Neal Peirce has reported on state and local government since 1975 in his syndicated newspaper column. He has written several books, including “Citistates,” which was co-authored by Curtis Johnson. The 1993 book has spawned an organization called the Citistates Group. Peirce serves as the group’s chairman.

At the group’s web site, the term citistate is defined as “a region consisting of one or more historic central cities surrounded by cities and towns which have a shared identification, function as a single zone for trade, commerce and communication, and are characterized by social, economic and environmental interdependence.”

Using less formal language, the site also says, “A citistate isn’t defined by political boundaries. Instead, it’s organic. A citistate is reality a labor market, a commute-shed, a broadcast area, the circulation area of the lead newspaper. A citistate is what the economy does.”

Contributor Steve Young recently had an opportunity to talk with Neal Peirce about the Internet and its effects on the citistates concept.

MuniNet: What is the origin of the citistates idea?

NP: My colleague and I were working on regions at the request of newspapers starting in the mid-1980s, and after we’d done five or six of those, we decided to stop and do a book in which we’d reprint the ones we had done because people were asking for them. And then, we started to write an introduction that moved from one or two pages, to ten pages, to twenty pages, to a couple of chapters, and then the concept of citistates. It grew on us.

It became obvious we were dealing with something larger than just looking at a few regions.

MuniNet: Some municipalities are facing budget crises right now. Do local budget problems impact citistates as a whole because of the interdependence of many municipalities?

NP: Budget problems have been happening to government since the beginning of budgets – for a long, long time. I don’t think that the presence or the absence of thinking and some collegial action on a region-wide basis is really related that much to where the budget stands at the moment.

MuniNet: So, if one municipality in a citistate is having budget problems?

NP: It normally would not cause problems unless there was a collegial effort or commitment of funds to do something, and everyone was supposed to take part, but one of them gets in trouble, so they all can’t afford it.

MuniNet: It seems like municipal government has been embracing the Internet over the past few years – offering more services and information that were previously only available at city hall. Does the Internet play a part in citistates?

NP: Yes, because the Internet is permitting lots of people to learn about the concepts of regionalism, even if the media as a whole isn’t very good at reporting on them. Ours is just one of several sites that has major aspects of regionalism to it. People can go there and read about it. Local officials can go there and read about it. It becomes part of the language or the dialogue of the times. So the Internet is permitting that.

I often think that in a way that the Internet permits or allows the region that the politics denies. Because through the Internet you can get an idea what your full region is – looking at various web sites and various organizations and various analyses and get an idea of the larger region than just the city limits of Berwyn or Cicero. MuniNet: Do you think the Internet is going to continue to grow in the way municipalities and other forms of government use it or is it peaking now?

NP: I think it’s just begun. The Internet has a huge amount of potential as far as local government is concerned. Eventually you should be able to develop metropolitan basis cost comparisons between various municipalities, what their costs are for this and that municipal service, and what does it cost per capita, what their tax rate is, etceteras, etceteras. So that you get a real hold on whether your local government is being run efficiently or not.

And all it takes is people with enough time and money to gather the data and analyze it. It could be a huge accountability factor. Eventually it becomes hard in a public agency to hide a lot of data. The more budget data that comes online, the more it’s open to massaging – to various people picking it up, looking at it and interpreting it. It’s much easier to do that than it was before.

I think that will only grow, and as that grows, the availability of budget data, analysis, and reports lets anybody work and analyze that data, thereby taking away the exclusivity of a lot of data and analysis that was there, but just not technically available to the public. Nobody knew how to come get it. MuniNet: In your work as an observer of government and commentator on government, has the Internet changed the way you do your job?

NP: Fundamentally. As a reporter, I’m able to go to thousands of sources rapidly. I can do searches to find pieces of information in all sorts of locations that no one would have ever thought of. Before, it would have taken weeks or months of painstaking shoeleather to find. Now you can get all that, but it’s both a blessing and a bane. It’s a blessing that it improves your productivity, it’s a bane that you expect too much of yourself.

MuniNet: Do you think the Internet has helped to spread the citistate concept?

NP: I think so, because now people can go get the idea quite quickly without having to look at a newspaper article or book that’s in their hands.

MuniNet: Do your columns get disseminated more widely thanks to the Internet – and do you get feedback indicating you have more readers?

NP: I can’t count if more people are getting it, but I get feedback from all sorts of people from all over the world. Sometimes it’s quite surprising. Clearly the Internet is carrying material far and wide.

By Stephen Young