A new forum wants to strengthen the ties among federal, state and local governments

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Some problems are just too tough for the federal government alone to solve. The National Academy of Public Administration has long witnessed how federal, state, local and tribal governments often fail to coordinate with each other, even when tackling the country’s biggest problems. The academy this week launched a new effort to bring together experts from all levels of government. It’s called the Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships. Terry Gerton is NAPA’s president and CEO. She told Federal Drive with Tom Temin what drove the academy to create this new center.

Interview transcript:

Terry Gerton: We’re really excited to officially launch it as of yesterday. But NAPA’s had a long history in working in the intergovernmental space. And it’s part of public administration, right? We want to make sure that government works at all levels. But I think what really sort of pushed us in this direction was when we launched the Grand Challenges in Public Administration couple of years ago, we realized that none of those big issues that we were putting on the table were solvable by just the federal level alone, or even a single federal agency alone. And so we started thinking about how to make sure that all the levels of government — federal, state, county, local, tribes, territories — were working together to address some of these big issues. Just as an example, something like water systems. Water systems really isn’t a federal issue. It’s a regional issue, which is even more complex than just state and local, that we were headed in this direction, and then the pandemic just really brought it to life, right? Every issue that we saw in the pandemic related to public health, integration of delivery of services, distribution of protective equipment, all of those kinds of issues just really shined a bright light on the fact that we sort of lost the muscle memory around making sure that all of our government levels work really well together. And so we started exploring what a center would do and how it could work. Because there are lots of agencies and organizations in this space that look at single levels of government — associations that are focused at the county level, or the city level, or the mayor’s level or the governor’s level. But there’s nobody to really pull the string all the way through and make sure that the system is integrated and works effectively. So that really was the burning platform, if you will, that caused us to create the center.

Nicole Ogrysko: And of course, you all have fellows who have a variety of backgrounds — they come from the federal government — but I believe you also do have some state government alumni, if you will, as well?

Terry Gerton: Absolutely. We have former governors, we have city and county managers, we have academics who specifically study the interrelationship between the different levels. And so again, this positions the academy in a really unique space where we have the expertise at all of those levels to bring together to focus on sort of the vertical integration. There’s lots of good work that’s happening at the horizontal levels, if you will. But again, we think the academy’s really uniquely positioned to address the systematic functionality in this space.

Nicole Ogrysko: So can you walk me through what maybe some of your first projects will be with this new center?

Terry Gerton: The first thing that we’re going to look at is probably the most urgent on everybody’s mind, which is how are the pandemic response funds and the pandemic relief funds flowing, and how are they working? We’ve heard from the groups at every level that there are clogs in the pipeline, if you will. Right? There’s trillions and trillions of dollars that went into the funding pipelines. But how did it get to the states? How did it get to the localities? How is it having an impact? And importantly, how are the flexibilities at those different levels allowing the effective delivery and partnership with other kinds of organizations? So I think there’s kind of three questions around this flow. Right? One is, do we have effective oversight of the programs at each of the levels? Because Congress wants to know that. Congress also wants to know if we have accountability of the trillions of dollars that they spent. But most importantly, they want to know if they had the impact. And that’s really tricky to track through all the different levels. So the first thing the center is going to do is working with all of the different players in this space. Try to identify what’s working, what’s not working, and how we can propose some systemic solutions, how we can take the lessons that we’re learning from where it’s working well, where it’s not working well, to impact future program design. Because we think a lot of the things that are showing up and how that trillions of dollars is flowing is also going to be important when we think about the next set of trillions that are coming for infrastructure, or the next set of trillions after that that might be coming for human services programs. We really need to rebuild that system of funds, flow and accountability, to make sure that we’re giving the folks who have to execute those funds the most flexibility to have the greatest impact.

Nicole Ogrysko: I think you all perhaps worked on a study for the National Association of Counties, and I think you found in that study, no real surprise there, that there could be better coordination among all of these groups that we’re talking about. So just wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about what that study found and how those findings may have informed […] here.

