Can We Hope for Better Intergovernmental Relations?



Connecting state and local government leaders

It’s one key to solving national problems, say federalism experts.

WASHINGTON — The aftermath of this year’s elections will surely focus on healing the wounds left by the bitter campaigning at the top of the ticket.

But it will also offer an opportunity to consider changes that would improve public sector programs and outcomes.

And while not as sexy as foreign policies, tax policies or immigration reforms, the topic of intergovernmental relations urgently needs attention, according to public administration experts.

Infrastructure planning and financing, education reform, health care and homeland security are among prominent government functions that would greatly benefit from much better coordination between federal government agencies and the states and localities with which they must work to achieve their goals.

The National Academy of Public Administration, a nonprofit society of 800 elected “fellows,” has been working to frame the intergovernmental issues and solutions through the auspices of its Panel on the Federal System. As an Academy fellow and former board member, I’ve been privy to drafts of the papers the panel has been producing. They cover both structural and policy needs of an improved set of intergovernmental relationships.

As a journalist, I’ve also followed the media’s treatment of this and other topics of interest to public administration scholars. Suffice it to say, that coverage is sparse even in the most well-resourced publications, such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and practically nonexistent elsewhere. Route Fifty and our parent publication, Government Executive, are among a few exceptions.

Of course, what gets covered in the media attracts the attention of policymakers, so it is unfortunate that coverage is so sparse.

A yellowed clipping on my desk provides what might be considered an exception to the rule: an article by regional correspondent Robert McCartney of The Washington Post about the very topic the Federal Systems Panel addresses: the sorry state of relations between the government in Washington, D.C. and those in states and localities around the nation. “Federal gridlock pushes burdens to local level,” read the headline over McCartney’s story, published just over a year ago.

McCartney’s was a well-reported piece on continuing declines in federal support for a variety of programs, from highways to housing, and it dealt not only with the D.C. metro area but with states and regions across the country.

But, in a signal that top Post editors didn’t think this was real news, the piece was placed in paper’s Metro section, not in the main national and international news. And The Post’s brief flirtation with this important topic soon disappeared under the onslaught of political news. So McCartney’s piece remains a rare exception to the rule of media disinterest in federalism topics.

A Lot of Fixing

Yet scholars of our federal system say that the times now demand a rigorous look at the interactions between the levels of American government, believing that there’s a lot that needs fixing.

“The new president and Congress need to forge a new partnership with state and local governments in order to restore public trust in the federal government and to mobilize the resources needed to address critical domestic issues in a comprehensive and coordinated manner,” writes Barry L. Van Lare, an Academy fellow who worked for years at the National Governors Association and in jobs at all levels of government.

Van Lare is among several members of the Academy’s Federal System panel who have written papers and are working to bring federalism issues to the attention of transition planners of the presidential candidates. Theirs is not an easy task.

As Paul L. Posner, who chairs the Academy’s Board of Directors, says: “presidents pay scant attention to states and localities in their campaign or transitions until they belatedly realize once in office that they need their expertise and support in implementing nearly every domestic priority.”

In an e-mail to Route Fifty, Posner, added: “While presidents appoint liaisons to states and locals these are not policy offices with expertise and authority to weigh in on important internal policy deliberations. This institutional gap is replicated within OMB which has no office devoted to managing across levels of government.” Posner is the director of the Graduate Public Administration Program at George Mason University and leads the university’s Center on the Public Service.

The NAPA papers suggest approaches to reduce the federalism gap—which, as Van Lare writes, affects many important issues: “affordable health care, quality education, climate change, income inequality, homeland security, civil rights, deteriorating infrastructure.” All of these issues demand a strong federal role, he says, but also will “require the coordinated actions of state and local governments.”

A particular, continuing concern of the NAPA panel has been the pressing need to devise new and more reliable ways to finance the country’s infrastructure needs—especially transportation but also water, electricity distribution and more. Two panel members have written papers with ideas for addressing these issues. And another topic that is always a hot one among intergovernmental experts is also the subject of a panel paper: management of responses to weather and other emergencies.

Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York (Shutterstock)

Structural Issues

It’s a familiar complaint that too many federal programs overlap or are difficult to coordinate on the ground. Efforts by federal agencies to coordinate them haven’t done much to alleviate the difficulties facing local officials as they deal with a plethora of requirements and mandates found in a plethora of federal laws. Still, the NAPA papers call for continuing efforts along these lines.

But they also advocate a new look at the laws pertaining to key challenges the nation faces, one that would more systematically incorporate the views of states and localities than is done at present. The new administration, writes Van Lare, should “articulate key policy challenges, identify the key intergovernmental players and invite those players to actively engage in the policy-making process.” In a paper on fiscal and other reforms needed in the new administration, Joseph Wholey, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, observes that congressional budget processes afford opportunity, particularly early in a new administration, to enact intergovernmental reforms. In 1981, for example, President Reagan’s first budget, codified in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, combined 77 federal programs into nine new or restructured block grants.

“The new administration,” writes Van Lare, “should create strong intergovernmental affairs staffs in the Office of the President and at the Department level that are actively involved in the policy process and that can play a vital role in keeping intergovernmental issues and concerns before key decision makers.”

