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Plant an Intergovernmental Reform Garden Now: A Modest Proposal for Public Interest Groups and Their Friends

Bill Dodge / Sep 28 2012

For Release Friday, September 28, 2012

Bill DodgeThe National Academy of Public Administration is preparing a memo to national leaders, calling for a new, intergovernmental policy council to help restore the health of our ailing federal/state/local government system.

This council would advance governance reforms in hopes of making the system more effective in providing the services and infrastructure needed to restore our equally ailing economy.

Initial topics that have been suggested for the council’s agenda: adopting a Value Added Tax (VAT) shared by all levels of governments, and empowering innovative mechanisms, such as for-benefit organizations, to bring old stakeholders together in new ways.

Syndicated columnist Neal Peirce argues that the “unkempt (intergovernmental system) garden needs a plan,” and NAPA’s proposed intergovernmental policy council could prepare and pursue it, given support from all levels of government, starting with the White House and the Congress.

All well and good.

But what will give this new council any better chance at success than its predecessor, the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (ACIR)?

My fellow recovering regionalists still look reverently upon ACIR’s efforts to design, test and promote new regional governance models. However, they are also haunted by ACIR’s inability to engage key government partners in controversial discussions – and all discussions of intergovernmental reform are controversial. They are haunted, too, by ACIR’s tragic demise in the polarized politics of the new century.

Moreover, creating an intergovernmental policy council could take years, and even then it might have difficulty contending with the dysfunctional dynamics of the nation’s capital.

Thus, a call for action by public interest groups and their friends.

If the intergovernmental system is to be reformed, public interest groups that represent towns, cities, counties, regional organizations and states must plant the seeds – the proven existing and practical new models for local, state, federal and especially intergovernmental governance. They need to be the gardeners who will foment a “revolution from the bottom up,” as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute put it. And they need to plant those seeds now. All levels of governance are in crisis.

Regional cooperation has been one of the positive intergovernmental reforms in my lifetime. It has provided a new governance capacity to tackle tough challenges that cut across all levels of government and are essential to solve if the United States is to remain competitive in the global marketplace. Those challenge include transportation, air and water quality, emergency preparedness and sustainable growth.

Regional cooperation has had its flaws. Most regional organizations still have too little power or money to address the toughest common challenges. But these governance flaws have not thwarted real success.

Now, with growing budget constraints, local governments cannot depend upon federal, state or other public partners to develop or pay for regional initiatives. Nor can they expect other sectors – private, academic, nonprofit or civic – to pick up the slack. And without well-heeled partners helping them to address the toughest challenges, those same regional governance flaws will be quickly exposed and threaten future success.

Here’s the bottom line: Restoring our national economy requires rebuilding our intergovernmental system.

Local governments, therefore, need access to the best ideas for governance reforms, ideas that can strengthen their ability to work together until they can address the toughest challenges with confidence and limited outside support. They need models for building their capacity to:

  • Address emerging, cross-cutting challenges, no matter how controversial, before they explode into crises.
  • Design joint action plans to address those challenges and then to empower themselves to negotiate, with each other and other sectors, how to put those plans into action.
  • Propose various ways to pay for top priorities, primarily from local sources, even if this means taking them to the public for approval.
  • Hold themselves accountable for getting things done, even if this results in public embarrassment or reduced support for nonperformers.
  • Maybe most important, report regularly to the public on successes and failures.

State and federal governments are still critical. They need to endorse regional capacity-building efforts and to reward them with supportive legislation and, where possible, money. State and federal governments also need to continue to provide incentives to ensure that distressed regions, urban and rural, can complete equitably with more affluent ones.

The same case could be made for similar reforms across the intergovernmental system. Neighboring local governments need to better cooperate and share the benefits of economic development initiatives. Neighboring states need to find better ways to cooperate, especially when boundaries divide metropolitan region.

A modest proposal

What if the various public interest groups and their friends solicited ideas for reforming local/state/federal governance? Their research centers and members have a long history of governance reform and would be ideal candidates to promote new ideas. So would NAPA, the Alliance for Innovation, the National Civic League and academic research institutes.

Simultaneously, public interest groups could appoint a working group – a bottom-up, informal, prototype intergovernmental policy council – to select the best ideas on reform to explore. They could recruit experts and host discussions to convert the ideas into practical actions, then test and implement those ideas.

I suspect national foundations might welcome the opportunity to provide seed funding.

Put together, these actions could become an informal, 2013 Intergovernmental Reform Agenda. It might result in a somewhat messy garden, but if a few of the reforms quickly bear fruit, it could help restore confidence that governance reform has not been fatally poisoned by political infighting. And it could encourage others to advance good ideas in the future.

This informal reform agenda could also provide a compelling rationale for quickly creating an intergovernmental policy council to keep planting and harvesting a garden of most promising reforms. Finally, it could help show how public interest groups can keep such a council accountable.

Members of public interest groups are the most important consumers of a bountiful garden of intergovernmental reforms. If those groups don’t plant the seeds, who will? And, if they don’t do it now, how will our intergovernmental system ever build the capacity to keep our economy competitive and our communities the best places to live?

Bill Dodge is looking for a few good regions interested in designing regional charters to strengthen their capacity to take bold actions to address tough common challenges. He is the former executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils, the author of Regional Excellence, and is writing a new book on regional charters. Reach him at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Gary Braswell
    Posted September 29, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    This council would advance governance reforms in hopes of making the system more effective in providing the services and infrastructure needed to restore our equally ailing economy. HOPE

    Initial topics that have been suggested for the council’s agenda: adopting a Value Added Tax (VAT) shared by all levels of governments, … TAX

    I appreciate the efforts. Your articles raise a lot of good points for discussion but Hope and Tax is not a plan for an ailing economy.

  2. Bill Tirrill
    Posted October 12, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Response to Mr Braswell’s comment–

    Re: HOPE Inasmuch as no plan can guarantee its results, this comment would apply equally to any proposal that could be offered. I see no point to such empty negativity. Unless … (see below–)

    Re: TAX This comment represents an agenda posing as a critique. The extremist position of refusing to consider any proposal involving taxes is a means of stifling engagement. It is not a way of discussing issues, but rather of refusing to discuss them.

    So maybe that was the point all along. It is forbidden to speak of such things, therefore do nothing …