From contract cities to mass collaborative governance


Table of Contents:

  • From contract cities to mass collaborative governance

By Frank V. Zerunyan and Peter Pirnejad

Collaborative governance both in theory and practice has emerged in recent years as an innovative form of governance involving all sectors. While the colloquy and scholarship may be relatively new, the practice of collaboration is not. We examine in this article one of the oldest and most successful collaboration models in public administration, which emerged post World War II in Los Angeles County, California. The “Lakewood Plan,” named after its birthplace, was devised to facilitate the incorporation of newer cities that sought home rule and control of their neighborhoods. The so-called contracting model was created by the Lakewood Plan to allow public agencies as well as private organizations to collaborate in the delivery of municipal services. The model relies on the sharing of resources by various actors, but also counts on the strengths of each actor in the collaboration to bring efficiencies in the delivery of public services.

More than a half a century later, the foundation of the model survives through the collaboration of civic minded actors, who are committed to improving the government service model.  After decades of innovation in the area of public-private partnerships, network governance, e-government and what has been termed today by Tim O’Reilly as Gov 2.0, we have the emergence of a new type of collaborative governance.  This new model is based on the premise that government is open, transparent, cooperative and collaborative to the citizens, private enterprise, as well as the public leaders and administrators alike.  Government has shifted from partnerships between two or three actors to a limitless number of actors that view government as a platform rather than a service. Government is becoming a clearinghouse of data and place where innovation begins rather than the last stop in the search for answers to civic problems.  This is the notion where actors including private, public, non-profit and citizens themselves are descending on problems in a race to innovate and create solutions in what is being termed in this paper, “Mass Collaborative Governance.”

The Lakewood Plan – Roots of Collaborative Governance in Municipalities

The post-World War II era ushered a new style of public administration led by what many labeled “The Greatest Generation” after a term coined by journalist Tom Brokow. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 - commonly referred to as the GI Bill of Rights - still is one of the most significant United States Federal Government interventions of all time. The GI Bill of Rights impacted the nation socially, economically and politically. Helping veterans assimilate into civil society was a brilliant move by the federal government, a move that sparked community-building, education-creating human capacity, promoting innovation and developing giant industries. The Western United States, particularly Southern California, immensely benefits to this day from this federal policy, which is responsible for the development and advancement of our defense and space industries in Los Angeles County.

Using the GI Bill of Right, The Greatest Generation purchased the “American Dream” in various communities of choice throughout the nation. They attended local colleges and universities and excelled in disciplines such as engineering, entrepreneurship, medicine, business and law, which improved substantially and their earning capacity while uplifting the middle class. Again, Southern California led the way in community building. The unincorporated area immediately adjacent to the established city of Long Beach was one community ready to make history after a long hiatus of city incorporation in the area going back to 1939.  This area 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles blazed new trails, literally and figuratively, when the Lakewood Park Company began the development of the first post-World War II planned community. Consisting of 17,500 homes, over 3,500 acres of landscapes, parks, homes, streets with lights and underground sewers and wires, unincorporated Lakewood grew to 70,000 residents in the first few years of the 1950’s using slogans like "Lakewood – My Home Town" and "Lakewood, Tomorrow's City Today."

In April of 1954, the Lakewood community, under threat of annexation from Long Beach, incorporated as the state's 16th-largest city and the largest community in the United States ever to incorporate as a sovereign city. What was remarkable about this incorporation was not the necessity or the actual decision to become a city but the decision made by its founders on the method to administer the city. 

A poster child of the GI Bill of Rights, the son of a University of Southern California (USC) professor and a graduate of USC Law School, John Sanford Todd advised the city founders to use California Government Code section 51301, perhaps modeled after the contractual public administration model existing in Nassau County, N.Y., to collaborate with the county government and contract for municipal services. While the motive behind the incorporation of Lakewood was to retain local control over the intensity and nature of services provided locally, the purpose of what became known as the “Lakewood Plan” was merely to eliminate duplication and rely on efficiencies of various government service providers to deliver public administration in a cost effective manner. This innovative and transformational plan not only earned Lakewood notoriety in the history of American municipalities, but also became the model for 41 additional communities in Los Angeles County and more than 130 across the state to select home rule and earn the right to exist through this early form of collaboration.

