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The Federal Equation in an Interdependent World

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

By Mauricio Covarrubias
September 25, 2021

The need to address common issues, and therefore mutual dependence, has been present in the federation since its origins. However, in current times the 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 a federalism centered on the principle of separation of powers, where the question is, which government should face the problem? On the contrary, the intensification of interdependence should lead us to ask; what combination of governments is needed to tackle the problem?

The seminal equation to define federalism proposed by Daniel Elazar in, “Self-Rule and Shared Rule,” can be useful as a starting point to conceptually explore how the nature of this model of political organization has been changing in those societies that are governed under its principles:

Federalism = Self-rule (or self-government) + Shared rule (or shared government)

That is, federalism implies the combination of self-rule and shared rule, an arrangement in which two or more peoples or political entities find it necessary and desirable to live together within some kind of constitutional framework that allows all parties to preserve their respective integrities while securing peace and stability through power sharing in those spheres where it is necessary.

There is a definite relationship between the degree of interdependence and the level of self-government and/or shared government. The proportion of each one is dynamic and is in direct ratio to the degree to which institutions belonging to different governments must work together to achieve a common goal. This means that relations between governments are crucial in the implementation of policies concerning the treatment of crosscutting problems or issues that cannot be solved except in a coordinated manner. The graphical representation of this is shown in the following figure:

Interdependence and expansion of shared decisionmaking in the Federal Model

The definition of the model variables can be formulated as follows:

Interdependence. This is the degree to which institutions belonging to different governments, of the same or different level, must work together to achieve a common goal. The level of interdependence that characterizes a particular social problem will influence the government’s ability to solve it.

Coordination. This is the recognition of interdependence and the ways to deal with it. Coordination becomes a deliberate intervention that makes the participants recognize their interdependence and that establishes arrangements to harmonize their actions and decisions. From this perspective, the effectiveness of the final decisionmaking process in federalism largely depends on the capacity of the interaction and negotiation processes between and within governments.

Coordination requirements. These are structural to the federal system and are directly proportional to the level of interdependence, as well as the number and type of institutions responsible for intervening in a particular public issue. We highlight here the impact of problems that cross jurisdictional boundaries. These problems require governments to avoid making policy alone; instead, governments should seek to initiate and enhance joint action.

Coordination arenas. This variable refers to the links, both vertical and horizontal, that governments and their organizations must establish to address a specific issue. According to the nature of the organizations involved, the arenas where they interact can be sectoral, intersectoral, intergovernmental and international (bilateral and multilateral).

Area of autonomous operation. This represents the sum of the territorial areas and public policy areas in which governments formally have exclusive powers to regulate and manage certain public affairs.

Self-government. This refers to the possibility for a governmental organization acting effectively on its own, or unilaterally, while addressing a public issue.

Area of shared decision. This identifies the size of territorial and policy areas in which organizations from different sectors and governments must work together to achieve mutually beneficial goals. This is an expanding class of functions involving more players whose presence wins specification and recognition, both at the constitutional level, as in secondary legislation.

Government shared. This constitutes an exercise of government based on the recognition of relationships of mutual dependence: Shared government = Self-government + Coordination. In other words, this is a decentralized but coordinated action. Shared government also implies the recognition of the need to forge a general government and comprehensive policies for common interests.

In short, at least three points can be inferred from the model:

  • By its crosscutting and complex nature, the current public problems increase beyond the jurisdictions and political and administrative capabilities, expanding areas of common decision.
  • Thus, despite the fact that in federalism, the distribution of formal competencies encourages independent government performance, the reality is that the mixed jurisdictions and zones of interaction are growing in importance; therefore, the need for cooperation is unavoidable.
  • The efficiency and effectiveness of government performance in a federal system increasingly depend on the level of coordination that enables a joint work: based on the strengthening of self-government, and simultaneously in the development of mechanisms of co-government from a comprehensive perspective.

In his book Enhancing Government: Federalism for the 21st Century, Erwin Chemerinsky makes an especially valuable observation about the third point. He argues that federalism should be conceived as a functional analysis of how to better enable each level of government with the authority it needs to respond to the complex problems of the 21st century.

Finally, we point out that it is no longer just a matter of better delimiting responsibilities, or undertaking a new distribution of powers in which, as if it were a hydraulic movement, one level of government receives what the other loses. The current social, political and economic challenges make it necessary to simultaneously strengthen the capacities of the different parts of the federal system.


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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