Van Lare also calls for a new intergovernmental database. “Policy makers need a big-picture view of the fiscal demands on state and local governments and the variances in fiscal capacity from jurisdiction to jurisdiction,” he writes. “They also need to more clearly understand the fiscal impact of federal policies on the capacity of state and local governments to meet their own responsibilities.” Such data once were kept by the now-defunct Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.


NAPA experts—and both major parties’ presidential candidates—call for more spending on infrastructure than is now authorized by law.

Last December, Congress approved a five-year infrastructure bill that was the longest reauthorization of federal transportation programs in more than a decade. But the $305 billion measure to fund roads, bridges and rail lines was much less than the $478 billion President Obama had requested.

Papers for the NAPA panel by John R. Bartle and Mark G. Pisano call for more money, much of it from local sources of revenue, and for greater reliance on debt financing of projects instead of current pay-as-you go practices. Bartle is dean of the College of Public Affairs and Community Service at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Pisano, professor of the practice of public administration at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, led the Southern California Association of Governments, the nation’s largest regional planning agency, for 31 years.

The two men observe that current infrastructure financing systems are unsustainable, in particular because demand for transportation is running far ahead of population growth. The number of cars per household has been increasing, as has the mileage traveled per vehicle. The same is true of air travel, public transit and freight traffic. A case in point is the New Jersey Transit system, whose ridership is up despite higher fares and drastic declines in quality of service. The financing, political and management woes of the third-busiest commuter rail system in the country were detailed in Oct. 14 edition of The New York Times.

Pisano writes:

The problem is so massive and the needs are so great that existing legislation such as the recently passed surface transportation act did very little to address the problem. Even the proposals of both candidates do not begin to address the nation’s infrastructure  backlog, let alone provide for the future. What is needed is a new partnership among the levels of government, with the private sector, and with those who use and benefit from these investments, to make it happen.

There’s little disagreement on the need for infrastructure investment, but organizing that investment poses a challenging governance issue, Pisano adds.

With resistance to general taxation remaining high, more targeted user fees seem a good solution to the two NAPA experts. For highways, taxes could be based increasingly on the number of miles vehicles travel, for example. This kind of pricing already exists on express toll lanes like those recently opened on highways in the D.C. area.

Airports, many badly in need of renovation, could rely more heavily on user fees from passengers and freight carriers. Mass transit may prove a more difficult case, as the experience of Washington’s Metrorail system has suggested: service problems have depressed ridership—down 10 percent from recent years—and officials with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority contend their SafeTrack repair program may well not bring people back.

Both Bartle and Pisano believe that those benefiting from infrastructure investments should be asked to bear more of their upfront cost. Huge increases in property values can follow on new or improved transit stations, as exemplified by New York City’s No. 7 subway line extension on Manhattan’s West Side. And bonds can be issued in anticipation of a stream of property taxes and other fees flowing from resulting development. Such a bonding system was used in New York and is also being used to finance infrastructure investments in California.

Perhaps the best example of what can be done with new mixes of finances is found in London’s $26-billion Crossrail transit project. A third of its cost was financed by the national government, a third by user fees and a third by land surcharges.

Better use of the ever-larger array of federal credit enhancement programs, increased reliance on public-private partnerships to finance some projects, and other ideas for addressing the nation’s dire infrastructure deficit are detailed in the NAPA papers.

Emergency Management

Kay C. Goss, who has served in senior emergency management roles at the state and federal levels, and Gregory C. Devereaux, Chief Executive Officer of San Bernadino County coauthored a paper on responses to emergencies, focusing, not surprisingly on the growing category of “man-made” disasters like the terrorist attack in Devereaux’s jurisdiction.

That attack took place on Dec. 2, 2015, when an employee of the county’s Public Health Department opened fire on fellow employees, killing 14, injuring 24 and traumatizing many others. California’s emergency response agency isn’t organized to readily reimburse the costs of incidents like these, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the authors observe, “has no mechanism for post-terrorism reimbursement.”

Deveraux reports that of more than $20 million in local government has incurred so far, potential reimbursements of $12 million have been identified. The authors write:

Costs that may not be covered include:  closure of non-essential services for safety reasons, relocation of traumatized EHS employees to other work locations, remodeling existing EHS workspace to remove emotional triggers, heightened security upon reopening, organizational liaisons which provided single points of contact for the families of the deceased, and management and administrative time devoted to the incident and its aftermath. Clearly, there is need for a more highly defined structure and clearer commitment of resources to reimburse local response costs and to fund recovery expenses unique to terrorist attacks and other acts of mass violence and destruction.

Goss and Devereaux make a series of recommendations to better prepare both the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to help communities afflicted by mass violence or terrorism.


The Federal System panel papers, now undergoing peer-review, will soon be posted online, says panel co-chair Marilyn M. Rubin, professor of public administration and economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

They will be available on the NAPA website, which also features a broader set of transition recommendations to the next administration, distilled in a booklet called “Transition 2016: Equipping the Government for Success in 2016 and Beyond.” The booklet and related blog posts are found here.

Of the intergovernmental imperative, Rubin says: “The day is long past when any level of government can go it on its own. From disaster mediation and relief to infrastructure maintenance and construction to the safety net for persons in need, intergovernmental cooperation is critical.”

Her Federal System panel, she adds, hopes to serve as a forum for ideas on “harnessing cooperation to address many government objectives in an era of increasing competition for resources.”

Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C. He is a fellow and former board member at the National Academy of Public Administration.

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