Making government work, and work for all.

Federalism is integral to our democracy. Our decentralized governance system—distributed across multiple layers of government—stands like a building always under construction, a constant work in progress, functioning on a usually noisy and messy construction site, and occasionally brandishing a fresh coat of paint. All the while, no matter what work is done to the structure, the foundation underneath remains unsettled—flawed in its original design, rooted in the inequities of a nation founded on the land of indigenous communities and the labor of enslaved people, yet claiming to center its power in the people.

The time is now to reset the foundation if we are ever to make good on Lincoln’s description of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and, become a better union. As federal, state, and local governments implement the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) on the heels of the $2.3 trillion Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act that preceded it, we need all levels of government to renovate from the same blueprint, with the American people at the center. To make the most of the largest public investment in decades requires that we understand how our federalist structure came to be today, especially through our people-serving systems, such as human services, housing, and public health. It is these systems that provide the best opportunity to finally repair the foundation on which this nation sits and genuinely work toward a just and inclusive society.

How Did We Get Here?

Not since Roosevelt’s New Deal has there been such a broad and expansive set of national investments in “the general welfare,” as envisioned by Article I of the Constitution. It was the New Deal that created much of the structure we still operate under today, including the national agency infrastructure charged with regulating states’ use of federal resources and monitoring their compliance to rules. From the New Deal came the concept of fiscal federalism, whereby the federal government delegates day-to-day administration of programs that provide for the general welfare of people by passing dollars to the states to deliver services on the ground. Many federal-state collaborations that support basic health and well-being today were seeded in this era.

Over time, states sought to counterbalance the increasing federal role by seeking to keep decisions about how best to make use of resources intended for the general welfare within their purview. In a 1932 dissent, Supreme Court Justice Brandeis made famous the notion of states as the laboratories of democracy, where new innovations should be encouraged and tested at the “local” government level. Over time, states and the localities within them exercised this muscle, and as a result, today’s public service delivery system in the United States is not the same from one place to another. While there are similarities in design across states, it is also true that no one state looks the same, nor does one county, city, or town. This variation must be fully in our line of sight as we make critical investment decisions.               

Where Are We Headed?

Like the New Deal did in response to the Great Depression, the ARPA aims to both prevent further harm to people impacted by COVID-19 and lay tracks for an economic recovery. What is different today is that we know much more about what kind of tracks we need to lay to tackle society’s toughest challenges, and not through a single program or service, but in the context of the many building blocks we all need to live healthy and well, and with clear evidence of how our people-serving systems have continuously denied Black, Brown, and Indigenous People of Color from these foundational building blocks of well-being.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, we know that intergovernmental systems must be re-designed in innovative ways to tackle these inequities and work toward repair at the base. For all of the ways in which our systems must change, we also know that systems can be a force of good. Working in partnership across the federal, state, and local landscape, we can strengthen our common purpose to prevent adversity for students, parents, essential workers, caregivers, seniors, and more, and ultimately build resilient communities across the nation.

How Do We Get There?

We need intergovernmental forums that can cut through the political noise and help reimagine, in real time, a federalism system that is truly by the people and for the people. Congressionally charted organizations like the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and bipartisan, national associations like the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) provide a professional forum where government leaders, practitioners, policymakers, community advocates, academics, and the private industry can convene to discuss and then act on what we need to become a more perfect union—fostering connections at all levels of government alongside the American people.

We need to consider: How do we keep a relentless focus on repairing our systems to be fair and equitable, willingly dismantling our structures and rebuilding where we need to do so? How can we enhance accountability without detracting from the desired focus on people? How do we authentically honor community voice while carrying out our responsibilities as institutions? How do we create shared urgency across all levels of government? As we tackle these questions, we need the ability to “zoom in” —focusing on how we can achieve equitable outcomes at the individual, familial, and neighborhood levels—and the ability to “zoom out” —critically examining how federal, state, and local governments are actively and intentionally working to dismantle structural and systemic racism. Each level of government has a role to play. The federal government, for example, can model intergovernmental delivery systems that leverage population-based data to inform investment decisions. And, by simultaneously investing in states to build this capacity at local levels, the federal government can also further our ability to collect longevity data across multiple systems to better understand the true impact of direct interventions and preventative service arrays over time. States and localities, in turn, can work in coordination to understand their communities more fully, relentlessly focus on centering the people most affected by adversity in the redesign of our human-serving systems and informing decision-making in the context of family strengths, community assets, and practical solutions. A striking example of such an effort is happening in Washington State through its bold 10-year plan to dismantle poverty.

It is incumbent upon public sector leaders at all levels of government to meet this moment, working together to secure a foundation made for a just, resilient, and equitable society. It has never been more important that we show, through an inclusive intergovernmental collaboration, the possibilities of a multilevel democracy of, by, and for the people.


Tracy Wareing Evans is the President & CEO of the American Public Human Services Association and a Fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration.