Illinois Statehouse dome

Illinois Statehouse dome Flickr user LatitudeLongitude

Memo to the President: Strengthening Partnerships with State and Local Governments

The federal government needs to establish a new paradigm that substitutes collaboration and cooperation for command and control.

The new president and Congress need to forge a new partnership with state and local governments to restore public trust and confidence in the federal government and to mobilize the resources needed to address critical domestic issues. Over time the lines between federal, state and local responsibilities have become blurred. The result is a fragmented system ill-suited to address a wide range of pressing domestic issues.

At the same time, while the state and local role in implementing federal programs has expanded, the federal government has come to treat states and localities more as constituents and less as partners and agents with a common interest.

Goals of a Stronger Intergovernmental Partnership

Challenges such as affordable health care, quality education, climate change, income inequality, homeland security, civil rights and deteriorating infrastructure require a strong federal role. But a federal role alone will be insufficient. Significant progress will require the coordinated actions of state and local governments as well. The federal government needs to establish a new paradigm that substitutes collaboration and cooperation for command and control—a paradigm that:

  • Recognizes the importance of a coordinated intergovernmental response to critical issues.
  • Provides ready access to the data and analysis needed to develop that response.
  • Supports open consultation and involvement of state and local governments in both policy development and rulemaking.
  • Recognizes state and local governments as enterprises rather than solely as silos for federal funding.

Recommended Actions

In order to create the culture, tools and resources that will enable the three levels of government to work collaboratively, the new president and Congress should consider the following:

Saying no, and focusing on national issues. Not every problem requires a federal solution. Congress and the new administration should focus their attention on issues that are truly national in scope and avoid the further fragmentation of the intergovernmental system.

Make intergovernmental collaboration a priority. Both the president and congressional leadership should move quickly to signal a strong, early and public commitment to strengthening intergovernmental collaboration.

Recognize state and local governments as partners, not constituents. State and local officials have become viewed as merely another constituent group and their participation in the development of rules and regulations is often constrained. The new administration should give priority to changes that would facilitate the consultation needed to identify and address issues critical to the effective implementation of its priorities.

Foster a continuing intergovernmental dialogue. The development of comprehensive solutions to critical problems requires dialogue and consultation among the three levels of government. The new president can begin this process by articulating key policy challenges, identifying the key intergovernmental players and by inviting those players to actively engage in the policymaking process.

Strengthen and reorient the president’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and its department counterparts. The new administration should strengthen the intergovernmental affairs staffs in the Executive Office of the President and at the department level. These units must be actively involved in the policy process and ensure that intergovernmental issues and concerns are clearly communicated to key decision makers. Their focus should be on facilitating substantive discussions of policy and implementation issues, not politics and constituent services. These offices might also be tasked with coordinating cross-agency efforts to work collaboratively with states and localities.

Build and maintain an intergovernmental database. Better intergovernmental data will help all three levels of government more clearly understand the scope and scale of the issues to be addressed and the resources available at each level of government. While the Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office have attempted to provide some of the needed data, there are still gaps. The new administration should undertake, in consultation with state and local officials, a comprehensive review of critical information needs and develop a plan for collecting and disseminating relevant data on a timely basis.

Research findings and the administrative data needed to identify and evaluate effective programs are widely dispersed among the three levels of government and the foundation and academic communities. Too often this information rests in silos and is difficult to obtain and analyze. The new administration should establish a cross-agency initiative to facilitate the collection and dissemination of timely research and identify the steps needed to make it available on a cross-agency and intergovernmental basis.

Consider states and localities as government enterprises, not silos for federal funding. States and localities, like the federal government, have begun to recognize that many of their administrative challenges can no longer be addressed within agency silos and are increasingly looking to enterprise-level solutions. Unfortunately, doing so is made difficult by the proliferation of uncoordinated administrative requirements imposed by federal grants. The new administration should explore ways to simplify federal requirements to allow states and localities to produce a more integrated and efficient delivery system.

Improve accountability and transparency. Performance data is playing an increasingly important role in the management of programs at all three levels of government. A new administration might well build on the lessons learned in implementing the Government Performance and Results Act and consider how a similar approach might be applied to high-priority intergovernmental initiatives. In addition, the new administration might consider convening federal, state and local officials to explore the potential for the better integration of cross-cutting state systems and individual program level performance measurement systems to better serve all three levels of government.

Provide flexibility and encourage innovation. As the laboratories of democracy, states and localities are constantly experimenting. The new administration should continue and expand federal efforts to allow states both to test new policies and more effective and efficient delivery systems.

Restoring public confidence in government and addressing critical domestic issues will require the efforts of all three levels of government. The new administration and Congress should act quickly to ensure that states and localities become more effective partners in those efforts.

This article is part of a series of Memos to the President, highlighting advice from leading academics and practitioners in public administration for the incoming president and his team. The series was developed by the National Academy of Public Administration, the American Society of Public Administration and George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Click here for more information and links to the full set of memos.

Photo: Flickr user LongitudeLatitude