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National Coordination: The Challenge of Federalism in Times of Global Crisis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
August 28, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every nation in the world, with results as variable as the response of each government. COVID-19 has highlighted both strengths and weaknesses of the type of institutional capacities that are considered essential in crisis situations. Naturally, in federal systems with a decentralized decisionmaking structure, institutional capacity largely depends on the attitudes and interaction of representatives of the federal, state and municipal governments. In his article, “Challenges to Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations and Takeaways Amid the COVID-19 Experience,” Edwin Benton, points out that one only needs to pay minimal attention to the daily news pertinent to the COVID-19 pandemic to sense the heightened tensions and schisms that exist between national leaders and officials at the state level. Media accounts of federal systems responses to the coronavirus crisis around the world have documented the contrasting performance of federal, state and local governments, either individually or collectively.

The anticipated irruption of emergencies and environmental issues

In 2012 Jack W. Meek and Kurt Thurmaier, in the introductory chapter of the book, “Networked Governance: The Future of Intergovernmental Management,” in which leading academics and practitioners participated, warned that the forces that would shape intergovernmental relations (IGR) in the next decade would be determined by greater horizontality and collaboration. They also anticipated that the context of the problems and situations that governments will face in the future would demand more and more responses in vertical and horizontal dimensions, mainly in the management of emergencies and environmental issues: the coronavirus crisis, in many ways, illustrates this prediction.

Unlike local crises relatively confined in space and time, today federations face emerging challenges of a global nature that, in addition to international cooperation, necessarily require at the level of each country, articulated responses of national scope. Referring to the American case, Jeannie Suk Gersen, in his article for The New Yorker, “Who’s in Charge of the Response to the Coronavirus?” points out that most crises, including earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes and flood disasters, do not extend to all states and threaten us all. However, she recognizes that the coronavirus pandemic is a truly national crisis, where the response of one state may ultimately be only as effective as the response of other states.

Spatial dimension of public problems versus political borders

Global problems do not respect nations, states or other borders. By moving on different scales and ignoring political-administrative borders, they develop their own geography. Furthermore, the maps of the different problems overlap, threatening the self-sufficiency and stability of the borders: political-administrative maps are no longer very useful to understand them and even less to contain them. The geography of the coronavirus does not have fixed borders. On the contrary, the virus is defined or modified according to its own dynamics and virulence. To explain what this type of challenge represents for federal systems, Mireille Paquet and Robert Schertzer propose the concept of complex intergovernmental problems (PIC) based on the following characteristics. First, because addressing its root causes is not something that can be solved through the actions of a single government. Second, the nature of PICs requires high levels of coordination and collaboration between the governments involved. Third, these problems challenge existing norms and spaces for intergovernmental relations.

National leadership and coordinated action will remain critical

Challenges such as COVID-19 make it necessary to focus attention on a meta-level governance in which governments must demonstrate the ability to join together the multiplicity of organizations and interests to form a coherent policy fabric. (See: X. Wu, M. Ramesh & M. Howlett’s 2015 work, “Policy capacity: A conceptual framework for understanding policy competences and capabilities.” Similarly, Louis Meuleman, Vice Chairman of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration (CEPA), in his book Metagovernance for Sustainability: A Framework for Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, argues that complex political challenges require meta-governance based on systems thinking, a comprehensive approach (taking into account all relevant aspects) and also a holistic view. In times where interdependence and global challenges are constantly increasing, the political capacity of central governments will be related to the ability to coordinate a unified national response between different levels of government. True national public policies are needed, not so much because they are promoted by the national government, but because they relate to issues of public interest that involve both state and municipal authorities and society as a whole. What we have been able to see after a year and a half of the coronavirus crisis is that the effectiveness of the leadership of federal governments in various parts of the world has been a key factor in expanding capacities, mobilizing and joining forces to face the crisis; or unfortunately, to discard them thereby deepening the effects of the pandemic.

In summary, federalism is under pressure and the pandemic is far from over. Although perhaps we already knew this intellectually or, by distant references, we are now dramatically realizing that waves of infections are a common pattern in virus pandemics. Enabled by globalization, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to mutate and spread as fast and as far as possible. It is urgent to incorporate the lessons of the first waves, but in federal systems, cooperation between levels of government, as well as competent central leadership that generates consensus and inspires confidence will continue to be decisive.


Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico. He co-founder and Vice President since 2014, of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS). He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT. He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias and LinkedIn @ http://linkedin.com/in/mauricio-covarrubias-2b49bb57

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