A program to foster intergovernmental cooperation points to some one-year accomplishments

The program established by the National Academy of Public Administration just marked its first year of operation, the Center for intergovernmental Partnerships ...

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The program established by the National Academy of Public Administration just marked its first year of operation, the Center for intergovernmental Partnerships has already contributed to NAPA’s work on the grand challenges in public administration. For more, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  turns to the center’s director, Dr. Nancy Augustine.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin:  And just give us the background here on the Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships. What is it and what is its mission?

Nancy Augustine: The Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships was established last year at the impetus of a number of fellows of the National Academy of Public Administration, who are really interested in reviving the conversation on intergovernmental systems. This is a topic that has kind of fallen off the radar screen in so many ways, how the federal government works with the state, local, tribal, and territorial levels of government.

Tom Temin: And of course, the pandemic of the last couple of years launched a few trillion dollars the government didn’t have through the states to help them deliver pandemic relief to their citizens. So was that part of the thinking here that, golly, this needs to be revitalized because of how many dollars flow from the federal government through state systems and programs to the ultimate beneficiaries?

Nancy Augustine: The pandemic has been such a test of the intergovernmental system, and it’s both exposed a lot of challenges and a lot of gaps, but it’s created a lot of opportunity. So all that federal money flowed through states and localities to try to deal simultaneously with a public health crisis. And with an economic crisis, so much distress throughout the country. So it really taxed the existing programs and the new programs that had to be set up in order to get all that money out there.

Tom Temin: And of course, we’re learning now how much of the money went to wrong hands are so much fraud, you know, it keeps adding up. So the impetus really sounds like it’s there for much more talking.

Nancy Augustine: Absolutely. This is certainly a question that will be dealt with at multiple levels of government, the federal offices of inspector general will be looking at it. The state offices of inspector general, this is just the next episode in the series on the pandemic.

Tom Temin: And with respect to the center then, who is involved from NAPA, and our federal current operating managers part of this also. And then who do you deal with at the state level?

Nancy Augustine: At the state level, we have been working with a lot of the professional associations, all of whom have been mobilized to deal with pandemic response. So one of our partners that we’ve been working with a lot is American Public Human Services Association. There are just so many questions on how people were able to access or not able to access the assistance that they needed during the pandemic. We’ve also been great partners with the National Association of Counties, National Conference of State Legislatures, among many, many others.

Tom Temin: And what form have the activities of the center taken in the first year?

Nancy Augustine: We’ve focused a lot on creating opportunities for dialogue. So we’ve had a number of events where we’ve brought together federal, state, local, nonprofit, and association representatives to talk about common issues. So on any given issue, we talk about, what are the challenges? What are the opportunities, what do you need from the other levels of government to make this program work better? So we’re hoping the dialogue will help shed light and create a path towards making things work better.

Tom Temin: And one of the things I noticed in the most recent write-up was that you have been discussing the issue of permitting at the state and local level. Is that a way of getting some of that federal money for infrastructure projects to be more effective and operate more quickly if some of the permitting can be cleared or streamlined in some ways, is that the topic?

Nancy Augustine: So those are two different topics. So in terms of permitting, we’re exploring how states and localities worked with the business community to be able to stay open and to be able to pivot to different forms of business activity. In many cases to create new businesses. We saw an astonishing uptick in the creation of businesses in so many states. So that’s one set of activities. The infrastructure bill, that’s a very interesting emerging topic. And an issue that we’re very interested in exploring, particularly from the standpoint of the communities that are least well able to access funds are the ones that need it the most.

Tom Temin: Interesting. So that means then that you may not have issues so much with New York City or Cook County or the big, well established gigantic governments at the non-federal level. But out there in the hustings, where they also need infrastructure work, but they’re not so sophisticated in pulling on the federal money levers.

Nancy Augustine: Unquestionably, all levels of government certainly have their own challenges in dealing in the intergovernmental system, particularly when it comes to federal programs. But when I made that comment, I’m thinking about the smaller communities that may not have their own grants management office. That may not even have their own full time legal counsel, they may not have any way of finding the grants much less applying for the grants. It’s just a whole lot of process that does not come easily to the smallest and poorest places.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Nancy Augustine, Director of the Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships, that’s a project of the National Academy of Public Administration. So is the primary focus going to be research? Is it going to be finding ways of perhaps improving the processes by which government at the local level deals with government at the federal level and vice versa, or maybe all of the above?

