With training in both law and planning, in my early career efforts I have centered my scholarship in key infrastructure systems that are at the core of major policy problems and issues for local governments. My focus in recent years has been on land use and transportation systems, and future work will expand to water systems (drinking water, storm water, wastewater) and broadband for underserved populations. In the following narrative, I describe the substantive impact of my research output and agenda. The narrative organizes around two spheres of research: (1) work that explores the bounded rationality of individual local government actors and (2) work on the cross-boundary institutions (rules and norms) these actors select to govern within metropolitan regions.
I am an interdisciplinary scholar bridging public administration and planning who studies the decision-making processes of political, managerial, and administrative actors serving in local governments such as municipalities, townships, and transit authorities. The overarching theoretical framework motivating my work is sociological institutionalism (e.g., DiMaggio, Powell, Meyer). Local government actors are still often conceptualized and modeled as highly rational individuals who function according to an instrumental logic in which they strive to maximize material utility. Sociological institutionalism offers an alternative view of individuals as boundedly rational and guided by a logic of appropriateness, through which they seek legitimacy (rather than utility) according to the regulative, normative, and cultural contexts in which they are embedded.
This line of research expands on foundational work on the potential for bounded rationality (e.g., Herbert Simon, James March) within and among general-purpose local governments. The major output from this line of inquiry was a solo-authored book with Routledge in 2008, “The Risk of Regional Governance: Cultural Theory and Interlocal Cooperation.” This was the first work to bring a sociological institutionalist perspective to scholarship on institutional collective action. It developed a theory of sociological collective action, in which decisions about cooperation by individual elected officials and administrators can be explained as attempts to maximize social legitimacy--in accord with rules, norms, and cultures--rather than just material utility. A key proposition from this theory is that cultural legitimizing dominates preferences and behaviors in settings, like many local governments, that are otherwise institutionally sparse--i.e., that lack a strong set of regulative and normative signals about collective action. To make sense of how cultural legitimizing works, we can use insights from cultural theory (e.g., Mary Douglas, Aaron Wildavsky) and grid-group cultural cognition. Individuals, per this view, are informed by their "grid" disposition (hierarchy vs. egalitarianism) and "group" disposition (individualism vs. communitarianism). This gives us a way to operationalize cultural dispositions as key explanatory variables in models of local government actors' preferences and behaviors.
The bounded rationality of individual local government actors
I surveyed more than 500 local government actors from over 300 Michigan suburbs across two metropolitan regions. Key insights from the book were:
local government actors have cultural worldviews that can be reliably and validly measured through short-form grid-group survey items;
these worldviews are distinct from partisan ideology and other indicators of deep core beliefs;
local actors with individualist and hierarchical worldviews have better knowledge of state law;
those with communitarian and egalitarian worldviews have stronger preferences for interlocal cooperation in land use planning and zoning—even when the application of a material utility-maximizing rational choice model suggested they should not.
These findings and the accompanying theory were shared at the 5th Annual Deil S. Wright Symposium (2018 ASPA-Section on Intergovernmental Administration and Management), at national conferences (ACSP, UAA, ASPA), and at an international conference (Planning Law and Property Rights). I was invited to present on the book as the keynote speaker at the Southeast Regional Directors Institute (SERDI) Professional Development Conference, which hosted more than 70 Executive Directors of regional intergovernmental organizations in twelve states, and as a sponsored guest lecturer and workshop participant with the Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography in Leipzig, Germany. In the past year, I drew on the insights from the book in an invited chapter—“Balancing Local and Regional Interests”—for a volume from Rowman and Littlefield on State-Local Relationships in Partnership and Conflict, edited by Eric Zeemering and Russ Hanson.
