Governing Across The Divide

By Terry Gerton

Our Governing Across the Divide fall symposium series hit the ground running in Sacramento, California last week, kick-started by a morning keynote address from the state’s Attorney General, Xavier Becerra. He emphasized the importance of political will—a “get things done” mentality—and pointed out that people are willing to pay for increased benefits if those costs are distributed as fairly as possible.

These two themes, political will and equitable delivery of government services, were woven into the day’s program, which covered environmental policy, healthcare policy, and the interactions of state and local government.

We are calling this series “Governing Across the Divide” because it seems clear to us that we must gather people with different perspectives to talk about important and tough issues, in order to find the governance solutions that can help us move forward. We began these conversations in California’s capitol city, focusing on the changing roles of states in the intergovernmental system.

California, with its 40 million residents, is now the world’s sixth largest economy, and yet the benefits of that growth have not been shared equally across its population. The state experiences its own divides – geographic (inland vs. coastal), political (red vs. blue), and economic (agriculture vs. manufacturing) – but it has found common policy and legislative ground on two of the most controversial issues of our day, environmental policy and healthcare. 

We wanted to find out how they have done that, and what lessons might be transferrable to other states.

The panel on environmental policy did just that. They emphasized the power of meaningful and respectful dialogue with opponents and constituents, persistence in coalition-building over years and even decades, and clear reporting on relevant performance metrics and program data to build a shared perspective.

These themes were reiterated and built upon by the panel on healthcare policy. The panel advocated a laser focus on ends (better general health) and not just means (insurance programs and cost pools) that helps clarify policy choices, as well as a willingness to take political risk to develop innovative solutions. It also recommended making consumer choices as clear and consistent as possible, backed up by a factual understanding of market incentives and helpful decision support tools, so that those consumers can make their best choice.

Bill Pound, the Executive Director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, warned about the fiscal challenges facing states as the President’s FY18 budget proposes a 9% reduction in funding to state programs at a time when state cost growth exceeds revenue growth. 

California State Senator Bob Hertzberg reminded us that states have been on the front lines of governance since the founding of our nation, and the global recognition of the power and importance of sub-national governments today serves to reemphasize that role. He challenged us to understand the expectation that government must increasingly move at the speed of our social media tools in order to maintain the trust of its citizens.

Our third panel continued that theme of trust in government, looking at the interactions between state and local governments.  They covered the trend of state preemption of local prerogatives, and the idea that more governance authority should be concentrated closer to the citizen, as surveys show that roughly 75% of people express trust in their local governments, compared to 50% for state governments and only 25% for the federal government.  Finally, they explored the necessity of co-produced solutions, using collaborative frameworks to design effective programs, and the power of leadership, both good and bad, to impact outcomes.

Two comments summarized the day for me. First, Diana Dooley, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, remarked that the will to find solutions was not something that could be exported from state to state, but that solutions discovered by states with that will could be adopted by other states, and that might encourage them to find the will to explore their own new solutions. 

Second, at the end of the day, one audience participant noted that she had “connected the dots” in a new way as a result of the day’s discussions and was leaving with a new level of hope in the possibility of new policy solutions.

That is my hope for this series—that through it, the Academy can identify and elevate solutions found by innovative states and communities to the toughest of our national challenges, and that by sharing these, others may find the inspiration and will they need to advance their own policy and governance solutions.  We’re off to a great start!

I can’t wait for our next conversation on September 29 at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, when we examine innovative cities and what they are doing to govern “across the divide.” On October 4 at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, we will examine the future of public service, and on October 30 at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, we will link it all together through a conversation about infrastructure governance.  I hope you’ll be able to join us at one of these exciting events. [link to website page on GATD]

Terry Gerton is the President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration.