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Councils of Governments

Last Updated: 2006

A Council of Governments (COG) is a voluntary association of local governments, situated in either a metropolitan or rural area, designed to promote discussion and intergovernmental cooperation among its members concerning common and regional problems, and to engage in planning on a multijurisdictional basis. Their chief elected official (i.e., mayor or chairperson of the county board) usually represents a member of a council of governments. A council of governments is not a government, and it does not have the authority to levy taxes, pass ordinances, or regulate local governments. The revenues of a council of governments are derived from membership fees, and state and federal sources. Characteristically, a council of governments has a relatively small staff, composed of an executive director, several physical and social planners, and supporting personnel, although the staff of councils of governments situated in metropolitan areas are typically significantly larger.


Although a few regional councils of locally elected officials existed as early as the 1930’s, the first modern-day council of governments, sometimes referred to as a regional council, was the Supervisors’ Inter-County Committee (SICC), composed of six member counties, organized in the Detroit metropolitan area in 1954. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) eventually succeeded this body on January 1, 1968. SEMCOG is a much more inclusive organization involving counties, cities, townships, villages, and school districts. The Metropolitan Regional Council was organized in 1956 in the New York City region, but it failed to achieve significant cooperation among and between the local governments in the area because various suburban jurisdictions feared domination by New York City. In contrast, early successful examples of council of governments bodies include the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (Washington, D.C.) formed in 1957, along with the Puget Sound Governmental Conference (Seattle) established in the same year, and the Association of Bay Area Governments organized in 1961. It should be noted that these early councils of governments were largely the product of local initiative, and enjoyed only a limited amount of federal support and virtually no support from their respective states.

Although, over the years, state statutory and financial support for the establishment of councils of governments has been decidedly uneven, the initiation in the mid-1960’s of strong federal support for the council of governments movement resulted in a spectacular increase in the number of these bodies during the era from 1965 to 1980. By the latter year there were approximately 660 councils of governments established throughout all the regions of the United States. Federal planning incentives and metropolitan areawide review requirements commencing in 1965 strongly encouraged and, indeed, required the formation of a council of governments in each of our metropolitan areas. Congress approved direct support for these bodies through Section 701(g) of the 1965 Housing Act, for underwriting two-thirds of the costs of studies, the collection of data, and the preparation of regional plans and programs. Section 204 of the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 further stimulated the establishment of councils of governments by requiring that all local applications for federal funding, involving forty grant and loan programs, be reviewed and commented upon by a council of governments. This areawide review requirement was considerably enhanced by the passage of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Act of 1968. Acting on the basis of this legislation, the Bureau of the Budget, which later evolved into the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), issued Circular A-95, which expanded the areawide review function of councils to include over 150 federally assisted programs. These review requirements encouraged councils of governments, in order to receive maximum federal funding, to devote a large amount of attention to the matters of low-income housing, water and sewer development, citizen participation, and recreation planning.

Congressional legislation passed in the 1970’s reinforced the stature and role of councils of governments in the intergovernmental management system. This legislation included the Water Pollution Control Act (1972), considerably strengthened by various amendments in 1976; the Coastal Zone Management Act (1972); and the Rural Development Act (1972). Additional congressional action in the policy areas of air pollution, solid waste management, mass transportation, health planning, and economic development enhanced the role of councils of governments in the intergovernmental system. By 1976, thirty-two federal assistance programs were of a decided regional orientation, compared with only twenty-four similar programs in 1972.

However, President Ronald Reagan’s administration and Congress substantially reversed in the early 1980’s the federal government’s long-term trend of providing financial, intergovernmental management, and statutory support for councils of governments. It drastically reduced “701” funding for councils, which had constituted a major source of general fiscal support for these organizations. Even more critically, the Reagan administration, favoring the deregulation and devolution of powers in the federal system, terminated through an executive order the A-95 review process in favor of a new approach, which encouraged the states to develop their own regional review process. These actions provoked a “shakedown” or sorting-out era for councils of governments. In short, those councils of governments that were heavily dependent on the federal largesse and that lacked a strong base of local—and, to a somewhat lesser degree, state—support simply vanished from the metropolitan and rural landscape. As a result of these developments, by 1990 the number of councils of governments declined to about 500. Viable councils, seeking to maintain their organizational semblance, became much more responsive to the pragmatic needs of their local members and more involved in brokering or entrepreneurial activities, such as establishing joint purchasing programs, and conducting physical and social planning endeavors, on a contract basis, for their member units.

