Emerging Issues: Intergovernmental System Requires Attention

February 21, 2011

by Bill Barnes

News flash - A group of mayors, working through their state municipal league, approached their governor and proposed a quiet séance to find ways to make state-local relations work better for their citizens. The governor responded positively. Conversations highlighted the need to include federal representatives who, in turn, agreed to participate. The convening resulted in a range of small but useful improvements in the intergovernmental system. Citizens noticed, and officials began receiving little signals of appreciation from citizens for the ways that "officials are getting past the bickering and government is working better."

As if. 

Instead of this little fantasy, the U.S. system of intergovernmental relations is pervaded by "a lack of trust and respect." It is "broken down across the board." And, besides, it's "not much of a 'system' now" anyway. 
These negative characterizations came last summer from well-informed practitioners at the local, state and federal levels, respectively. 

"We don't even know how to talk with each other anymore." Two years ago, the irrepressible Sam Mamet, Colorado Municipal League executive director, offered that poignant and compelling summary about the condition of the intergovernmental system to a White House representative. 

A Long-Term Problem

This situation did not arise overnight, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Intergovernmental relations in the U.S. have always been contentious and difficult.

Tim Conlan, a prominent scholar of intergovernmental relations, observed in 2006 that over the past half century, "relationships have grown more dense, more opportunistic and less cooperative." If these weaknesses persist, he predicted, they "will be magnified" by impending major challenges. He got that one right.

Conlan found some glimmerings of "positive developments," including that "political balance in the ...system is still nourished by the underlying strength of state and local governments" upon which "an increasingly hollow federal workforce has become more rather than less reliant."

The recession and fiscal difficulties have, in contrast, now increased subnational reliance on central government monies and sharpened federal complaints about competing state/local priorities in the spending of those monies. 
Right now, says one well-placed observer, intergovernmental relations "is all about stealing money from each other." And political quagmires in Washington and many state capitals will render mandates and preemptions even more irresistibly tempting than usual. 

There's no need here to politely describe how bad this can get; let's just say it can get really ugly. More important - and too often forgotten amidst arguments about intergovernmental dysfunction - it can produce terrible government performance and it can serve the American people very poorly.

Reviewer Bert Rockman reports that, in a comparative study of federal systems around the globe, Jonathan Rodden found "the greater the disconnection" among the governmental units, "the less the leaders of each are likely to see their fates intertwined." This would seem to hold true horizontally - among states, among local governments in a region - as well as vertically - local, state, federal - through the system.

Is it unfair to say that in our current system in the U.S., people in many governmental units feel their jurisdiction is on its own, adrift in a hostile or at best indifferent sea of other governments? Is it unkind to say that this situation allows and promotes what scholars call "rent-seeking," a fancy term for taking what's not yours?

And is it correct but indiscreet to report that, at a time when the idea of "government" itself is under siege in America, too many public officials act as if other governmental units are enemy aliens rather than being all in it together?

What Is To Be Done?

Are there any actions that might begin to improve the situation? One of the practitioners in last summer's session suggested starting small with convenings of officials and other leaders around key issues. 

Another said, "how about starting in a new way by engaging citizens around these matters?" NLC has been urging creation a "permanent venue" for intergovernmental discussion and research since the demise of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in the mid-1990s. 

Mamet applauds the executive order on state-local cooperation and unfunded mandates issued by the new Colorado governor, former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, on his first day in office. He'd like to see a White House-led effort to look for lessons for the federal government from state and local efficiencies and an "intergovernmental caucus" in Congress to focus on unfunded mandates.

Conlan sees some "hopeful signs" including "rebuilding the capacity for systemic analysis," experiments to increase flexibility in federal programs, and a shift from hierarchical mentalities to greater appreciation of the value of "network management."

Nothing is to be gained from trying to lay blame. Something may be gained by focusing on good work that is already being done, stepping stones through the swamp laid by brave people. And then, perhaps with a passion for anonymity, building on those solid places and adding more.

The performance of the intergovernmental system will not automatically get better just because a few people take the risk of finding a way to talk in order to make marginal improvements. 

But it will never get any better if they don't. 

Bill Barnes is the director for emerging issues at NLC. Comments about his column, which appears regularly in Nation's Cities Weekly, and ideas about "emerging issue" topics can be sent to him atbarnes@nlc.org. Previous columns are collected at the Emerging Issues webpage.