Now Is the Time for Collaboration

Economic policies are unlikely to succeed if they are driven by the federal government alone. It is clear that states, regions and local governments have a vital role to play.
June 25, 2008
Bob O'Neill
By Robert J. O'Neill Jr.  |  Contributor
Past executive director of the International City/County Management Association

The public tells pollsters that the most important issues facing our nation (other than the war in Iraq) are as follows:

· Security and safety

· Jobs

· Health care

· Education

· Environment

· Long-term economic security (retirement, Social Security and Medicare)

None of these issues can be tackled without a national strategy. All of them transcend the boundaries of federal, state and local governments and require the public, private and nonprofit sectors to work together. Each requires a complex, multidisciplinary approach to policy development and execution.

Economic policies are unlikely to succeed if they are driven by the federal government alone. In any analysis of the long-term financial implications of current federal tax policy and expenditure requirements, it is clear that states, regions and local governments have a vital role to play in financing the policy and developing the program strategies in most nondefense initiatives.

State and Local Government Leadership

Leadership from state and local governments is needed to test new approaches and to develop solutions that Americans will accept. Already many state governments are experimenting with new ways to provide health care to uninsured residents, giving a high priority to children's needs. Likewise, state and local governments are seizing the initiative to reduce carbon emissions through new legislation, such as banning engine idling in urban areas.

To make progress on climate change and sustainability issues, the United States will require a rarely seen collaboration among the levels of government and the private sector. A recent National Academy of Public Administration report on environmental management, Taking Environmental Protection to the Next Level: An Assessment of the U.S. Environmental Services Delivery System , described the traditional regulatory strategies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the states as a prerequisite to implementing changes but insufficient to deal with today's environmental challenges. Unprecedented dialogue and shared commitment to goals and strategies across 50 states and thousands of local governments are required to achieve significant results.

The wildfires last fall in California remind us of the complexity of our system of emergency response. In that disaster, we took pride in seeing an effective emergency response. The state of California and its local governments have an excellent reputation for emergency preparedness, and they worked well with their federal partners. However, when we consider the response to Katrina, we must acknowledge that our emergency management system has serious weaknesses. Federal, state and local response and recovery strategies should not be unpredictable and idiosyncratic. Collaboration among the public, private and nonprofit sectors should be practiced and expected. Open communication and discussion among all of these sectors should be the norm in developing national policy.

Working Across Boundaries

One reason we struggle with these issues is that we pay scant attention to the difficulty and the importance of working together and across boundaries. Few forums are available for local, state and federal leaders to openly debate strategies to address national priorities. To date, we have heard little in the presidential campaign on how the candidates will build the capacity to work on issues that require extensive and sustained collaboration among all levels of government and with the private sector.

Progress in these areas will only be made by restoring the relationships among all the intergovernmental partners and developing the institutional capacity to leverage these relationships to improve outcomes. For Americans to see progress in the areas that are the most important to them, we need a renewed commitment to work together on common goals. The success of the next president's domestic agenda will largely depend on the ability to build support across the intergovernmental system. A full understanding of the delivery system is essential because most major federal programs rely on states and local governments to bring services to our residents.

Plan for Action

It is time for bold action:

· Create an Intergovernmental Policy Council modeled after the Domestic Policy Council; staff it to support a consistent dialogue and to develop recommendations and supporting strategies that require intergovernmental and cross-sector execution.

· Establish a working panel of representatives from the major state and local government organizations to meet quarterly to assess progress on major issues requiring intergovernmental collaboration.

· Develop an institutional capacity (perhaps through NAPA) to assess the capacity of the intergovernmental system to access the capacity of the intergovernmental system to meet the needs of the American people.

The stakes are high. The patchwork approach of recent years endangers to our security as well as to our social and economic well being. It is time for honest dialogue and pragmatic solutions.

Elizabeth K. Kellar is executive director of the Center for State and Local Government Excellence. This column originally appeared as an article in the spring issue of The Public Manager, copyright 2008, The Bureaucrat, Inc., and is reprinted with permission. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.