In a twist of fate, congressional legislation passed in the 1990’s once again emphasized the importance of regional planning and the role of councils of governments in the intergovernmental management system. This legislation includes the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 and the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAA) enacted by Congress in 1990. In order for communities and regions to secure federal funding, ISTEA requires the designation of a metropolitan planning organization (MPO) in each area—often, this is an existing council of governments or some other metropolitan planning body—to be responsible for the development of a comprehensive and balanced regional transportation plan. The CAA requires that metropolitan areas develop and implement satisfactory regional air quality standards or risk losing federal funds for transportation projects.


Larger council of governments, in terms of membership, have a rather elaborate organizational structure. The basic representational body of a council of governments is the general assembly. Its chief elected official usually represents each local governmental member. While many councils provide equal voting rights to their members in the general assembly, some apportion votes according to the population of each member unit, while others make use of some other kind of standard to determine member-voting privileges. In addition to chief elected local officials, some councils provide membership in their general assembly for other public officials, including state legislators elected from districts in the region, and/or appropriate state administrative officials.

The general membership of each council of governments usually convenes twice a year, although some council assemblies meet as often as six times a year, while other councils hold a single annual meeting. At these meetings the representatives, either meeting in a body or in subject-oriented workshops, discuss and debate the various problems confronting the region. Also, they consider and act upon general policy recommendations brought before them by the council leadership and, usually, annually elect the officers of the organization.

Except in those instances where councils have a limited membership, the functions of specific policy making and program development are vested in the body of the executive committee or board; further, most councils hold the executive committee responsible for the expenditure of council funds. By design, the size of executive committees is relatively small in number; the average size of an executive committee is about eleven members, although some committees have as many as thirty-five, while others have as few as three. The members of the executive committee are usually elected by the delegates of the general assembly, although many council bylaws ensure representation on these bodies to a certain type or combination of members. Invariably, councils guarantee core cities representation on the executive committee. While some councils provide members of the executive board with equal voting privileges, others distribute voting strength on the basis of population or some other standard. The members of the executive committee usually meet once a month to transact council business. For the day-to-day operation of the council, the executive committee retains, in most cases, a full-time executive director who serves at their pleasure; in turn, the executive director hires supporting staff.

Councils establish various policy committees for setting priorities and developing work programs. These committees are composed primarily of representatives of the general assembly, although often individuals with demonstrated professional and technical expertise, who are not council representatives, are also appointed to these committees. The functional concerns of these bodies include, but are not limited to, such matters as (1) land use and growth, (2) criminal justice, (3) economic development, (4) highways and mass transportation, (5) natural resources and open space, and (6) human resources. In addition, some councils establish advisory technical committees, composed of professional council staff that provide technical assistance to the policy committees.

In reality, it is neither the general assembly nor the executive committee of the council, but rather the executive director and her or his staff, who are primarily involved in program development and implementation. The overwhelming majority of executive directors of councils of governments have been trained as planners, although a fair proportion have academic backgrounds in the social sciences. Most executive directors were affiliated with another council or served as a municipal or metropolitan planner before assuming their present position. A considerable number of executive directors have been drawn from the ranks of the city or county management profession. Generally, besides administering the council, executive directors are responsible for agenda formulation, project development, budget development, and maintaining contact with appropriate local, state, and federal officials. They share the responsibilities of policy formation and citizen public relations with members of the executive board. Crucially, the success of a council depends to a substantial degree on the competence of the executive director and her or his dedicated commitment to the organization and to the concept of regionalism.

Similar to executive directors, most of the professional staff of councils are planners, although a considerable number have academic backgrounds in public administration, civil engineering, economics, sociology, and law enforcement planning. A significant amount of staff time is spent on developing regional plans, with the balance of time allocated primarily to providing technical assistance to member governments, assisting local governments in preparing applications for state and federal grants, and providing various and important services to member governments.


The most salient function of a council of governments is that of serving as a forum of discussion where chief elected officials (i.e., mayors and board chairpersons) can periodically come together to discuss common and regional problems. Council meetings perform the very important function of acquainting and familiarizing elected public officials with their counterparts throughout the region. Rather than the initial meetings of councils constituting a gathering of friends, they are in reality arenas composed of relative strangers. Council deliberations serve to enhance communication among local officials, stimulate and improve general local governmental coordination and cooperation, and generate new ideas about local problems. Importantly, council meetings serve to promote a significant measure of “social capital” or trust among the council representatives, enabling them to better discuss common and regional problems, and possible policy responses to these problems.

