An engaged citizen

April 22, 2013

Barry Rabe on the future of CLOSUP

A six-inch bobblehead of Ron Swanson, director of a fictitious Midwestern parks department in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, dominates the meeting table in Barry Rabe's office. The bobblehead is something of an enigma.

As an elected fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, a senior non-resident fellow with the DC-based Brookings Institution, and incoming director of CLOSUP, the Ford School's Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, Rabe is a nationally recognized authority on the innovations of, and interactions between, local, state, and federal policymakers. So Swanson—who believes all government is a waste of taxpayer dollars and spends his days actively trying to thwart efforts to improve the park system he oversees—seems somewhat out of place amid the shelves and shelves of books and papers Rabe has read, and written, about public policy, natural resources, public health, and responsible governance.

The referenced media source is missing and needs to be re-embedded.

"He was a gift from my sons," Rabe says, laughing. "But he never fails to launch some interesting conversations about the role of government."

One of those conversations involves citizen engagement, a topic CLOSUP explored in its most recent Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS), a census-based survey launched by Annenberg Professor Brian A. Jacob (Rabe's predecessor at CLOSUP), of the chief elected and appointed officials in each of the state's 1,856 municipalities.

"What do government officials think of their citizens?" asks Rabe. "Do they believe citizens can play constructive roles in the policy process? Study issues carefully? Contribute with an eye toward the common good?" Picture the dramatic referendums that sweep states during elections, the dozens of online petitions about gun control that followed the Newtown tragedy, or town hall meetings that go awry (like the public hearing that jettisoned plans to convert an abandoned pit into a public park in Parks and Recreation).

"I love to raise this question with students," says Rabe. "Are we training them to be smarter than anybody else, to make good policy based on their analytic judgment and hand those policies down to people who know less than they do? Or should public policy be whatever the majority wants? Or is it some combination of the two? Can they learn from engaging the public in the process?"

Rabe doesn't share his own view on citizen engagement, but here's a hint: He's spent a good deal of his career exploring the conditions that allow state and local governments to innovate and deliver effective public policy. His findings? That those conditions often involve early and extensive citizen engagement, especially when dealing with thorny energy and environmental policy decisions like where to place hazardous waste management facilities.

Interestingly, Rabe didn't begin his academic career with a focus on environmental issues; nor did he begin it at the Ford School. Twenty-five years ago, when Rabe started teaching at U-M, he was hired by the School of Public Health and his research focused on health care and education. It might have been Rabe's natural inclination to look for the root of the problems he studied that shifted his focus from public health to energy and environmental policy.

"I became really intrigued not just by the question of how we take care of people when they're ill," says Rabe, "but how to minimize risk [of asthma, cancer, and other illnesses] through environmental exposure." Eventually, that led Rabe to explore energy policies, as well, "because so many of today's environmental problems emerge from energy issues." Rabe is now a national thought-leader in both of these areas (see "Faculty News" on p. 26 for information about Rabe's most recent national appointment).

Of course, highly respected policy leaders aren't new to the CLOSUP directorship. Rabe is quick to point out the path-setting work of Professor Elisabeth R. Gerber, the founding director of CLOSUP, who built the center's foundational relationships with state and local leaders, and the more recent work of Brian Jacob, who spearheaded the Michigan Public Policy Survey and launched a half-dozen significant studies that are increasingly influential in the sphere of education policy. As Rabe assumes leadership of CLOSUP, he'll add another valuable component to the center's work: the Energy and Environment Initiative.

Hydraulic fracturing, freshwater lakes and fisheries, and alternative energy developments offer exciting economic development opportunities for Michigan's cities and towns—and indeed for cities and towns across the nation. But they also offer deep and pressing challenges for state and local leaders who are forced to choose between environmental and economic priorities in the absence of federal legislation. CLOSUP will help local leaders explore the many policy options available to them.

This winter, CLOSUP sponsored a panel on the policy issues fracking raises for state and local leaders. Speakers included Erich Schwartzel, the editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's award-winning news site on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, and Jacquelyn Pless, a policy associate for the Energy Program of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Christopher Borick, a long-time collaborator of Rabe's, was on hand to share findings from a new CLOSUP-sponsored study examining public opinion in both Michigan and Pennsylvania on a variety of fracking policy options.

"Shale gas is the most environmentally benign form of fossil fuel out there," explain Rabe and Borick in one of the first academic papers looking at the policies governing the fracking industry. Greenhouse gas emissions? Low. Conventional air contaminants? Low. Economic impact? Monumental. "But shale gas raises a sprawling range of environmental concerns for land and water." Is it our savior? Is it our downfall? Smart policy might allow us to realize the advantages while avoiding many of the negative consequences.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, because of its vast shale gas deposits and far-reaching legislation (legislation that invites rapid resource extraction while downplaying long-term environmental considerations) is the state to watch, says Rabe. But is it the state to emulate? That's the question other local leaders need to ask themselves.

To make energy and environmental policy considerations like these even more complex for local government leaders, natural resources don't break down along jurisdictional boundaries, and can't be adequately addressed by a single city or town in isolation. "This applies to a great many environmental issues," says Rabe. "What matters is not the township or county boundary, but where water and shale deposits gathered centuries ago."

To manage bioregional assets like these, local government leaders need to create new alliances organized around shared natural resources like a lake, mountain range, or geological feature. And it isn't unusual for these bioregional alliances to involve the collaboration of dozens of townships, cities, and counties across several states and Canadian provinces. In the Great Lakes Basin, for example, an upcoming CLOSUP survey will help policymakers better understand Great Lakes environmental considerations from the viewpoint of government leaders and residents throughout the watershed.

In addition to launching the Energy and Environment Initiative, Rabe will enhance CLOSUP's highly influential Michigan Public Policy Survey. Launched in 2009 in cooperation with Michigan's local government associations, the MPPS was designed to capture critical fiscal data as the Great Recession rippled out to local jurisdictions, to identify the challenges and opportunities shared by the state's municipal government leaders, and to spot and share best practices. To date, CLOSUP has released 23 policy briefs informed by the MPPS—one every six weeks or so—and made dozens of presentations to local government leaders about their findings (for a few MPPS highlights, see the graphic at right and "The Last Word" with Tom Ivacko (MPP '93) on page 30). Enhancements are likely to include partnerships that will allow for comparisons across jurisdictional boundaries as well as the addition of general citizens to the survey mix, to help local government leaders gauge public opinion.

Finally, Rabe is working on a new initiative he calls "CLOSUP in the Classroom." As a Thurnau Professor (the University of Michigan's highest honor for undergraduate teaching), Rabe is always searching for new and meaningful ways to involve students in the center's work. These days, for example, he's hiring undergraduate and master's students to assist with a variety of CLOSUP research projects, including a new policy brief he's co-authoring with master's candidates Erica Brown (MPP '13) and Kristy Hartman (MPP '13). The brief analyzes the findings from CLOSUP recently completed public opinion survey on fracking beliefs in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"Fracking really challenges the idea of citizen engagement," says Brown, "because it's so technical and the risks and benefits are so uncertain." Circumstances like these might encourage policymakers to defer to the experts, but public opinion is yielding highly relevant findings. "While the majority of citizens in both states believe the benefits outweigh the costs, most support regulation and taxation of the hydraulic fracturing industry and see shale gas as a public resource, rather than a private one," says Brown.

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2013 State & Hill here.

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