How Can Vermont use Local and Regional Councils to Inform its Strategic Planning?

The Vermont Council on Rural Development(VCRD)’s deep dive into the issues facing Vermont is informed by interviews with and input from thousands of Vermonters.

Proposition 8 was of particular interest to me as I have written about it before.

Vermont must reform regional coordination and governance and advance efficiency and foresight in state planning.

There are several lenses through which one must view the generation and implementation of public policy in Vermont.

  • Is it top-down or ground-up?
  • Is it motivated by ego, privilege, and greed, or by a commitment to the common good?
  • The significant realms of policy and law are development, environment, equity, healthcare, education, agriculture/food systems, housing, and culture.
  • Where is public policy generated: in our communities, regionally, or at the state level? Do these three geographical policy incubators support or confound one another?

We’ve all seen top-down mandates succeed. Governor Dean Davis’s Billboard Law and Act 250 were two examples. Both have survived challenges.

We’ve also seen them fail as in Governor Shumlin’s Single-payer Healthcare initiative.

Still others like Act 46, the bill mandating Statewide School District Mergers, flounder.

I’ve participated in the Vermont Council on Rural Development(VCRD)’s community-level work, all of which is designed to help communities clarify and quantify their problems and then work locally to create and implement solutions.

And I’ve experienced its success first-hand. When Hinesburg’s Saputo Cheese Plant burned and then closed, leaving empty buildings and a brownfield, a team I was a part of came together and within three years had restored the property and generated more jobs than were lost in the closure. Hinesburg had several new businesses, a new restaurant/pub, and more green space.

I’ve also watched as the regional policy authorities in all eight areas try to clarify, implement, and defend their often over-lapping roles, policies, and regional plans.

And we’ve all watched Vermont’s executive and legislative branches struggle in their efforts to make law and policy for lack of any central long-term strategic planning.

Sadly, our future initiatives tend to be informed more by our past failures rather than by a prospective, strategic effort, founded in what we know and can reasonably project.

VCRD’s Proposition 8 challenges us to imagine how we might design a system that neither imposes top-down policies nor stands by as fragmented local or regional initiatives vie for acceptance.

Prop. 8 raises the critical question as to whether we can find a way to honor and integrate local, regional, and state planning to create viable social, economic, environmental policy?

I believe there is. Imagine two concentric circles around a central hub. The outer circle represents Vermont’s 237 towns and nine cities in which citizens work together to define challenges and discuss solutions. The middle circle represents the various regional planning and development authorities. The central hub is the state.

Uniquely local issued are solved and implemented locally, whereas issues that intersect with regional and statewide policies are escalated via a locally elected ambassador who represents local deliberations and concerns at the regional level.

By way of example, the Starksboro economic development or planning committee would choose one member to represent them and their interests at the Addison County RDC. The Addison County RDC would likewise choose an ambassador to represent them at the State Agency of Commerce and Community Development Planning Group.

The regional councils would each have a representative on Vermont’s Strategic Planning Resource Council(SPRC) – a body that doesn’t yet exist – but we need it to.

The SPRC would be the go-to resource for the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of Government seeking to understand, plan for, and frame policy and law that is informed by trends, data, and variables affecting Vermont’s future. Their decision-making would be further enriched by the network of ambassadors representing both regional and local interests.

Five additional members focused on the future well-being of Vermonters would be appointed – one each by the Governor, the Governor’s Workforce Equity and Diversity Council, the House, the Senate, and the Judiciary, to make a strategic planning and development resource of thirteen.

As many have observed for decades, the lack of any formal strategic planning resource in the State, combined with the limitations of two-year terms for Governor and legislature mean that most of our policy and legislation is reactive.

What have we learned about coordinated policy formation and shared decision-making?

  • Top-down solutions face stiff headwinds, especially from those for whom change threatens existing privilege. Competitive policy formulation rarely devolves into action.
  • In a vacuum of strategic planning, policy and legislation that are reactive to systemic dysfunction often make matters worse.
  • Change must begin locally with a review of shared principles, values, and objectives, informed by trends, data, and inclusive discussion. Local initiatives escalate to regional and finally state planning and development councils for integration and deployment in law and policy.

We must also remember:

  • Life is complex. Most durable solutions are intrinsically imperfect and lie in the complex middle ground.
  • Decision-making means taking risks, creative destruction (as opposed to decay), shared pain, eliciting and paying attention to all points of view.
  • Most debates are not partisan, they’re more about defending privilege.
  • The goal of good leadership is consensus, not unanimous agreement. A leader gives voice to dissent but derives consensus. A responsible colleague supports consensus even in dissent.
  • Cost-efficiency always supports upstream investment rather than downstream remediation cost – “an ounce of prevention…” Allocating more money to try and repair the damage from a broken system rather than addressing its causes always ends up costing more.

Conservative concerns about “planning” being proscriptive can be comforted by the fact that a diversity of voices are essential to the evolution of durable community policy.

Together, we can design and implement a hub-spoke strategic planning and development network that integrates local, regional and statewide considerations, informing and focusing the work of Vermont’s Strategic Planning Resource as it guides the three sectors of government in the creation of policy and law.

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