Second, councils of governments have long been involved in various general and specific regional planning endeavors. At minimum, virtually all councils are involved in comprehensive land-use planning, with an increasing emphasis of these plans devoted to social needs and human concerns. Councils have conducted a considerable amount of specific functional planning, involving economic development, highways and mass transportation, law enforcement, air and water pollution, sewers, solid waste and water, and open space and recreation. In addition, commencing in the 1980s, and reflective of their increasing entrepreneurial orientation, councils have engaged in a significant amount of local comprehensive planning, on a contract basis, especially for their governmental members of a limited population.

Commencing in the mid-1960’s and until the advent of the Reagan administration, most councils of governments served as the federal areawide regional review agency for their area. As noted previously, Section 204 of the 1966 Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act required applications for federal assistance for a large number of programs to be reviewed by an areawide agency, to determine their congruency and compatibility with regional needs. The Bureau of the Budget significantly expanded this review power of councils to include virtually all federal assistance for local programs with its issuance of the A-95 Circular. However, the Reagan administration rescinded Circular A-95 and terminated the federal areawide review role of councils in the early 1980s; from that era forward, the areawide review role of councils was determined and, if applicable, incorporated by their respective states into their system of intergovernmental management.

Finally, with their diminished role as regional review agencies, councils of governments have placed an increasing emphasis on serving the needs of their member governments. Practically all councils serve as a data collection, repository, and dissemination agency for their region. Many councils have established joint purchasing programs for the benefit of their members. In addition, the leadership of many councils have accepted the responsibility of testifying before state legislative committees on matters of concern to their region.


Councils of governments have been criticized on a number of grounds. First, a rather steady criticism of councils since their inception is that they have generally not dealt with the serious socioeconomic problems of their regions. Due to their organizational need to operate on the basis of membership consensus, councils have not usually been in the forefront in confronting and solving difficult issues relating to poverty, racism, education, housing, and crime. Second, councils have been criticized for the often lackluster involvement of many of the representatives of their member governments; on this score, it has been argued that most of the work of councils is done by the members of the executive committee and council staff. In addition, councils have been charged with failing to gain a higher degree of saliency on the local political landscape and in relating to the citizenry, with the result that relatively few citizens are aware of councils and their functional role and activities. And, finally, especially the so-called academic consolidationists have charged that councils have impeded and delayed the needed implementation of metropolitan governmental structures.

Councils of governments have not served as a panacea for dealing with or alleviating all of the difficult problems of the regions they serve. On the other hand, councils have served as vehicles of incremental political change, both of a structural and attitudinal nature. Councils have provided an arena where like elected local officials have been able to familiarize themselves with each other, engendering “social capital” and a greater sense of areawide trust. This has allowed them to more earnestly and openly discuss mutual and regional problems, and the possible policy options to be adopted to alleviate these problems. Councils have facilitated, promoted, and carried out a range of specific, functional, and comprehensive regional planning efforts. Councils have provided a wide range of various services for their members, including the collection and dissemination of data and the establishment of joint purchasing programs. They have stimulated not only greater local horizontal intergovernmental cooperation, but also governmental cooperation of a vertical nature, involving the local, state, and federal levels of government. Perhaps, the most significant contribution of councils is that they have furthered the concept of areawide and metropolitan regionalism. Reflective of this, the sort of metropolitan leadership and regional statesmanship that were so lacking in American urban and rural areas at the middle of the last century have become more prominent features on the governmental and political landscape.

SEE ALSO: DeregulationDevolutionEconomic DevelopmentEducationHousingLand UseMetropolitan Planning OrganizationsReagan, RonaldSchool DistrictsTransportation Policy


William R. Dodge, Regional Excellence: Governing Together to Compete Globally and Flourish Locally (Washington, DC: National League of Cities, 1996); Melvin B. Mogulof, Governing Metropolitan Areas: A Critical Review of Councils of Governments and the Federal Role (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 1971); Myron Orfield, Metropolitics: A Regional Agenda for Community and Stability (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1997); and Nelson Wikstrom, Councils of Governments: A Study of Political Incrementalism (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1977).