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The Pandemic and the Strengths of Our Networked Governance

It may not always look pretty, but the American system of federalism creates opportunities to try different things and pick up the slack when there's a shortfall at one level of government.

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The Virginia state capitol. State government, often considered obsolete, has been praised during the crisis (Photo: David Kidd)
David Kidd
America's system of federalism provides plenty of opportunity for fighting and recriminations among various levels of government. But as the coronavirus response is showing, this system also has underappreciated strengths that we should take care not to overlook. As we reassess the world post-coronavirus, we should make sure we don't damage those strengths.

Federalism in an American context usually refers to the dual sovereignty of the federal and state governments. But in practice, governance is distributed beyond these two layers to a network of numerous entities including local governments, businesses and nonprofits that each perform critical roles in our society. They all need to play their roles, but, importantly, when there's a shortfall in one, others can often pick up the slack.

Start with the federal government. In 2013, Benjamin Barber wrote a book titled If Mayors Ruled the World, arguing that cities, not national governments, were doing a better job of addressing key challenges like climate change. Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recently published book is similarly titled: The Nation City: Why Mayors Are Running the World.

Yet in this crisis, everyone's eyes turned first to Washington and the federal government. That includes Emanuel, who wrote in The Wall Street Journal that when it comes to disasters "there's no substitute for federal leadership." If there's one thing this crisis should do, it's to explode the excessive mayoral triumphalism that's too often colored policy debates.

But Emanuel was right that the federal government was slow out of the gate. Some state and local leaders, like Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and San Francisco Mayor London Breed, were faster to act. They helped fill the gap and provide political pressure on the federal government to perform.

If there's one level of government that's most frequently touted as obsolete and an obstacle to progress, it's state government. Yet it's those much maligned states that have received the most praise during the crisis. In New York, it's been Gov. Andrew Cuomo who has received far more kudos than New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Legendary New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia is credited with saying that there's no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage, showing the pragmatic nature of city leaders. But we're seeing here that states, despite their own partisan divides, can be pragmatic too.

These three levels of government pushing at, and sometimes sniping at, each other may not look pretty in public, but it's a system that so far has delivered results as good or better than those of Europe (if not as good as Asia).

The private sector is also doing its part. Technology firms like Zoom are enabling working from home, while Amazon and various delivery services keep products flowing direct to people's doorsteps. Traditional retailers like Walmart and the grocery chain H-E-B adjusted to a surge in demand. While toilet paper may remain a tough find, there have been no major shortages of food or most home goods. The philanthropic and nonprofit sector has also sprung into action to address rapidly shifting social-service needs.

We see this distributed and networked response in the provisions of the $2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. Enhanced unemployment benefits are being pushed out through the states. Small Business Administration loans are to be primarily delivered by banking partners. The federal government is giving money to the health-care system that by and large consists of independent local and regional institutions and networks.

Our networked system is very complex, and includes many handoffs with many opportunities for things to go wrong. Conversely, it also creates a lot of opportunities for things to go right. And if one entity, such as a state, fails to do its job, it doesn't necessarily take down the whole system.

Our system also creates a lot of opportunities for different places to try different things, and for best practices to rapidly be diffused nationwide. The original epicenter of the virus outbreak was Seattle and Washington state. As other states took actions such as closing bars and restaurants or issuing stay-at-home orders, Washington state very quickly incorporated them into its own arsenal.

It's been said that when crisis hits, America often starts slow, then rapidly catches up and finishes strong. While it's too early to tell how this will turn out as the pandemic subsides, that pattern holds so far.

So often we lament the problems of our system and argue about how it ought to be reformed. Perhaps instead we should consider what it does well and how we can seek realistic reform that works with and not against the unique, highly distributed American institutional structures that we have. In an ever-more-networked, global world, our networked governance is a structure that can serve us well for the 21st century.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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