One of the most difficult challenges in formulating public policy is defining the geographic scope of “public.” 

Some needs have traditionally been addressed at the municipal level – land use planning, determination of school curricula. Others have settled to the state level of government – much of the court system, the road system, higher education. And still others have been assumed by the federal government – defense, immigration, much of labor and environmental regulation.

Indeed, much of our civic history has been the story of the interplay of our traditional distrust of centralized government, the colonial heritage of states’ rights, our belief in various systems of distributing political power through systems of checks and balances, with the continuing evolution of our technological capabilities and social attitudes. 

Ongoing revolutions in transportation and communication have made the world continuously smaller, often rendering our civic institutions, if not irrelevant, at least less able to affect the matters on which they are called to make important decisions.

Maine towns founded on agriculture, a scattering of small mills and horse-drawn transportation found it easy to gather in a church meeting hall in early spring to decide on the important public issues of the day. 

Today, the vast majority of people living in most Maine towns go to jobs in another town. And most employees in any given town live somewhere else.  So who’s to decide what we spend on roads if most of the people who use them live elsewhere? And who’s to decide how we formulate our education systems if those who hire its graduates don’t have a voice in shaping our curricula? And how do we decide on large-scale projects like malls and big-box stores when all the tax revenue goes to the municipality where it is built while much of the traffic, stormwater runoff and labor market impacts are felt in neighboring localities? 

Zooming the question to a smaller geography, how much say should a neighborhood have in determining the use of a parcel with citywide implications? How should individual towns within a multi-town regional school district decide on questions of school choice and student busing when one school is overcrowded and another half-empty?

Similar questions arise with respect to support for public transit systems and the location of parking garages and performance venues.

I have long argued that the most challenging problem facing Maine today is the unsustainability of our demographic structure. We are simply too old and growing too slowly to maintain the public services to which we have become accustomed.

And the most significant area where that unsustainability is becoming evident is in the growing diseconomies of scale associated with operating facilities designed for one level of population while living with an ever-smaller population.

The cost per student of underutilized schools and the cost per person of roads, hospitals, community centers, public radio towers, police stations, public works garages and the numerous other elements of public infrastructure we have built over previous generations are simply going to grow and grow.

We need to find more transparent, less threatening ways to involve all affected parties, regardless of “official” residence, in such decisions.

Public hearings are too adversarial, too much structured on a “supplicant” and “authority” model, to promote the results we need – education, dialogue and well-understood alternatives.

We need, in short, new processes of public participation.  We don’t need to reorganize government – that will take time we don’t have.

We need to involve more of us in it.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

[email protected]