The Lakewood Plan, as innovative and courageous as it may have been, was also controversial, as it did not fit the mold of best practices in public administration that had become popular in the early 20th century. Today the contracting model, in addition to horizontal collaborations among governments, extends vertically to service providers in the private sector, expanding the scope of this multi-sectoral collaboration to deliver special municipal services and an efficient system for public administration.

In the context of the California Contracting Model today, the two relevant statutes facilitating collaboration are Section 37103 of the Government Code, which provides that a city “may contract with any specially trained and experienced person, firm or corporation for special services and advice in financial, economic, accounting, engineering, legal or administrative matters,” and Section 53060 of the Government Code, which similarly allows the legislative body of any public or municipal corporation or district, emphasis added, to “contract with and employ any persons for the furnishing to the corporation or district special services and advice in financial, economic, accounting, engineering, legal, or administrative matters if such persons are specially trained and experienced and competent to perform the special services required.” Several other California statutes to build and finance infrastructures such as Government Code Section 5956 (fee driven infrastructure projects) or Education Code Section 17406 (to build schools) promote collaboration between sectors, but they are outside the purview of this article.

The governance model of the Lakewood Plan, or Contract Cities, encourages interorganizational networks of public and private sectors to jointly solve policy and public administration problems. The Plan emerged from a perfect storm of conditions, which include necessity, incentives to participate in the collaboration, the social and human capital of the actors in the collaboration, the facilitative leadership of the promoters and the institutional design of its architect John Sanford Todd. These conditions are well documented in the scholarship we reviewed as well as the collaborations we examined during our review for this article. We note however, the presence of one more key factor, which is instructive and may be of substantial use for the sustainability of future collaborations - an organized network of supporting actors, which we call the “nurturing network.”  In the case of the Lakewood Plan, this nurturing network, which came into existence several years after the incorporation of Lakewood, is an organization called the California Contract Cities Association.

To preserve innovation in the Lakewood Plan and the usefulness of the model for like-minded jurisdictions, on Nov. 20, 1957, eight cities gathered to form the California Contract Cities Association. These like-minded cities were:  Lakewood, Bellflower, Duarte, La Puente, Norwalk, Paramount, Rolling Hills, and Santa Fe Springs.  The first by-laws of the California Contract Cities Association (“CCCA”) were drafted in 1958. By the early 1960’s the Association had drawn 25 members across the county to help organize new cities, preserving home rule and creating neighborhoods through the use of the contracting model. Half a century later, CCCA, with more than 65 member cities and growing, still nurtures this network of cities through educational seminars and information designed to build and improve human capacity among its constituency to help them better serve their communities. The network efficiently and in large numbers advocates for interests common to member cities. Last but not least, the network connects sectoral actors to each other, building social capital along the way to create value for member cities. Financial efficiencies gained by having scalable contract services rather than an army of full time benefited employees and the support of this nurturing network have maximized the desirability and possibility of home rule and the creation of sovereign cities sometimes with as few as hundred residents.

Today, public administration is already experiencing a paradigm shift in guiding its constituencies from “government” to “governance.” The latter term implies that the development and implementation of public policy is increasingly shared among a plurality of actors: public bodies, private groups, nonprofits (or NGOs) and citizens in general, each with their own motivations, intentions, resources and capabilities. The governance process in turn is becoming more and more complex, involving not only government agencies, but also networks of public, private, and not for profit groups of all sizes and all types, acting and behaving in unprecedented ways looking to create value and distribute value across sectors.

For public agencies the Lakewood Plan collaborations were a function of proximity but today, with the advent of social networks, cloud computing and open data, partnerships are no longer a function of proximity but one of boundless opportunity. High tech civic innovations which we predominately focus on in this article are now the catalyst to allowing public, private, previously absent non-profit sectors as well as citizens to come together in collaborations never seen or experienced before.  Furthermore, thanks to the power of computing, these solutions are highly scalable from local solutions to applications aimed at worldwide initiatives of much larger scales.  Mass Collaborative Governance is the draw of people together across sectors, and even continents, in unprecedented ways to challenge and solve our most vexing civic problems.


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Derek Prall

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