Diversity and Good Governance: Can I Have My Cake and Eat It Too?

ARTICLE | Jan 19, 2012

Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.
- Jane Jacobs – Death and Life of Great American Cities 1961

City planners, public officials, and local citizens have long lamented the sterility of American cities.  Indeed, it is often argued, that the (sub)urban landscape has been developed in such a way that one community can hardly be distinguished from another.  Local character and history has been lost.  In response, local leaders have pursued ‘place-based’ development that encourages social and economic diversity; in particular, the creation of arts districts, mixed-use developments, and detailed urban design standards. 

As suggested by Jane Jacobs in the introductory quote, diverse jurisdictions reap a host of benefits.  For example, diverse places tend to be more ‘vibrant;’ they will attract people with varied interests, skills and backgrounds.  Such an environment fosters tolerance and creativity.  This, in turn, provides opportunities for innovation and subsequent economic growth.   Simply stated, diverse cities are likely to be more sustainable and livable.  That said, they come with a cost.  Diverse cities are inherently difficult to govern.  As jurisdictions become more diverse, it becomes more difficult to effectively provide public goods and services.  Thus, local leaders face a unique problem.  On the one hand, they have a strong incentive to facilitate the creation of a diverse environment.  Yet, on the other hand, such an environment is likely to diminish their capacity to effectively govern. 

On the surface, then, it seems that local leaders must choose to pursue one objective over the other – diverse communities or effective governance.  So the question at hand is: can local governments create diverse places and effectively provide public goods and services - can they have their cake and eat it too? 

Drawing on recent scholarly work, I argue that local leaders need not trade diversity for effectiveness, or vice versa, but rather, can meet the dual objectives through strong leadership and sound institutions.  Before discussing these two solutions I will spend a few words clarifying the nature of the diversity-governance dilemma.

Diversity versus Good Governance

At the heart of the dilemma is determining how to match public goods and services with the demands of local citizens.  While this sounds simple enough, consider the following analogous scenario.  Imagine that you have to take a group of people out to dinner.  If all of the members of the group have similar preferences, this task is relatively straightforward.  For example, if you know that all the members of the group enjoy a particular type of cuisine and are relatively ambivalent between the available restaurants, it would be easy enough to please the entire group.  The task, however, becomes much more difficult if the group members have opposing interests.  That is, the group may be split between those that like one type of food and those that do not.  In this case, assuming restaurants only serve one type of cuisine, you simply cannot please everyone.  Moreover, if the group is evenly divided in their preferences or there are several different sets of preferences, you won’t even be able to please a majority of them. 

The problem, described above, is similar to the problem faced by leaders of diverse jurisdictions.  That is, what type and quantity of public goods should be offered to a populace that does not, necessarily, have similar preferences, with respect to those goods?  The scholarly evidence suggests that most jurisdictions are not particularly good at finding an answer to this question.  The more diverse a jurisdiction (usually measured in terms of demographic characteristics) the less effective or willing it is to provide public goods.  This is particularly true for: local infrastructure, garbage collection services, and public schools.  The explanation for this is two-fold.  First, public officials may not be able to discern the preferences of all the constituent groups, and second, different groups find it difficult to reach compromises with other groups.      

Solving the paradox: strong leadership and sound institutions

Recent evidence suggests that the diversity-governance dilemma can be overcome by: strong leadership, and sound local institutions.  That is, these two factors help public officials better understand the needs of different groups and facilitate reasonable compromises. 

First, the key characteristic of leadership – in this particular context - is the ability to communicate.  This suggests, that leaders of diverse jurisdictions must: 1) clearly understand the vision and objectives of the city government and how these are connected to the particular goods and services being offered; 2) know the needs of all the different groups that comprise the jurisdiction; and 3) must be able to connect the needs of each group to the vision, objectives and rationale for public good provision.  By effectively communicating, a strong leader can better understand the needs of the entire jurisdiction and will be better able to broker compromises between different groups.

A second solution to the diversity-governance dilemma is the creation and maintenance of sound institutions.  The term ‘institutions,’ means different things to different people.  In this case, I am using it broadly, to refer to the entire governance apparatus, including, but not limited to, public agencies, special districts, and non-profits.  Citizens of diverse jurisdictions need to trust the governing institutions.  Consider again, the restaurant scenario.  Overcoming the dilemma of which restaurant to go to, becomes easier if the different groups trust the decision-maker to come-up with a fair compromise.  Such trust is earned.  More precisely, a key determinant of successful governance in diverse communities is the perception, by the constituents, of ‘fair-play.’  That is, groups will monitor past compromises and the enforcement, thereof.  To the degree that the existing institutions have brokered fair compromises in the past, local citizens come to value the governing institutions.  And if they value the governing institutions, it becomes easier to reach compromises that lead to the effect provision of public goods and services.


Two key dimensions of sustainable and livable communities are: 1) diversity, and 2) good governance.  But, diverse communities are hard to govern.  Thus, while diversity is clearly a reasonable goal for local officials to pursue, it should not be pursued blindly.  The benefits of diversity can only be fully realized if local leaders are vigilant in maintaining open communication amongst their constituents and in developing and fostering sound institutions that citizens come to value and trust. §  

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