."

How does a lumbering federal bureaucracy, its domestic departments starved for attention and funding, position itself as a true partner with the ravaged states and localities and people of New Orleans and the broader Gulf Coast region?

How, in an alarmingly hurricane-prone part of the country, does Washington make sure its dollars don't put people and homes once again in harm's way, unprepared to weather future killer storms?

How does the federal behemoth work to serve Bush's suddenly discovered constituency — the poor and disadvantaged — when the Gulf Coast state governments have historically led the race to the bottom in terms of social assistance?

Only, I'd suggest, by a very new New Federalism for the 21st century — not some form of Washington-mandated command and control, not federal disengagement, but rather a process of direct engagement, mutual respect, consultation and open democratic processes.

The idea began to jell for me when Robert Grow, the former steel-industry executive and a founder of the remarkable Envision Utah process, called to suggest that with the nation spending untold billions on recovery, it also ought to bring its best minds to the table to consider the hard choices and "how's."

Why not assemble, around a very big table, a visioning team for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Grow asked. All the governments would be there, he said, but also people from America's highly skilled nonprofit sector — organizations like the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Architects, the Urban Land Institute and the Alliance for Regional Stewardship, independent and noted experts in hydrology and flood control, transportation and housing, builders, insurers, mortgage bankers and others.

And, Grow said, the table should be large enough for the direct victims of the flood.

Skeptics might predict a ca-cophony of voices, producing noise but zero conclusions. But Grow said at least a set of scenarios, clear choices for public debate and then governmental decision, could emerge.

Robert Yaro, president of the New York Plan Association, suggested a broad geographic focus — governors from the entire, multistate "mega-region" stretching from the Florida Panhandle to East Texas, debating guidelines for developing flood-prone locations, guiding economic development and transportation links, creating a sustainable region for the century.

A science and art of reshaping communities is emerging in America, notes Yaro, citing not just the post-9/11 efforts in Manhattan but such citistate regions as Salt Lake City, Austin and Chicago. Part of the secret is engaging whole communities with such techniques as electronic town meetings. Second are geographic information systems — GIS — that illuminate, as never before, what big or proposed infrastructure systems mean for communities. And third, for local levels, so-called "visualization techniques" that let citizens and businesses see how actual development choices will change their towns and neighborhoods.

If we're going to spend untold billions on Gulf Coast revival, said Grow and Yaro, why not tap some of the country's best minds and new tools for democratic decision-making?

Congress' lead spokesperson for the new approaches is Oregon's Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who has focused on disaster-relief issues for years and visited Indonesia after the tsunami. Though "we're burning through tens of millions of dollars an hour" on Katrina relief, says Blumenauer, the disaster presents "the closest we'll ever get to a blank canvas" for truly thoughtful and intelligent planning.

A really open process, tapping the best of both private sector and government talent to forge inventive new approaches, should pass muster with both conservatives and progressives, says Blumenauer (himself a Democrat). Even as one hears these voices of reason, fears gnaw — especially the danger of instant politicization of issues.

But every party has so much to learn and benefit — the White House listening (for a change) before it announces cures, the federal bureaucracy getting exposed to real needs and learning to be a helpful but nondictating partner, state and local governments facing up to hard choices from land use to missing social services. And for the dispossessed, a likely first-ever opportunity to have a voice at the table and engage in dialogue with the broader society.

But the whole process can't succeed unless it's kept open, democratic, nonrigged, and finally earns buy-in from citizens of the affected communities. Call it a long shot, if you will, but think how proud we'd all be of America if it worked.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is

© 2005 Seattle Times


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