Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Studying Intergovernmental Relations During and After Crisis

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

By Nevbahar Ertas
November 7, 2022

Preparedness for and response to crisis is a shared responsibility between national, regional, state and local governments. In my first essay for PA Times, I summarized some of the themes PPA scholars have identified for a post-pandemic research agenda and in my subsequent columns, I expanded on some of these themes; first the critical role of trust in government in times of crises such as a pandemic, and then concerns and questions regarding public servants the pandemic has thrown into the spotlight. In this column, let’s turn our attention to another theme: intergovernmental relations (IGR). The policy response to COVID-19 has been shaped by tensions between intergovernmental —federal, state and local governments in United States—and regional actors. For example, between the European Union and member countries—and as such, there is much work to be done by PPA scholars to demonstrate what happened and how the intergovernmental relationships will evolve in the future as a result.

Intergovernmental relations in the United States at the onset of the pandemic

The United States response to COVID-19 has been characterized by intergovernmental friction and fragmented policy responses. Does the federal system explain the shortcomings of the United States’ response to the pandemic? In a paper published in 2020 in Public Administration Review, professor Kettl argued that “the nation’s strategy was built on a wobbly foundation, driven by great tensions of federal versus state power, and then with the states pulling in different directions.” In the American Review of Public Administration, Professor Benton made an early assessment of intergovernmental relations in the United States since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, listing examples inter-state, and to a degree, state-local collaborations as positive takeaways, and emphasized the relationship between federal and state governments as the “troublesome feature of American federalism”. On the other hand, in their paper published in the Publius: The Journal of Federalism, professors Birkland, Taylor, Crow and DeLeo argued that the fragmented response to the pandemic was “driven by state partisanship, which shaped state public health interventions and resulted in differences in public health outcomes”. They did not think that the federal system was the culprit per se and linked the problem of poor response to the breakdown of cooperative federalism exacerbated by partisan polarization and federal managerial incompetence during the onset of Covid-19.

Intergovernmental relations research at the onset of the pandemic outside the United States

Understanding the politics and processes of policy responses to a crisis calls for a collective endeavor in comparative public policy scholarship. Several journals with international focus published special issues to provide a comparative lens to the COVID -19 policy responses, such as the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice and the Local Government Studies. The collection of these papers demonstrates various ways in which the nature of intergovernmental relationships, as well as partisan politics, culture and state capacity shape policy responses during the pandemic. For example, Béland and colleagues (2021) examined whether COVID-19 has reshaped the healthcare policy reforms in Canada, United States and Mexico using the multiple streams framework, and argued that a “policy window” for reforms has been opened—though the extent to which real policy change will occur remains a question that policy scholars should continue to observe, tracking policy and political streams in each country.

Liu and colleagues (2021)  compared China and the United States, and despite substantial differences in the level of autonomy of provincial or state governments, found that both countries adopted a hybrid form of vertical and horizontal coordination in COVID-19 responses. They conclude that effective crisis response requires a balance between national leadership and local autonomy regardless of democratic and authoritarian governance contexts.  On the other hand, when it comes to agenda setting, Dai and colleagues’ (2021) analysis demonstrates that while extensive public-led agenda setting have happened over social media during COVID-19, the Chinese government was only responsive to a select few public-led agendas.

Comparative analysis on intergovernmental relations during the pandemic in ten European countries in the special Local Government Studies issue showed that countries with multi-layered and devolved IGR processes were more effective in pandemic response than rigidly centralized or conflict-ridden systems. They noted that countries with cooperative federalism with strong local governments demonstrated significant strength and adaptability (e.g., Germany), whereas central governments in countries of resurgent territorial politics experienced a legitimacy crisis (e.g., Britain, and Spain). For countries without entrenched IGR systems, local governments experienced vast challenges in communication with central governments (e.g., Czech Republic and Slovakia).


Many questions remain for scholars who are interested in intergovernmental relations and collaboration during crisis. How do governmental structures affect policymaking? How has the policy response to Covid-19 varied in unitary and federal systems of government? How does the policy response to crisis vary in unitary and federal systems? In what manner are crisis and non-crisis policymaking interconnected? What kind of institutionalized mechanisms facilitate coordination and collaboration in crisis response among governmental national, regional or local governments? It is my hope that accumulating public administration and policy research will contribute to our understanding of role of IGR in preparedness systems and networks, their effectiveness and their sustainability.

Author: Nevbahar Ertas is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Her research focuses broadly on public service, and public administration and policy. [email protected] Twitter: https://twitter.com/NevbaharErtas or @NevbaharErtas

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *