An institutional analysis of rural policy in the United States.

Author:Padt, Frans J.G.

A managerial approach to community development is becoming quite common in contemporary rural policy in the United States. Central government is finding new ways for guiding decision making through the use of managerial techniques, including performance systems and evaluation tools. Concomitantly, managerial values--like local empowerment and entrepreneurship--are promoted at lower governance levels. This article assesses whether a managerial approach in rural policy institutionally supports rural development in practice. Findings indicate the federal government poses difficult institutional barriers to rural development and leaves little room for local initiatives as a result of managerial control. Community leadership is identified as a key factor in addressing and avoiding this risk.

Keywords: leadership, public management, rural policy


In the 1980s and 1990s, major public sector reforms took place in the United States and many other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. These reforms reflected attempts to cope with the financial crises in these countries (Bovaird & Loftier, 2003) and were a response to the replacement of Keynesian economic politics by monetarism (Saint-Martin, 2000). The reforms initially accentuated the need for cost reduction in public policy, but gradually led to a more ambitious effort of making the public sector less bureaucratic and more market-oriented (OECD, 1995; Padt, 2007; Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2004). These reforms also affected U.S. rural policy. In the 1990s, the federal government reduced its role in rural policy and sent a message to rural communities to empower themselves and to become more entrepreneurial (Midgley & Livermore, 2005). The 2002 and 2007 Farm Bills clearly echoed this message (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2006a, 2006b).

As a result of these shifts, we expect communities would benefit from less federal interference precisely because many rural problems require a comprehensive and participative approach at a decentralized level. On the other hand, community empowerment and/or entrepreneurship could easily lead to cuts in federal budgets for rural policy, making it more difficult for such communities to reach their goals and solve the complex problems confronting them. In this article we discuss the opportunities and pitfalls of this new federal policy in more detail and evaluate how it supports rural development in practice.

The Policy Arrangements Approach (PAA; Arts & Leroy, 2006) is used to accomplish these tasks. PAA is a theoretically informed approach for analyzing policy developments within a broader political and societal context. Earlier, PAA was successfully applied to analyze rural policy in the Netherlands (Padt, 2007). This article continues that research and helps frame a more extended and comparative approach. Here, analysis takes place at two distinct levels. The first refers to "political modernization" and deals with long-term political and societal changes which guide and shape actual policies. We analyze rural policy reforms at this level. The second level of analysis is the policy level. Using PAA, we discern a discursive and an organizational dimension of policy. The discursive dimension refers to a shared, structured way of speaking, thinking, interpreting, and representing things in the world. Discourses are not just words but make a real impact:

How actors behave--the strategies they consider in the first place, the strategies they deploy in the final instance and the policies they formulate--reflects their understanding of the context in which they find themselves. Moreover, that understanding may eliminate a whole range of realistic alternatives and may, in fact, prove over time to be a systematic misrepresentation of the context in question. (Hay, 2001, p. 11)

The organizational dimension of policy includes actors' access to the decision-making process and their formal and informal coalitions; the division of resources, power and influence among these actors; and the formal and informal rules for interaction. Policy discourse and organization are interrelated. Changes in policy discourse will lead to changes in actor coalitions, power relationships, and rules. Vice versa, changes in policy organization will lead to new policy discourses.

Discourse and policy organization result from the interplay of institutional structures and people's agency (see Figure 1). However, rather than suggesting a dualism between the two, PAA follows Giddens' duality of structure (Giddens, 1976, 1984). Giddens defined this duality: "By the duality of structure I mean that social structure is both constituted by human agency and yet is at the same time the very medium of this constitution" (Giddens 1976, p. 128).

From this it follows that discourses, on the one hand, are "inscribed" in institutional structures. They represent an institutional way of thinking and are taken for granted by many. The long-established bureaucratic approach to rural policy is an example of an "inscribed" discourse. On the other hand, people also give new interpretations to these discourses in their day-to-day communications and actions and, as a result, gradually transform them. High-level conferences to discuss bureaucratic approaches and to articulate and communicate "new" rural policies illustrate this capacity. Discursive change can also begin at lower levels when communities and rural entrepreneurs challenge bureaucratic approaches and agree on actions to bring about policy reforms. Similarly, the organizational aspects of a given policy are manifestations of institutional structures. The series of Farm Bills, for example, reflect the political-institutional organization of the state and structures policies to a large extent. On the other hand, actors can influence the policy-making process by their structurally oriented actions (see also Jessop, 2007). All kinds of actions to influence the Farm Bills (e.g., regional meetings, lobbying, the political process) illustrate this point. As will be demonstrated in this article, local leadership is crucial to gradually transform institutional structures and prevailing discourses.


We use PAA to analyze rural policy within the broader context of public sector reforms. These reforms are addressed first. Next, we describe U.S. rural policies from the 1970s until the current time in general terms and the USDA Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Program in more detail. This program was selected for detailed analysis because it nicely illustrates rural policy reforms. The next section defines barriers to rural development. Information is drawn from interviews with experts associated with the Penn State Cooperative Extension Service. After that we present the results of a case study on how the RC&D program addresses the barriers in practice. The Southern Alleghenies in South-Central Pennsylvania was selected as the study area. Remaining challenges for government and rural communities are discussed in the final section.


Recent federal concerns about rural and small communities date to the Rural Development Act of 1972. This act, reaffirmed in 1980, was the first modern concrete legislative commitment to solving rural development problems. It aimed to bring rural America into mainstream U.S. society. To this end, it launched new programs for rural education, research, financial assistance, and planning. The Act was filled with promise. However, substantive funding for many of its programs did not emerge (Barkley, 1988). This prevented rural development from institutionalizing as a distinct policy domain in the years that followed.

In 1990, a new impetus was given to U.S. rural policy. In that year, the federal government launched the President's Initiative on Rural America which soon led to the establishment of the President's Council on Rural America. This council was formed to advise the federal government on improving federal rural policy. Its members were drawn from farmers, state and local governments, rural businesses, and high-technology industries. In 1992, the President's Council advised a bottom-up approach to rural development:

Rural development is and must be, fundamentally, development of the whole community, and not merely on its business sector. Community development is not an act but a process, by which the community's level of well being is increased. That process must be a bottom up process. It begins with expansion of the community's ability to act effectively on its own behalf and to develop creative and effective partnerships with the public sector. It depends heavily on the ability of local leadership to guide the community to a clearly understood vision and a plan for achieving it. It depends equally on the capacity of local citizens and local institutions to carry the load of creating their own futures, which is why we use the words "rural community development." (President's Council on Rural America, 1992, pp. 12-13)

The President's initiative is now called the National Rural Development Partnership (NRDP) and gained Congressional authorization in the 2002 Farm Bill. The 2002 Farm Bill charged the NRDP to:

[...] empower and build the capacity of States and rural communities to design flexible and innovative responses to their own special rural development needs, with local determinations of progress and selection of projects and activities. (U.S. Code, title 7, section 2008 m)

Since 2000, the NRDP has worked with State Rural Development Councils to respond to community concerns. The NRDP was authorized for a budget of $10 million per year for the period 2003-2007. However, actual funding was much lower on the assumption states and communities would mobilize additional resources (NRDP, 2006). This lack of funding reflected the federal government's scaling back of...

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