Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

By Nancy Augustine, Director, Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships

In the 21st Century, no significant public problem fits entirely within one government agency or even one level of government. The federal system presupposes that all levels of government have an important role in the democratic process. Effective problem-solving requires federal, state, and local governments to work together, often with the private and non-profit sectors. And yet, building collaborative capabilities to develop and implement effective policies and programs across levels of government and sectors of society has not been prioritized.

The intergovernmental system in the United States is the set of relationships and interactions among the federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments, characterized by a division of powers and responsibilities. SLTT governments implement many federally-designed and funded domestic policy areas, but the hand-off from federal agencies is not always coordinated or complete. Additionally, SLTTs are not identical nor equally situated to address their own challenges or access federal government assistance.

Intergovernmental collaboration and cooperation are primary tools to address many of society’s most insidious or “wicked” problems, which are difficult or impossible to solve due to their complex and multi-faceted nature. These wicked problems often have incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. As originally described by Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in 1973, wicked problems tend to develop over a long period of time, resulting from multiple mutually aggravating phenomena. They cannot be fully addressed, much less solved, by any single government agency or level of government. Such problems require enduring, multi-faceted, innovative, intergovernmental responses. Even if the problem cannot be “solved,” policy makers can take steps to address the impact on individuals. 

For example, a commonly understood wicked problem is homelessness. People become homeless due to various, often compounding, direct and indirect issues, such as unaffordable housing, inadequate pay, physical and mental health challenges, loss of employment, domestic violence, economic changes, housing shortages, poor-performing schools, family issues, criminal justice involvement, and personal misfortune. Any of those, and more, may create or worsen an issue and lead to homelessness.

Housing officials might understand the problem as an inadequate supply of affordable units. Social services agency leaders might focus on individuals’ obstacles to employment or lack of income. Local officials might blame the school system for failing to prepare students for work or fault the police for failing to enforce vagrancy laws. Any of these approaches will only address some of the circumstances leading to homelessness, and the activities often occur in siloes.

Other wicked problems, such as traffic congestion and coastal erosion, may be caused by relatively finite first-order issues (too many vehicles on existing roads and increased frequency of extreme weather events). But addressing those issues may require overwhelmingly large public investments and drastic policy changes, exceeding the capacity of any one functional area of government to fund and coordinate. Responses to these problems may also require widespread modification of behaviors shaped by habit, limitations, preference, experience, opportunities, and many other individualized factors. Individual agencies and levels of government may be able to influence some people’s behaviors, but often not enough to effect societal change. 

In short, federal agencies may design policies and programs to tackle wicked problems, but most require effective and appropriate implementation at the state and local levels. State and local governments facing wicked problems often cannot address them individually. However, collaboration within and across levels of government is a practical option.

For more information about how intergovernmental collaboration can address complex problems, access the “Modern Intergovernmental Governance Toolkit,” or listen to an episode of the Management Matters podcast featuring Academy Fellow Naim Kapucu.

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