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National Responses in Federal Systems. Part II

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

By Mauricio Covarrubias
November 11, 2022

Based on the characteristics of the social problems that were outlined in the first part of this column, we now present the characteristics of their national responses.

First, we must say that there is no single model of national policies since, in many ways, they are determined by the circumstances of each country. However, considering that the path for action is determined by the nature of the problems they seek to solve, it is possible to identify some basic characteristics of national responses, without this meaning that they are the only ones.

Multisectoral and intergovernmental responses

The complex nature of major social problems lies largely in the fact that they are not issues that concern only one sector or level of government. Which demands responses of an “intra” and intergovernmental type.

The first case refers to multisectoral policies based on the combination of efforts, knowledge and resources of various organizations belonging to a government. The second case also implies coordination between organizations of different governments (of the same or different level).

Intersectoriality and intergovernmentality are increasingly necessary response modalities due to the fact that most of the great social issues of our time “fall” into an area of mixed jurisdictions. These are issues whose attention does not correspond exclusively to an institution, sector or level of government, but to a combination of them.

Thus, it is necessary to develop multisectoral policies that address social problems in a comprehensive and integrated manner. The different manifestations of these problems require that public policies and programs complement each other.

For its part, intergovernmental coordination is essential in federal systems where each level of government has different responsibilities. However, the areas where coordination is essential in the execution of a large number of policies or programs are increasingly relevant.

Mireille Paquet and Robert Schertzer propose the concept of complex intergovernmental problems (PIC) based on the following characteristics. First, 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.

Long-term responses

The time horizons of national policies will almost never coincide with government cycles, because the problems that these policies address have different chronologies. Thus, the third characteristic of this class of policies refers to their time horizon, but not only in terms of their mere permanence over time. It is necessary to know where we want to go: think about what we have, what we want, what is possible and what is probable.

From a time perspective, complex social problems challenge planning horizons traditionally limited to the duration of government cycles which, due to lack of a comprehensive vision, abandon the attention, evolution and future effects of these problems.

National policies need to combine medium- and long-term strategies with short-term ones, but in any case, the former will serve to frame and guide the decisions made to address the urgent.

Systemic responses

To the previous characteristics, a macro or global perspective must be added, since only from a comprehensive vision can the magnitude of social problems be understood; as well as to determine, in a better way, the responsibility and intervention of the parties involved.

A panoramic vision is needed to understand social challenges as a set of interconnected problems and, consequently, to also conceive a system of interdependent solutions. This supposes having the idea of the whole to design interventions considering the interaction of the parts.

In his book Metagovernance for Sustainability: A Framework for Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, Louis Meuleman 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. It is clear that the great problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and that they demand a radical change in our thinking, perceptions and values.

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.


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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