To my great sadness, one of the people I have most admired in the 30-year history of Governing passed away not long ago. Paul Posner was a professor at George Mason University and former executive with the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), where he spent his long career looking for a way for federal budget capacity to match up with state and local financial needs. 

Posner was a leader in thought and action, and a tireless advocate for strengthening the relationship between governments at all levels. He was well respected by his colleagues, the only person ever to be elected both president of the American Society of Public Administration and chairman of the board at the National Academy of Public Administration.

For 15 years, Posner headed up the academy’s standing panel on intergovernmental relations. He was known for his boundless enthusiasm in organizing scores of sessions on a wide variety of intergovernmental issues. He brought together key officials from various presidential administrations and federal agencies, the top brass from the Big Seven state and local associations, and leading academics from all over the country. That kind of acumen is crucial today, because the existing infrastructure for managing our federal system has largely dissipated in recent decades. There is very little capacity in the top tier of the executive branch or the U.S. Congress to understand or analyze intergovernmental issues, much less manage them.

Thirty years ago, that was not the case. Aside from the GAO that Posner ran, there was a vibrant infrastructure of offices and departments in the White House, both chambers of Congress, and in nearly every federal department or agency. The granddaddy of them all, formed in the 1950s, was the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, a congressionally chartered independent agency designed to help steer our federal system. More than half the states created their own “little ACIRs,” bodies that not only concentrated on intergovernmental activity within their states, but formed a network of such agencies in other states. That network collaborated closely with the commission in Washington, D.C.

It didn’t last. By the mid-1990s, much of that intergovernmental infrastructure had faded away. The Council of State Governments, which supported the ACIR, the state commissions and their network, sadly concluded at the time that the “dynamics of intergovernmental relations today, especially at the state and local level, have shifted from what might be described as coordination and cooperation to competition and adversity. ... In such a climate, the value of the perspectives that commissions contribute to the intergovernmental area is greatly diminished.” In 1996, the federal ACIR was disbanded and today only 10 state commissions are still operating.

Parris Glendening, who thankfully is still very much alive and active, has pursued the idea of a vibrant federal system just as Posner did. Glendening has spent decades at the center of that system: eight years as governor of Maryland and 12 years as a county executive, as well as 27 years teaching political science at the University of Maryland. He now leads a nonprofit promoting smart urban growth. But his career-long fascination has been with the way governments at all levels work together -- or don’t.

For Glendening, having “a flexible, innovative and effective intergovernmental system” is crucial to solving problems such as income inequality, environmental deterioration, a broken immigration process and infrastructure that is falling behind much of the developed world. At the heart of it, he argues, is a multilevel fiscal apparatus “so dysfunctional it cannot produce the revenues to meet the most basic services and instead finds solutions in passing on costs to other levels of government or future generations.”

It may not be obvious to you that reorganizing bureaucratic and political structures is key to reforming and reinvigorating our public effort. But look at our political landscape now, with the central government abandoning international agreements on worldwide problems, forcing a coalition of states and municipalities to create their own alliances, in effect to represent the United States. The city of Los Angeles has created a new position of deputy mayor for international affairs, staffed largely by former State Department employees. European countries are establishing quasi-embassies in Silicon Valley. States are swatting down policies promoted by their municipalities on everything from minimum wages to plastic bag bans.

And as the financial costs of superstorms and flooding soar, the central government finds itself paying most of the bill while those governments best equipped to avoid catastrophes lack the resources or even clear authority to do so. It’s what academics call “the intergovernmental paradox of emergency management.” In fact, that paradox applies to many other issues as well. Glendening argues that “a smoothly functioning federal system” is necessary to “bring about needed innovation, experimentation and diversity of policies.”

I agree, although in the current environment I am dubious that we can do much about it. The effectiveness of our federal system has fluctuated considerably over the nation’s history. To improve it from this low point will require a significant political change. That change is, to say the least, overdue.