Nancy Augustine: We’re going to continue our emphasis on creating opportunities for dialogue, we found that to be a very constructive way to use our resources, bringing people together. But we’re also moving into areas of research. We aspire to be a hub of information on intergovernmental systems where perhaps we can bring together best practices, foster communities of practice, that sort of thing.

Tom Temin: Because your own personal background, from what I’ve read, contains a lot of research orientation.

Nancy Augustine: Absolutely. The first 10 years of my career were spent in local government I was an urban planner in three different localities in Virginia. And that’s where I really got my orientation to government and public service. But yes, since then, I have focused primarily on research-based in that understanding of practice.

Tom Temin: And for the year ahead then, any particular projects planned?

Nancy Augustine: Yes, for the year ahead. We are moving into a number of particular areas. So I mentioned social services earlier, that’s going to continue. We are starting to look at agile management practices. I know that’s a little buzz wordy, but can good management bring improvement to the social services system? That’s the kind of question that we’re looking at. We’re also gearing up for some work on disaster resiliency. And this is where the focus on those communities that are least well able to access federal funds comes in. We’re planning to work with federal partners to talk about how their existing programs can be better leveraged to help those communities prepare and stave off disasters.

Tom Temin: Just out of personal curiosity is the seeming decay of the public water system, which is really 10,000 separate systems in the United States. Is that a subject of study do you think in the coming year? Because we’ve seen evidence of where water systems are not doing so well, and that’s always been one of the crown jewels of the federated system, you might say, for the developed world, is the American ability to drink from any faucet.

Nancy Augustine: I appreciate that you asked that, because that really brings together a couple of threads. It’s this disaster resiliency in a sense, as well as infrastructure investment. You know, there are questions of how those funds are going to be distributed and whether they’re going to be distributed in a way to deal with those most urgent problems.

Tom Temin: And that’s not just an issue for as we mentioned earlier, the rural or less sophisticated areas. I mean, Baltimore has a boil water warning going on right now.

Nancy Augustine: It sure does. And, you know, the problems in Detroit are also quite well known. So many cities with the older infrastructure are going to have to rethink their clean water, their drinking water, and their storm water.

Tom Temin: Sure. And you don’t want the mixing which can happen to it, you know, in one tube and out the other not such a good idea. And at the NAPA level, they’re saying that the center that you are heading can also help NAPA with its 12 Grand Challenges in public sector administration. What are one or two of those that you think you’ll really be able to help NAPA with?

Nancy Augustine: One thing to bear in mind is that the vast majority of domestic policy in the United States is implemented at the state and local level. So virtually all of the grand challenges in public administration facing the country today are a question of state and local implementation. So for instance, one of the grand challenges is to improve resiliency and we will squarely be focusing on that during our first year, we also worked on the grand challenge related to making sure everyone has access to meaningful work. This is yet another issue that we’re fascinated by, you know, the shortage of workers in so many sectors is quite well known. We looked in particular at the shortage of infrastructure workers. And I know a lot of other associations have picked this topic up crucially important, all the billions of dollars going into infrastructure projects across the United States. Who’s going to do the work? Who’s going to do the engineering is going to build the structures? So that’s a good question.

Tom Temin: And just a final question again, on a topic detail, but disability costs have been getting out of control for social security and other programs and you look across the nation, not only is the case load up because the population keeps rising, but also because a greater person percentage of the population. And so a lot of states are grappling with ways to get people off of disability, back to work, but maybe not lose all of their benefits. So there’s some incentive to get off in some way of avoiding disaster by withdrawing all the benefits. Is that part of the thinking here? The the whole disability system?

Nancy Augustine: So I can’t speak to the disability system per se, but I think what you’re getting at is absolutely germane to what we were just talking about is how to make the workplace more accommodating to people with physical disabilities of some kind, other disabilities. One area that I know there’s been a lot of work is how to make the workplace more receptive to neurodivergent people, particularly in federal agencies. So I think this is an emerging area that I’m looking forward to seeing how this unfolds.

Tom Temin: All right, some exciting stuff. Dr. Nancy Augustine is director of the Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships at the National Academy of Public Administration.

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