Earlier this year, an article in PM Magazine co-authored by University of Kansas scholar John Nalbandian stirred a hot e-mail debate among city managers over the role of their professional group, the International City/County Management Association. Should it mostly promote the career interests of its members? Nalbandian asked. Or should it promote the broader goal of more effective city management?

For many of the ICMA members, who had devoted their careers to championing the city manager form of government, this was a red-flag-in-front-of-a-bull question. Balancing tight budgets amid high citizen demands makes city management a tough (and sometimes short-lived) job. Those devoted to the career-building view argued that ICMA could have no more important work than defending its membership against the slings and arrows of hard-to-please constituents and other critics. But others thought differently: They felt, as one put it, that ICMA should move beyond a traditional mode of turf protection and "on to some other debate that is actually relevant to the people we serve."

The discussion Nalbandian ignited is really part of a bigger issue: what role state and local public interest groups (PIGs, as even they call themselves) ought to be playing. These groups represent governors, mayors, attorneys general, state legislators, counties and cities, among others. All of them are searching to redefine their mission, often amid fierce, high-stakes disagreement.

That's a far cry from the situation that prevailed in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the PIGs were big-time Washington players. They had their own high-powered White House liaison - Daniel Patrick Moynihan was their contact in the Nixon administration. Top newspaper writers chronicled their mid-year meetings. When they swarmed Capitol Hill, members of Congress paid attention.

Critics gibed that the PIG acronym closely fit the behavior of state and local officials squirming to feed at the federal trough.

It's hard to accuse them of that these days. As virtually all federal grants except for Medicaid and homeland security have flattened, the public interest groups have lost their juice on Capitol Hill. Hurricane Katrina showed how hard it can be to get anyone at the White House to take phone calls from governors and mayors.

Little wonder, then, that a question about ICMA's role would stir fierce debate among its members. If there is no prospect of larger federal grants, can ICMA and the other associations move past lobbying to promoting a larger public purpose? In fact, if the prospect of more federal cash evaporates, can the groups even agree on what their purpose is?

The era of tight federal budgets has sparked ideological battles within the National Governors Association, with governors disagreeing over whether they should even be fighting for more federal money. In other associations, bitter partisan divisions have forced Democrats and Republicans into different enclaves at their own national meetings. Strong state and local leaders, who might once have championed the interests of their PIGs, now seek to carve out roles as independent voices.

The irony is that while the associations representing state and local officials have become less muscular, state and local governments have become more powerful players in American politics. Especially on health and environmental policy, the real action is in the state capitols.

Where does this leave the PIGs? The strongest associations, including ICMA and the National Conference of State Legislatures, are the ones that follow both of the strategies Nalbandian wrote about. They work to help their members succeed on the ground AND try to promote the broader improvement of their craft. The one thing they are doing less of is fixating on Congress and the quest for federal help.

So the online debate at ICMA is a positive development - a sign that the group is working to reposition local management for a new breed of problems. There's no better reminder of the power shift within the American federal system than the noisy struggle to redefine how public interest groups play their Washington role.