The blog of the Urban Institute
September 28, 2021

To Make Effective Rural Infrastructure Investments, Give Local Institutions a Seat at the Table

Federal legislators are exploring massive investments in the physical and human infrastructure to spur recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis. Rural communities stand to benefit from many of these investments. For example, the Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan details key priorities for rural communities, including expanding broadband coverage, improving physical infrastructure such as water systems, and transitioning the agriculture sector toward zero emissions.

Rural communities are diverse, and their local governance structures and stakeholders vary. Local governance actors extend beyond local governments and include interdependent networks of governments, nonprofits, businesses, local philanthropies, and funders. These local institutions often work together to mobilize resources around local assets and needs, but they also maintain their own priorities, capabilities, and limitations.

To make effective investments that leverage rural assets, policymakers deploying federal resources must understand and respect the landscape of local actors that shape rural power structures. Our new typology and dashboard maps these assets and includes the following information on key local governance actors that can help ensure the new federal resources meet local priorities.

  • Local governments. Municipal and county governments are the most common entities that deliver basic services and lead local decisionmaking. Local governments’ legal powers vary because they are granted by state governments, as do their governmental structures that determine the limits of their ability to effect change.
  • Regional intergovernmental organizations (RIGOs). Rural communities rarely face challenges contained within their jurisdictional boundaries. RIGOs are cross-boundary organizations largely composed of local governments that coordinate around various regional policy issues. RIGOs have different names, including councils of government, regional planning commissions, and development districts. These groups can influence regional priorities and funding streams.
  • Tribal lands. Lands owned or governed by sovereign tribal entities typically fall under a different set of rules around issues like land use, resource extraction, and environmental stewardship. In addition, where tribal governments exist, local processes for development and engagement differ from those of municipal, county, or state structures.
  • Federal regional commissions. The federal government also has a local presence in rural communities. Regional commissions, such as the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, and the Northern Border Regional Commission, provide funding for development projects within their service areas, but, in doing so, they also influence local development priorities.
  • Nonprofits. Nonprofits represent a larger proportion of the social safety net in rural areas than in urban areas and can exert influence over how local funds are directed and spent. Nonprofit organizations, such as United Way, can play a coordinating role in local services, working with local government or independently to identify local needs and steer resources.
  • Trade or business associations. Like nonprofits, local businesses have their own needs and priorities within their communities. Groups representing local businesses, such as chambers of commerce, can act as governance bodies by seeking and guiding local and external investment.

Community foundations and anchor institutions, such local hospitals and research universities, are also key governance actors in rural communities because they provide significant local funding and employment. Unfortunately, these are difficult groups to quantify because there’s no centralized source covering the diversity of their activities and service areas.

Considerations for engaging local institutions when investing in rural infrastructure

As the federal government’s infrastructure initiatives begin to take shape, here are three ways policymakers can engage with local governance actors to ensure new investments build upon assets and address local needs.

  1. Emphasize collaboration with local actors and institutions when considering funding opportunities. The American Jobs Plan took an important first step by calling for a Rural Partnership Program “to help rural regions, including Tribal Nations, build on their unique assets and realize their vision for inclusive community and economic development.” New public programs can be an effective catalyst for new partnerships that otherwise could not have existed. Federal policymakers can consider promoting good rural governance practices (PDF) in conjunction with the new infrastructure investments—such as cross-sector, cross-jurisdictional collaboration and sustained citizen engagement, particularly from underrepresented voices. 
  1. Support local capacity building to identify community priorities and opportunities for investment. Many rural communities face considerable underinvestment in staffing and technical capacity to support successful grant applications and strategic planning. Conversations about the type of infrastructure investment in a community should happen alongside strategic planning processes to identify community priorities and whether the right people are at the decisionmaking table. Further, the federal government can provide information about a community’s assets and act as a knowledge broker, especially because good rural data are limited. The Stronger Economies Together program is an example of a successful national initiative that engaged neighboring counties in identifying their assets and developing strategic plans to build upon them.
  1. Lean on the expertise of local stakeholders. Each actor has their own priorities, capacities, and limitations. A municipal or county government may be closest to the people being served but may lack capacity or the proper regional scope an opportunity demands. A RIGO or a federal regional commission may complement those limitations and vice versa. Similarly, intermediaries or Rural Development Hubs can make the connections between local needs and national policies and resources. Strategic infrastructure investments require the proper blend of capabilities that each actor brings to the table.

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(Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)
 

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