Terry Gerton: Sure. That study looks specifically at the funding that flowed directly to counties through the Cares Act. And we found a number of things there, we found that the guidance that came out from Treasury related to those funds, it got better as time went along, but it wasn’t great at the beginning, and so people at the county level didn’t really know what all the parameters were, what their restrictions were, what they were going to be checked on, and didn’t really know how to have that all flow. The second piece that we learned was that where there was flexibility and where communities had practice in handling federal funds, they did a better job. So when you got to the recovery programs that followed subsequently, guidance got better, and communities learned a little bit more about how to prepare for those funds and how to use them more effectively. But one of the things we also learned from that study was where communities weren’t used to getting large influxes of federal funds, we really need to prepare them in advance so that they built the capacity and the capability to handle all of the accounting and reporting and oversight that comes with those federal funds, and teach them how to integrate them across different programs so that they can be more effective.

Nicole Ogrysko: So who is a part of this new center and how did you choose the the participants for this?

Terry Gerton: Well, one of the things we wanted to make sure that the beginning was that we were finding the niche that was unfilled. Right? We didn’t want to be stepping on the toes of other organizations that are already working in this space. So we started with the group that’s commonly called the big seven. And we’re really excited the National Association of Counties, and the National Conference of State Legislatures have made commitments of support to the academy center. But we’ve also had great endorsements from the Government Finance Officers Association, from the Council of State Governments, from the National League of Cities, from the International City and County Managers Association. All of those folks who are particularly interested in the layers of the intergovernmental system has signed up to partner with us. And we’re also talking to different kinds of activities and organizations who are also interested in this space, but more around particular topics, like groups who are working on infrastructure, groups who are working on human services, those kinds of things. So they’re starting to work some verticals in particular topics. And then we have the groups who are working the horizontals, kind of across all the topics. So, it’s a really interesting matrix of support. But I think we find the places where the academy can be most impactful are two spaces. One is around convenience — actually bringing the horizontals and verticals together — to talk about lessons learned, to talk about best practices, to figure out what the particular issues are, because the intergovernmental issues in the Midwest might be different from the intergovernmental issues in the Southeast, and bringing those communities together to talk about specifically what they’re working on and what challenges they’re facing and how they can share learnings amongst themselves is a place where the academy can be uniquely helpful. And then again, we think this original research where we’re pulling the verticals together and looking at the lessons learned and bringing those best practices to the front and saying this is what we need to think about for programs designed for the future to make this process work better, are the places where we’re kind of nobody is sitting right now. And so that’s where we hope to position the center.

Nicole Ogrysko: I’m wondering how you think Congress might fit in with some of this work? I’m not sure at a committee level, we see a lot of intergovernmental work in the way that you describe. And I wonder what you think Congress’s role might be, eventually, with some of the recommendations that the center will provide?

Terry Gerton: Well, absolutely. I mean, Congress is a critical player, because when you think about federal funding, that’s where it starts. And one of the interesting issues in the recovery funding was a large chunk of money that went directly to counties kind of without the usual congressional strings. They wanted to put that money out there so that the counties could take it and do what they needed to do within the parameters of the legislation. But the flip side of that is Congress is very interested in how that worked, and whether that flexibility actually improved outcomes. And so there is a group of congressional members who are formerly elected leaders in state and local government, who are very interested in this process and we think will be key players as we go forward so that we can share information back to them that says this is helpful when you craft legislation if this is what you want. Right? These are some parameters that you want to put in the legislation. But also providing confidence that there’s an accountability and an oversight that goes with that, that gives them the confidence that they can share that funding with fewer restrictions so that there’s more flexibility at the execution level. I think also from the White House perspective, many of the key initiatives in this administration require intergovernmental collaboration. Right? You can’t do climate change or equity or economic recovery if all the levels aren’t working smoothly together. So we do have interest from both the White House and the Congress on the center. And we’re excited to work with them and share these lessons back. So again, future programs can work more effectively.

Eric White: Terry Gerton, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, speaking there with Federal News Networks Nicole Ogrysko.

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