You don't need four degrees and an internship in urbanology to know that whatever you call this still-sprawling metropolis -- the "region," the "Washington area" or "Greater Washington," it is not one big family of people with homogeneous life styles. For at least a good 30 years now, the comings and goings of people from the center city to -- and around -- the suburbs have generated dramatic new demands on the many local governments that exist in this two- state, one District area. An entire generation of area residents has grown up in fairly self-contained neighborhoods, engaging in few activities downtown or the county next door. Yet the governments of the region have been working together more closely than ever -- and making a difference.

Even these relationships have changed from the early days when local leaders started gathering for story-swapping socials and vague talk about some kind of "regionalism" that critics were sure was a political super-government conspiracy. The focus turned out to be much more practical, starting with a few simple joint purchasing arrangements and agreements to honor each other's library cards and share the costs of data-gathering. Eventually, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments began responding in more specific and sophisticated ways to concerns that refused to honor political boundaries, such as air quality, water supply, sewage disposal and changing technology.

What now? R. Scott Fosler, current president of the Council of Governments, notes that two powerful forces are molding a different region: 1) a shift in the role of the federal government, and 2) a swiftly changing world economy. Take jobs: From 1980 to 1983, the number of federal government jobs declined from 365,000 to 352,000, while the number of jobs in private industries increased by 10 percent. Local governments also cut back; the number of jobs declined from 145,000 in 1981 to 130,000 in 1983.

The joint responses of the region's governments to these changes have been -- and still should be -- to find ways to do more efficiently what each government is now doing independently. This may take the regional officials into still more sensitive political areas, such as public education; joint government-private industry ventures; dedicated revenues for transportation; detailed job training; and shelters for the homeless, better child care and interjurisdictional care for the mentally ill.

These are not responses easily accepted by, say, the two state governments, or by two county governments that may be competing vigorously to attract the same firms to their industrial parks. But just as elected officials from every government in the region have come to grips with enormously complex financial and politcal issues in building a subway, those who come together at the Council of Governments can find new, efficient ways to act in concert while preserving that which is their individual, local domain.