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National Responses by Federal Systems. Part I

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

By Mauricio Covarrubias
October 14, 2022

The need to address common issues, and therefore mutual dependence, has been present in the federation since it was created. However, in current times this need has increased significantly. The realities of the 21st century, as the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically shown us, suggest that we are facing a growing set of problems that are undermining the capacity for federalism centered on the principle of separation of powers.

Unlike local crises relatively confined in space and time, today federations face emerging challenges of global nature that, in addition to international cooperation, require articulated responses of national scope while still at the level of each country. 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.

In principle, the complex nature of social problems is related in two ways. The first, with a process of social construction that determines which issues are public problems and how they are defined as such.

The second, with the “material causes” of the problems. Although the theory does not offer a univocal definition, there is consensus that the complexity of phenomena and systems, social or natural, is the product of uncertain non-linear relationships as an emergent property.  For example, global warming is complex, and not only because there are many interpretations of it, which are related to perceptions, interests and the dominant value system in societies. It is also complex, as Göktuğ Morçöl mentions, because the natural processes that warming generates (atmospheric conditions, interactions between the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere with temperatures, etc.) are complex as well.

There is a third reason, which has to do with the fact that social problems are increasingly overflowing the traditional references of government organization and action, which determine the way in which they address problems and conceive their solutions. We refer specifically to the functional referent, which points to existing sectors, compartments or policy areas; to the spatial referent, which alludes to political-administrative divisions or territorial jurisdictions; as well as the temporal referent, related to the duration of the cycles or periods of government.

In other words, in addition to the “social construction”, there is a “governmental construction” of the problems that, based on these references or frameworks for action that, in many ways, are being exceeded by the nature and dynamics of social phenomena.

In this order of ideas, the complexity of social problems in terms of policy formulation can be operationalized through the functional, spatial and temporal dimensions which reflect, on the one hand, the nature and behavior of said problems. On the other, the difficulties that these problems represent for the traditional action frameworks of governments.

  1. The first dimension of the complex nature of social problems highlights the numerous causes and variables that they involve, which makes them go through different sectors or areas of public policy than traditional governments. Given the multiple causes, factors and determinants of social problems, intergovernmental collaboration is increasingly necessary.
  2. The second dimension refers, on the one hand, to the fact that complex social problems move on different scales: local, regional, national and global. On the other hand, by ignoring existing political-administrative borders, problems develop their own geography that disturbs public administrations, so accustomed to acting according to a territorialized vision.
  3. The third dimension refers to complex social problems involving causes, processes, consequences and long-term solutions. Most of them are the expression of a series of combined economic, social, political and cultural factors, accumulated historically, unresolved and aggravated by the appearance of other problems. These are issues that require long-term public policies that transcend electoral and government cycles.

In short, the complex nature of today’s great public affairs operates in a functional, geographical and temporal sense. In the first case, because they involve the different sectors of public activity; in the second, because they go beyond territorial borders; and in the third, because problems of today, which are emerging or have worsened, can no longer be resolved in a single government cycle.

In this way, one of the direct consequences of the complex nature of these problems is the lowering of the threshold of unilateral action and the expansion of the areas of common decision between governments. This all poses a challenge to public administrations that traditionally act according to a sectored, territorial, short-term vision. Problems or issues of great complexity are faced with structure in government and often a repertoire of measures that are obsolete in many ways.


Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico.  He is co-founder 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

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