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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

The Federal System – A Look Back in Time

May 30, 2018

In June of 1968 the Policy Committee of the Republican Governors Association accepted a staff report titled “Handbook of Suggested Solutions for Selected Domestic Problems of the United States”. The report was designed to inform the development of the Republican Platform in that critical election year. It addressed nineteen separate issues, the last of which was the status of the federal system.

As the National Academy for Public Administration’s Intergovernmental Systems Panel explores the challenges and issues of today, it may be useful to consider how the problems in the federal system may, or may not, have evolved over time and to reflect on the success and failure of prior attempts to address those problems.

Here is the report and a sampling of the more than sixty-recommendations. Just a little bit of “déjà vu all over again”.

Basic Goals

The American federal system has enabled this nation to achieve dynamic social and economic progress. Yet its vitality is now threatened and its ability to cope with and solve today’s problems is questioned. The goals of the federal system must be:

  • To effectively bring private, federal, state and local resources to bear on domestic problems and avoid duplication to effort and conflicting approaches.
  • To assure the citizens of the United States that governmental services are maintained at a consistently high level by enhancing the potential of each level of government to provide services.
  • To strengthen and improve state and local governments and lessen federal restrictions which curtail flexibility so that the values and advantages of government closest to the people can be enhanced.
  • To foster an atmosphere which encourages creativity and innovative approaches to solve problems.
  • To strengthen the capabilities of all levels of government while at the same time increasing the opportunities for the citizen to have an effect on the decision-making process.

General Statement of the Problem

Over the centuries the federal system has brought the apportionment of funds and the development of constantly changing methods to harness the nation’s resources and creative talents in order to solve our most pressing problems. Through the cooperative efforts of the public and private sectors we have achieved much success and eliminated many problems.

Yet we find that our solutions uncover new problems of ever increasing complexity and magnitude. Our national resources, although the most abundant in the world, are not limitless and are insufficient for a free society to solve all domestic problems at once while at the same time successfully maintaining a position of world leadership. The basic problem that the federal system must face if it is to survive is to find new ways to mobilize the resources of our society to provide the funds, talent, and incentive to avoid crisis and solve the most urgent domestic problems and to retain our power among nations. To succeed that emphasis must be placed on problem solving and the level of government best able to meet a specific problem must be given the control over the resources it needs to do so.

The challenge to our federal system becomes more critical as advances in communication and transportation shrink our nation’s size and our problems become increasingly complex. Our past successes have created an atmosphere of complacency and of rising expectations making it increasingly more difficult to find and effect adequate solutions.

The traditional roles of our federal, state and local governments have become blurred in recent decades. The number of governmental units have multiplied by the number of agencies which conduct public programs at all levels of government creating problems of coordination, duplication, waste, conflict, and in some cases, the failure to deliver services or solve problems. The traditional model of the functions and responsibilities of each level of government within the federal system is no longer accurate. Our problem, however, is not to define the federal system; it is to make it work.

Specific Problems

  1. Methods of Distributing Major Future Increases in Federal Assistance to State and Localities: The present system of federal financial assistance is based on categorical grants-in-aid and curtails the flexibility of state and local governments to meet their most urgent problems. In addition, it fails to encourage initiative and innovation and brings about unnecessary red tape. Once it is possible to reduce the portion of federal expenditures now devoted to defense, additional revenues will become available for domestic programs. A new system must be developed for distributing these revenues or revenue sources to state and local governments.

  1. Federal Grant-in-Aid System: There are presently over 400 separate grant-in-aid authorizations. Some 150 federal bureaus and divisions administer these programs. The grant-in-aid system has become such a maze of regulations, procedures and administrative red tape that state and local governments cannot use these programs effectively. The problem for the states is compounded by the fact that an increasing number of these grants by-pass the states, thus making it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to develop and implement comprehensive, statewide plans.

  1. Eligibility for Federal Grants-in-Aid: Maintenance of effort provisions in federal grant-in-aid programs often tend to penalize those states and localities which have already acted to meet their problems. By discouraging initiative such provisions can, in fact, impede early solutions to problems. Inflexible requirement that federal funds be matched at a specific level, make it impossible for some states and localities to participate in the federal program. Matching requirements can also force state and local governments to have to choose between diverting funds to less urgent programs or foregoing federal funds all together.

  1. Planning the Allocation of Resources: Without comprehensive planning, resources are likely to be devoted to unwise or inefficient uses with the result that problems will not be solved. At present, neither federal, state or local governments have adequate comprehensive plans. Neither is there in one place the basic information needed for sound decision-making by all levels of government. Uncertainties regarding the statutes and funding of federal programs and sudden changes in federal policy make state and local planning extremely difficult.

  1. Administrative Coordination of Federal, State and Local Programs: There is little over-all coordination of existing governmental programs. One agency is not aware of what another is doing and the total impact of various programs is difficult, if not impossible, to assess.

  1. Intergovernmental Structure and Cooperation: Many of today’s problems transcend the boundaries of local political jurisdictions and are inter-local, at times, inter-state, in nature. To deal with them effectively requires new intergovernmental mechanisms. Intergovernmental cooperation, in fact the federal system, is often weakened, however, by unproductive competition and unfair criticism by one level of government of another.

  1. Operation of State and Local Government: The authority of the chief elected official of many states and localities is not adequate to effectively deal with today’s. State and local legislative bodies also need to be strengthened.

Suggested Solutions – A Sampling of the Sixty-Five Suggestions Provided

  • Require periodic Congressional review of all federal grant-in-aid programs, such review to include the views and recommendations of state and local officials.
  • Allow states and localities to submit a single application for all related federal grant-in-aid programs.
  • Provide at each level of government for comprehensive planning, budgeting and programming and evaluation systems which deal with physical, economic and social needs and resources.
  • Establish in the Executive Branch a mechanism for developing long-range plans in consultation with state and local officials.
  • Establish and maintain a central computerized information system that would include updated statistical information on problems, level of services, availability of federal, state and local resources, special assistance programs, etc. in order to determine where the greatest needs are. All levels of government would contribute to the information system.
  • Seek new ways to improve the evaluation of existing programs so that ineffective ones can be eliminated and resources devoted to more productive ones.
  • Avoid sharp changes in federal programs which adversely affect states and localities.
  • Provide within the Executive Office of the President a staff agency which would work with state and local officials to bring about coordination of federal programs. Such an office would report to the President regarding the status of coordination and recommendations to improve it.
  • Remove state restrictions which unnecessarily restrict home rule and the ability of localities to solve their problems.

Mr. Barry Van Lare is a NAPA Fellow and member of the Standing Panel on Intergovernmental Systems