In our article, Now Is the Time for Collaboration, we urged the new
administration to seek honest dialogue and pragmatic solutions to
the most important nondefense issues facing our nation: jobs,
healthcare, education, environment, and long-term economic security
(retirement, Social Security, and Medicare). We pointed out that
states and local governments have a vital role to play in financing
the policy and developing program strategies most likely to
What progress has the Obama Administration made on the
intergovernmental cooperation agenda? We had an open-ended
conversation with Donald Borut, executive director of the National
League of Cities, and Raymond Scheppach, executive director of the
National Governors Association, to discuss what is workingand what
has not yet been addressed.
All agreed that communication has been very good on the American
Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Troubleshooting has been done
by an ad hoc group because the timeframe for implementation was
compressed and all three levels of government share the risk of
failure. People came together because they wanted to make the
recovery package work, not because there was a formal structure for
engagement. The additional transparency and intense public interest
in the initiative were significant motivators to come together to
address implementation issues.
Vice President Biden has had weekly meetings with governors and
mayors. Both the vice president and the U.S. Office of Management
and Budget (OMB) have worked with their intergovernmental partners
in good faith. The cooperation on the ARRA personifies what we
need, observed Borut. We have regular, two-way communication about
the issues and our federal partners are not defensive.
Scheppach added, The administration has made changes as we have
raised issues. For example, they have made changes in the way that
they are aggregating data and have given us more time to clean up
the data. They have listened.
The ARRA has been a good model because state and local governments
were chosen to implement the initiative through existing programs.
Another plus is that the U.S. Government Accountability Office
(GAO) has been out in the field, checking with 16 states on their
experience at the front end of the process, said Scheppach. The GAO
has been included in discussions with the OMB, something that
happened almost organically.
Borut added, Having knowledge of how state and local governments
operate was important because there were not enough resources to
carry out the administrative responsibilities required for the
program. Once GAO made those points clear, Congress adjusted the
There are many positive developments regarding the process of
engagement, but experts and pundits alike can be expected to
criticize all levels of government once the October 2009 reports
are analyzed. Certainly, good progress has been made in building a
framework for reporting, though the quality of the reports
rightfully can be questioned.
Healthcare reform looms as an even greater intergovernmental
challenge. It is a huge legislative bill with significant potential
intergovernmental implications. Because it is the presidents
signature issue, politics tend to overwhelm many other
considerations. States and the federal government share the costs
of Medicaid, for example, so depending on how that program is
altered or expanded, there could be cost shifts to state
Early on, the administration brought Democratic and Republican
governors into the discussions. As Congress looked for more ways to
control federal government costs, the communication dynamic
changed. States began to worry about the potential of unfunded
mandates, said Scheppach. Because state and local governments are
also major employers, they are watching closely to see how any new
legislation may affect their benefit plans and future compensation
Having a former governor as head of the Department of Homeland
Security makes it easier to address intergovernmental issues, said
Scheppach. Secretary Janet Napolitano recognized that the former
plan for Real ID could not be executed, so we have been able to
discuss the issues openly and work together on needed changes.
There have been ample opportunities for local and state governments
to provide feedback to the administration on many strategies and
tactics. In fact, one of the challenges is to identify which issues
merit the most time and attention from state and local leaders.
Federal Agencies Show Leadership
Weve seen agencies take initiative to work together on issues they
are passionate about, observed Borut. For example, the U.S.
Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation and
the Environmental Protection Agency have developed a metropolitan
initiative. They actively seek local government involvement and
This kind of exchange energizes local government leaders, said
Borut. While it is too soon to know what the outcome will be, our
elected officials and state league directors appreciate the process
A More Structured Approach
So far, the White House Office of Intergovernmental Relations has
functioned similarly to those of prior administrations. It serves
as an outreach and communication arm to connect with elected
leaders and to promote the administrations agenda. It has not yet
taken a lead role in domestic policy development.
Last year, we encouraged the new administration to create a
structured approach to engage representatives from major state and
local governments, perhaps meeting quarterly to assess progress on
issues requiring intergovernmental cooperation. While developing
more institutional capacity to leverage these relationships has not
been a priority, on certain initiativessuch as the ARRAthe
administration has demonstrated model behavior for a productive
relationship. As Scheppach noted, If people want to communicate and
theres some risk for everyone, the model works well.
We would argue that such communication should be less episodic and
idiosyncratic. Whats needed is a structure that can assess the
capacity and health of the intergovernmental system to be sure that
it can deliver on the nations priorities for government services.
With the Obama Administration, the foundation of the
intergovernmental partnership is being strengthened. There is still
much left to address on this unfinished agenda. Now is the time to
institutionalize the way conversations are held with key leaders.