The remaining work in this line of scholarship is concerned with understanding how bounded rationality expresses in local government land use planning and regulatory processes, and involves intentional collaborations with colleagues in urban planning, real estate, and engineering. In 2017-2018, I studied whether local government land use regulation was “chilled” by state takings legislation, a question explored using semi-structured interviews of staff planners, planning directors, and municipal lawyers. The work aligned with the local autonomy research by shedding light on the perception of local autonomy specifically in the area of land use. This resulted in a 2018 co-authored article—“Land use decision-making in the wake of state property rights legislation: Examining the institutional response to Florida’s Harris Act”—published in Land Use Policy. Land use decision-making was also central to two co-authored articles with colleagues in real estate in 2019 about the perspectives of fiscal impact analysts and real estate developers, and how their perspectives contravened existing theorization of such actors as persistently rational and risk-averse. The articles were published in the Journal of Real Estate Literature (“Increasing the Understanding of Fiscal Impact Analysis to Help Real Estate Developers More Effectively Manage Process Risk”) and Planning Practice and Research (“The Bounded and Pragmatic Consultant: Fiscal Impact Analysts as Rational Actors”). A final collaboration furthering insights into the rationality of local government actors in land use policy was with a colleague in civil and environmental engineering. With competitive funding support from the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment, we studied how vividness affects the receptiveness of local government administrators toward increased density in the built environment (“Vividness to Improve and Rethink Long-Term Resilience of the Built Environment”). Recognizing the benefit of our transdisciplinary communication and the common silos that separate engineers and planners in local governments, we also received funding to support a summer lab for undergraduates traditionally underrepresented in the academy. The lab—“Decision Sciences for Resilient Communities”—focused on the integration in local governments of land use planning and regulation with infrastructure systems management, and students trained in content analysis, survey development, and interviewing. This was the only lab (from among ten receiving funding in that cycle) selected for inclusion in the Virginia Tech Honors College summer programming. Building on the success of this work, we also received a major grant from the 4-VA state economic development initiative for curricular development to inculcate transdisciplinary thinking in future local government planners and engineers (“Promoting Transdisciplinary Thinking, Sustainable Design, and Community Engagement in STEM Education”).
In the coming months, I will orient my research and writing more centrally in public administration by putting it in conversation with recent scholarship on behavioral public administration (e.g., Paul Battaglio, Sebastian Jilke). In May 2021, I submitted a proposal to the International City/County Management Association Local Government Research Fellows program. If awarded, fellowship funding would support an applied research study (“Managers as Choice Architects: Bringing Behavioral Insights to Smaller Local Governments”) that would make low-cost, high-impact behavioral interventions more accessible to smaller, lower-capacity local governments by re-envisioning the manager as a choice architect. A pending NSF grant ("Nudging Communities toward Broadband: Regional Public Sector Organizations as Rationalizing Intermediaries in Innovative Infrastructure Systems”) would support a two-year study of how behavioral interventions are used by regional intergovernmental organizations to promote innovation in local governments; this is described more in the next section. I am also preparing two solo-authored articles for submission in May 2021: “Loss Aversion in Local Governments: The Bounded Rational Response to Changes in State Law” (for submission to Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory) based on work in Virginia presented at the Fall 2020 ACSP conference, and “Cultural worldviews as a driver of regional governance perceptions” based on the 2014 data underlying my book (for submission to State and Local Government Review).
Building from one of the key findings in the book, I explore in greater depth what I refer to as subjective local autonomy—the idea that local government actors are heterogeneous in their perception of local legal autonomy, and that this variation can help us make sense of seemingly irrational policy choices. This exploration began with interviews with 17 staff planners in Southeast and Central Virginia about knowledge of state law and the understanding of local autonomy. I presented this work at the Association of Law, Property, and Society, and used these preliminary findings to develop a grant proposal for the Regional Studies Association’s Early Career Grant Scheme, a competitive international funding opportunity.
The proposal—“Reimagining metropolitan fragmentation: The Local Autonomy Project”—was funded in late 2017, in part supporting large-n surveying of elected officials and managers in general-purpose local governments in eight metropolitan statistical areas. This work led to presentations at the 2018 Regional Studies Association Winter Conference, the 2019 Urban Affairs Association conference, and the 2019 Regional Studies Association North American Conference. I am currently developing articles based on this work, beginning with a theory article—Theorizing Subjective Local Autonomy: A Framework and Research Agenda—targeted for Local Government Studies.
A second sphere of research investigates how local actors use cross-boundary institutions across jurisdictional boundaries (such as formal agreements or interpersonal relationships) to achieve regional governance. This builds on extensive scholarship on collective action and polycentric governance in metropolitan settings (e.g., Vincent Ostrom, Elinor Ostrom, Jered Carr, Donald Norris, Mildred Warner) and on the form and function of regional intergovernmental organizations (e.g., David Miller, Jen Nelles, Elisabeth Gerber). I have focused my efforts in this area primarily on metropolitan public transportation governance and, since arriving at NIU, on rural wireline broadband and regional water systems.
