They call them interstate compacts. The idea is for states -- from a handful to all 50 -- to join together contractually to ease a collective load. There are hundreds of these deals and counting, says Colmon Elridge, director of the Council of State Governments’ National Center for Interstate Compacts, which is the primary driving force behind a number of these agreements. 

While they may cover diverse state activities such as recognizing each other’s driver’s licenses or medical licenses, they’re not generally well known -- either by the public or within government circles. “Most legislators have no idea their states are in a number of compacts,” says Elridge.

Of course, even though legislators and taxpayers alike may not be aware of this powerful management technique, almost everyone sees some of the benefits they deliver. Consider the driver’s license compact, which has been around since the early 1960s. Most states are formal members of this agreement, which allows states to share data about drivers and traffic violations across borders.

In some instances, these compacts only include states with a distinct commonality of interests. The Interstate Oil and Gas Compact, for example, has a standard set of regulations that help members work together in ways that maximize their output of natural resources. Similarly, compacts can help contiguous states that are working on multistate infrastructure projects to smooth the process.

Although the growth of interstate compacts is in high gear now, their history dates back to the days before there were even states. England’s King George III formed a coalition of colonies to help him settle land disputes without having to deal with 13 distinct sets of rules.

Some of the most widespread and successful pacts have existed for some time and are expanding in their relevance and utility. For instance, the Interstate Commission for Adult Offender Supervision emanated from a compact that was established back in 1937 to help states work together to keep track of men and women who were on probation and parole. But enforcement of the compact was weak and the states weren’t sending in enough money to staff the effort. “It was an enforcement problem, a money problem and an information problem,” says Harry Hageman, executive director of the commission. 

In the late 1990s, an operating body was established to enforce it. The rules were written into federal law, with the feds providing a budget. Resources increased when a rule was passed requiring fees from the states. Most recently, in 2008, the compact set up a system to electronically track offenders in all 50 states. Hageman reports that there are about a million records in the system, with about 120,000 offenders added each year.

The importance of this interstate cooperation can’t be overstated. “When you don’t track [probationers and parolees], people die,” says Hageman, citing the case of one offender from Texas who slipped out of the reach of the authorities and brutally killed a student at Ohio University.

More recently, in the fall of 2014, the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact Commission was formed. It allows physicians from one state to practice medicine in states that had passed legislation joining the compact. Right now, 11 states are members and the numbers continue to grow -- even though the interstate licenses haven’t been issued yet. The plan is to make the system fully operational so licenses could be issued either when 17 states have signed up or in January 2017, whichever comes first. Not only does this compact have the capacity to help doctors in contiguous states expand their practices across borders, it also has the potential to make telemedicine far easier, allowing doctors to assist in the practice of medicine via electronic means in states hundreds or thousands of miles away. 

As much as compacts have enormous promise for helping states work together, without need for a federal law that mandates that they do so, there are challenges. One of these, according to Elridge, is concern on the part of states that they’ll somehow give up their own powers if they agree to abide by the rules of the compact. Another wall in the way of these agreements is the dependency on state or federal budgeting. “Sometimes these things die on the vine for lack of funding,” says Elridge.

But despite the obstacles, it’s clear that compacts can be an essential management tool for the states to build efficiencies through eased collaboration. As basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said, “Five guys on the court working together can achieve more than five talented individuals who come and go as individuals.”