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The Human Phase of Intergovernmental Relations

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

By Patrick S. Malone
May 6, 2022

Intergovernmental relations have a long and distinctive history within the public administration landscape. Going all the way back to the separation of powers in the constitution, the formal and informal divides among various levels of government have tested public officials eager to deliver services to an ever-demanding public. Often equated to catchy metaphors like layer cake federalism, marble cake federalism, channeled federalism or fused foliated federalism, the governments making up our republic continue to struggle to collaborate effectively. Complex delivery systems, along with concerns surrounding program effectiveness, citizen access and policy implementation complicate matters further. 

If we dust off our public administration and policy textbooks, we are reminded of the work of the Kestenbaum commission in the 1950s. Officially known as the “Commission on Intergovernmental Relations,” the Kestenbaum Commission represented one of the most significant attempts at addressing the problem of work, in and among various levels of governments. Created in the summer of 1953, the Commission attempted to tackle the problems of intergovernmental relations in an effort which President Eisenhower described as “a historic undertaking: the elimination of frictions, duplications and waste from Federal-state relations; the clear definition of lines of governmental authority in our nation; the increase in efficiency in a multitude of government programs vital to the welfare of all Americans.” 

Relations among governments across the nation are hampered by many factors.

  • Our citizens continue to demand increased services yet oppose the taxes that are necessary for the services to be put in place. For example, the fiscal challenges of Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and Social Security create significant tension among the populace. 
  • The public service workforce is in a period of transition, with the long-awaited retirement wave delayed by the need for Americans to continue to work into their later years. Advances in healthcare and longevity, and sometimes economic need, have extended the average career well beyond the standard retirement age. Long gone are the days when new hires commit to agencies for a career. We are now seeing more individuals float between public, private and nonprofit sectors throughout their professional life.
  • Prolonged political polarization has crippled the nation’s ability to deal with the fundamental issues of economic prosperity for all and not just a chosen few. Likewise, budgetary processes are hampered by government shutdowns and political grandstanding. Finally, a host of social issues divide our citizenry at its core.

The most recent test for intergovernmental relations came in the form of a pandemic that swept the nation. J. Edwin Benton in his 2020 article, “Challenges to Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations and Takeaways Amid the COVID-19 Experience” concluded that we failed. He noted that the splintered relationship in governmental relations resulted in a lack of coordination that caused public officials to fail to meet their communities’ needs and deliver a collective good. Many would agree. 

Indeed, not many positive things have come out of the Covid pandemic. In addition to the insufferable human costs, the pandemic completely upended our normal work life balance in the way we deliver services to our nation, states, counties and towns. Perhaps, however, as part of this new normal, the pandemic has ironically opened a door for a new age of intergovernmental relations—one that will allow governments to work better together, more efficiently and more effectively. For example:

New ways of delivering public service. During nationwide shutdowns, cities and states across the country were required to find new creative ways to deliver public services. Motor Vehicle Administrations, for example, honed more efficient methods of delivering services to their citizens. Operations and processes had to be reimagined given the constraints of the new environment.

New workforce. New delivery mechanisms for services opened opportunities for a more diverse and inclusive workforce as the number of public servants working online increased. No longer was the recruitment pool for new positions limited to one or two geographic areas. This allows for greater diversity in hiring from a broader population with and without government experience.

New modalities of communication among public servants. The use of social media and work platforms became the new normal. This means town employees in rural areas can easily attend and be involved with officials at the county, state and federal levels. Greater representation in all matters of the public interest can now easily span all levels of government.

There is an important commonality among all the newness created by the pandemic—the human.  Political scientist and intergovernmental relations authority Deil S. Wright (June 18, 1930-June 30, 2009) often reminded us that intergovernmental relations consist of humans. He argued that the individual interactions of public officials were the core of intergovernmental relations and he characterized intergovernmental relations as a day-to-day pattern of interactions, not one-time occurrences. 

In other words, intergovernmental relations are about humans interacting with other humans on a regular basis. Perhaps the new modalities, workforce and communications platforms can fuel the human aspect of intergovernmental relations that Wright referred to. And maybe, just maybe, the pain and upheaval of a pandemic can bring us closer together at all levels.


Author:  Patrick S. Malone is the Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.  He is a frequent guest lecturer and author on leadership and organizational dynamics in the public service.  His co-authored book, “Leading with Love and Laughter – A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real” (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) was released in Spring 2021. Email: [email protected]. Twitter:  @DrPatrickMalone

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