The scholarly work on transportation governance began with federal funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2017 on two collaborative grants, “Local Barriers to Regional Transportation: Understanding Transit System Fragmentation from an Institutionalist Perspective” and “Transit in Flex: Examining Service Fragmentation of New App‐Based, On‐Demand Transit Services.” This supported a year-long data collection effort across the 200 most populous metropolitan statistical areas, yielding a novel geographic information system (GIS) with data on inter-organizational agreements, administrative conjunctions, and other cross-boundary governance mechanisms, and a Transit Governance Index (TGI) that measured the formal governance of metropolitan public transportation systems. The goal of this work is to inform long-standing debates about the relationship between metropolitan governance structure and system outcomes. It has resulted in presentations at multiple conferences (Transportation Research Board, Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, American Society for Public Administration, and Urban Affairs Association), a publication on select case studies drawn from this work in Journal of Urban Affairs (“Organizing Transit Institutions to Facilitate Cross-Jurisdictional Service Integration”), and two articles under review. The first is a comprehensive analysis of the 69 high-fragmentation MSAs (“A New Measurement of Regional Transit Governance,” in process with Territory, Politics, and Governance). The second is “Public Transportation Systems as Polycentric Networks,” which was just resubmitted in spring 2020 at Journal of Planning Education and Research. The final reports to USDOT for the grants received favorable external review as part of the pre-publication editorial process (a 3 on a scale of 3).
I also took advantage of opportunities for comparative and international scholarship. In 2018, I contributed an invited book chapter on cross-jurisdictional tradable development rights for which I was the lead author (“Tradable development rights in the US: Making zoning flexible through market mechanisms,” in the edited volume Instruments of Land Policy). Building on my work with colleagues in Germany, described earlier, I organized a panel at ASPA that included papers on regional governance amidst local government resource scarcity following de-industrialization (Appalachia and the Rustbelt in the U.S., upstate New York, peri-urban areas in The Netherlands and in eastern Germany, and Bosnia and Herzegovina). I was an invited participant at the international Regional Intergovernmental Organizations (RIGO) Mini-Conference in Pittsburgh in February 2020, which included practitioners and academics from the UK, Bulgaria, and US. Lastly, I contributed to the theoretical framework, literature review, and suggestions for thematic exploration of elite interviews in an article in Cities on metropolitan transportation and land use governance decisions around the Paris 2024 Olympic bid (“Projecting the Metropolis: Paris 2024 and the (re)scaling of metropolitan governance”).
With regard to broadband, I was invited to serve as a member of the statewide Broadband READY Committee by Matt Schmit, Director of the Illinois Office of Broadband and Deputy Director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and to consult with the Region 1 Planning Council’s Broadband READY grant work. The major output from these collaborations was submission as a Co-Principal Investigator of a major grant proposal to the National Science Foundation’s EAGER: Strengthening American Infrastructure opportunity. I developed the theoretical framework and was a co-equal writing participant with the Principal Investigator for the proposal “Nudging Communities toward Broadband: Regional Public Sector Organizations as Rationalizing Intermediaries in Innovative Infrastructure Systems.” The grant would fund comparative work in nine counties in Appalachian Virginia and 16 counties in northern Illinois. I would be the lead investigator in the Illinois region, and—building on my experience described in the previous section—would head a summer 2022 lab experience for undergraduates who are from groups traditionally underrepresented in the academy. Review is ongoing, but the three-university collaborative team’s pre-proposal received a binding invitation for submission of a full proposal. Per 2019 NSF data, only 28 percent of pre-proposals are invited.
Where previous work dealt mainly with land use and transportation, since arriving at NIU I have broadened my research scope to water management and rural broadband. These are critical infrastructure systems that present chronic local and regional challenges for the northern Illinois area and many parts of the U.S. With regard to water management, as Principal Investigator I was awarded a competitive external grant from the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) (“Sustaining Illinois through Collaborative Governance: A Pilot Study of Water Systems Governance in Northeast and North Central Illinois”). Working with colleagues from University of Illinois-Chicago, I will investigate the determinants and outcomes of collaborative governance in the management of storm water, wastewater, and drinking water systems in general-purpose and special-purpose local governments in thirteen northeastern and north central Illinois counties. This was the first non-STEM proposal funded by IIN.