Creating an Agenda for Reform

American and Texas state flags flying on the dome of the Texas State Capitol building in Austin.

American and Texas state flags flying on the dome of the Texas State Capitol building in Austin. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Experts see the need for a fresh focus on thinking about the big issues in state and local governance.

Should a new group be formed to study key issues facing state and local governments in this country?

That question was posed earlier this month during the annual meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration. 

NAPA’s key strength is the expertise of 950 elected fellows who come from academia and all levels of government in the United States. The Academy has a congressional charter to provide advice on public sector issues. In practice its focus has been on organizational issues in the federal government. 

So this has left an opening for a focus on state and local governance, as proposed in a new initiative that’s the brainchild of Donald Borut and William Barnes, both former leaders of the National League of Cities, and Harold Wolman, professor emeritus at George Washington University. At the NAPA meeting in early November, they suggested creating a new committee of NAPA fellows who would work to precisely define key problems facing the state and local sector, in the hope of uncovering fresh solutions.

Roughly 40 people crammed into the first of two sessions on the idea and many spoke in favor.  Their interest to some signaled that organizations currently studying aspects of state and local government are not necessarily meeting the need for deep analysis of intergovernmental issues. Large nonprofits representing mayors, governors, county officials, state legislators and others in the public sector have their own agendas and aren’t always willing to share data, participants observed.

If it gets off the ground, what we’ll call the Borut Initiative will provide a distinctive approach to NAPA’s new list of  “Grand Challenges in Public Administration.” After a year of work by a steering committee (on which I served) and its board of directors, the Academy on Nov. 7 released the list—twelve challenges and many subsets the nation should address over the next decade and beyond. 

The challenges are broadly framed, but most are readily understood as applying to state and local governments as much as the federal government. Fostering “social equity” is one. “A growing divide in income and wealth has left many people behind based on their race, gender or geographic location, and many groups are marginalized or excluded from the political process,” says the report. To mitigate the problem, it urges action on issues like affordable housing, criminal justice, education and access to technology.

Fiscal issues are high on the list. The NAPA report observes that “States and localities account for more than one-third of all government spending. Their finances have only recently recovered from the Great Recession, and they continue to face near-term difficulties (including) rising healthcare costs. Some states have cut taxes without corresponding spending cuts, while others have increased spending without corresponding revenue increases. Many state and local balance sheets have a time bomb of unfunded pension liabilities that could easily crowd out public investments in such areas as education and infrastructure over the next decade.”

Fiscal constraints have prevented politicians from fully delivering on promises they made. That is one cause of declining public trust in government.

Deep concern about erosion of public trust was evident among Academy fellows attending the NAPA conference—not only about public institutions, but also about established expertise in other fields, notably in science. 

The phenomenon of denying climate change, and/or challenging the idea that our life choices are contributors to it, is familiar by now. But there is more: while 83% of scientists believe that genetically modified food is safe to eat, only 37% of the public shares that view. This depressing data came from Chavonda Jacobs-Young, administrator of the Agricultural Research Service and acting chief scientist at USDA. Continuing innovation, and public acceptance of technological advance, is essential to the task of feeding a world population that’s expected to grow from 7 billion today to 10 billion about 30 years from now, Jacobs-Young said. 

Trust in municipal water systems is running low, we learned during one NAPA panel meeting. That’s contributing importantly to people’s decisions to buy roughly $20 billion in bottled water per year. And, indeed, there’s reason to worry about the water coming out of faucets, panelists said, especially in rural America. It will take up to $1 trillion to fix the problem over the next quarter century, experts estimate, and the solutions must entail revised governance arrangements among various levels of government and the private sector.

The Borut Initiative distributed a paper outlining possible agenda items for the proposed new study group. Leading off with concerns about trust, the paper observed that civility and decorum  between government officials and the public are on the wane, and that “citizens often treat the ‘expertise’ that administrators claim with suspicion.” It noted “increasing unease about working for government, given the lack of respect in which ‘bureaucrats’ are held.”

The paper goes on to say that “citizens too often view state and local government as lacking accountability, transparence, and openness.  Government officials and staff too often view residents as uninformed, merely self-interested, and uncivil; they do not ’trust’ the public. The ‘trust’ issue is reciprocal.”

The proposed agenda focuses on governance issues, including state preemption of local government activities, the extent and nature of state fiscal support to local governments, and collaboration among local governments both within state boundaries and across state lines in multijurisdictional regions like those surrounding New York City and Washington D.C. 

The preemption problem was highlighted during a meeting of the Academy’s Intergovernmental Systems Panel. U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia, remarked on the 19th century “Dillon Rule” barring local governments from exercising any power not expressly authorized by the state. Fairfax County, the populous Washington suburb, even had to apply to the state for authority to paint the tops of its school buses white, Connelly said. Blanket rules like this, and other anti-home rule requirements in many states—such as successes by the plastic bag lobby in getting state legislatures to block  imposition of local fees on plastic bags—are a growing problem for municipal officials.

At the moment no intergovernmental organization exists that could tackle these kinds of concerns. But Congress has begun work on a bill to reconstitute the long-defunct Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which earned a reputation for diligent and useful research before it was abolished by the Republican-led Congress of the late 1990s. Connolly and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, this summer introduced the “Restore the Partnership Act” (HR 3883) to “reconstitute and reform” the ACIR with the objective of “facilitating cooperation and accountability among federal, state, tribal and local governments.” 

A July 23 hearing on the bill elicited strong support from groups representing state and local public officials. Connolly hopes to get it to the House floor soon, he told the NAPA gathering, adding that he had found a Republican sponsor in the Senate. 

There’s a long journey between defining a problem and finding the consensus needed to act on it. But the National Academy’s Grand Challenges effort, the Borut Initiative’s effort to focus on state and local government dimensions of those challenges, and the pending ACIR legislation, may presage much-needed reforms in governance of our public institutions. 

Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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