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Governing Across the Divide

Governing Across the Divide is a unique series of topical, thought-leadership convenings hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration (Academy). These four gatherings will be solution-focused and aimed at identifying the best practices to bridge the gaps and obstacles that prevent the scaling of services across all levels of government.

Four Best Practices for Intergovernmental Leaders

Click here to read the whitepaper detailing four best practices for intergovernmental leaders today.

The Whitepaper 

The Changing Role of States

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.

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

Watch the Entire Day 

Innovations in Local Government Service Delivery

When you think about Austin, Texas, you might think about Austin City Limits, or “Keep Austin Weird” signs, or the Texas Longhorns. When I think about Austin, I think innovation.  That’s why Austin was the perfect place to hold our second “Governing Across the Divide” event, focused on innovations in cities.  Following up on last month’s conversation about the changing role of states, we wanted to look closer at what enables some cities to develop innovative governing solutions, and what conditions might be holding some other cities back.

Our first panel reminded us that innovation is not just the application of technology to problems like traffic management or garbage pick-up, even though those applications can have significant impacts on citizen quality-of-life and cost reduction.  Sheryl Sculley, City Manager of San Antonio, pointed out that innovation has to be a strategic approach—she made it one of San Antonio’s four core values and established an office of innovation to combine new ideas with sustainable resourcing for long-term success.  Austin Deputy Police Chief Troy Gay noted that, while the Austin police force is deploying new technologies, innovation in community policing practices that increases trust and legitimacy is far more important to improving neighborhood relations and reducing crime than technology alone. 

Christy McFarland, Research Director for National League of Cities, reminded us that city fiscal health sets the foundation for innovation, and recent trends indicate that city budgets may be under stress.  Randy Reid, Southeast Regional Director for the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA), echoed Christy’s concerns.  Reporting on recent ICMA survey results, Randy noted that most city managers believed that they could only handle one big innovation project at a time given their resources, but that they highly valued the opportunity to share best-practices and learn from other cities, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the Texas Tribune, continued the theme of thinking beyond technology.  In addition to talking about his own innovations in political reporting, he reminded us that demographic change is driving public policy innovation in cities across Texas, and that, in its efforts to rebuild communities affected by Hurricane Harvey, Texas has the opportunity to fundamentally re-baseline much of its community infrastructure in new and exciting ways. 

Dustin Haisler, CIO of e-Republic, followed with a discussion about disruptive innovation in government.  While he did address the impacts of social media and artificial intelligence, he drove home two key points:  first, that technology is changing how work gets done, and that will have reverberating effects throughout our government, felt first by cities; and second, in the public sector, innovation is about finding new ways to use what we already have more effectively to serve our citizens better.

Julian Castro, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former Mayor of San Antonio, provided the lunchtime keynote address.  He noted that our national trend toward urbanization presents both opportunities and challenges, because city governments must be problem solvers on the front lines of service delivery, but they are being asked to do “more and more with less and less.”  He also challenged us to look across our governing silos to develop truly innovative solutions, to better measure and report results, and to broadly share those results so that public policy makers can make more effective decisions.

Our first afternoon panel explored challenges to innovation.  The Honorable Larry Gonzales, Chair of Sunset Commission and member of the Texas House of Representatives; Brenda Eivens, City Manager of Cedar Park, Texas and Adjunct Faculty, UT’s School of Public Affairs; The Honorable Jeff Travillion, Travis County Commissioner Precinct #1; and Alex Briseno, Professor of Public Service in Residence, Saint Mary’s University, NAPA Fellow and Former City Manager, of San Antonio, Texas shared their perspectives in a lively discussion. Economic growth, which is driving population growth but also accelerating demographic and income segregation, poses urgent problems for local transit, education, health care and zoning systems that are far outpacing the ability of Texas cities to deal with them. The urgency of the needs is complicated by increased political divisions that have trickled down from the national level through the state level to the city level, making compromise ever more difficult.  Every member of the panel emphasized the importance of having involved local government officials, elected or appointed, take the time to educate citizens face-to-face about issues and policy implications to build trust in, and consensus around, tough choices.

The day’s last panel tackled the challenges posed to city governments by rapidly advancing technology.  While there was agreement that technology is a major “force multiplier” for cities, the most important effect of the democratization of technology is that it is forcing cities to communicate in new and more effective ways.  Sherri Greenberg, Clinical Professor at UT LBJ School of Public Affairs, pointed out that “e-government is still just ‘government,’” and that new technologies provide new tools with which to deliver better and more transparent service.  Will Hampton, Director of Communications for Round Rock Texas, remarked that new technology tools require an emphasis on “what we say and how we say it” so that government officials establish and maintain trust and credibility through consistent communications. 

The volume of these communications, and the electronic records they generate, pose a new burden for local governments.  Alan Bojorquez, Attorney at Law and Principal with the Bojorquez Law Firm in Austin, pointed out that our laws are not keeping up with the technology impacts on open records, media policies, and most importantly, ethics.  Cities especially are challenged to manage the workload created by electronic records management, data privacy and information requests.

Summarizing a day of rich discussion like this is never easy, but for me, three key themes emerged. 

  1. First, we must think about innovation not just as new technology but also as improvements in process, sometimes enabled by new technology, that dramatically improve the effectiveness and trustworthiness of government. 
  2. Second, managers of cities and counties face extraordinary challenges from demographics, declining resources, weather, politics and more, that force them to be some of our most creative and effective problem solvers. 
  3. And third, there is no substitute for direct, face-to-face involvement between leaders and their citizens when it comes to building the trust and consensus so essential to the hard work of effective governing.

The importance of citizen engagement follows from our earlier conversation about the changing role of states, and I am guessing it will figure prominently in our next event, focused on The Future of Public Service, at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Service on October 4th.  I hope you’ll have an chance to join us for our wrap-up session at George Mason University on October 30th.

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

The Future of Public Service and Citizenship

Syracuse University, home of everything orange and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, was our host for our third “Governing Across the Divide” event, The Future of Citizenship and Public Service. As we have examined how states and cities are responding to opportunities and challenges in governing, we wanted to examine how today’s political environment is impacting individual motivation toward, and perspectives on, public service. This day-long program was modeled on, and combined with, Maxwell’s highly successful Tanner Lecture Series on Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility, that examines what it means to be an ethical citizen.  The Tanner Lecture Series seeks to expand horizons and spark new conversations about the problems and opportunities we collectively face as citizens of nations and of the world.  Dean David Van Slyke and Maxwell faculty and alumni presented and participated in a series of engaging discussions on strengthening citizenship and public service with a greater focus on intersectoral and intergovernmental participation.

The Honorable Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA Administrator and former Governor of New Jersey, provided the day’s keynote address.  Her challenging remarks reminded us that citizenship has both rights and responsibilities, and that the most important responsibility is to participate in the political process by voting.  When we fail to vote, for whatever reason, she warned that we abdicate our sacred obligation and begin the unraveling of the very fabric of our civil society.

She spoke about the importance of civics education, the need for moderates and independents to align with one of the major political parties and vote in the primaries, and the urgency of bold political leadership that seeks practical solutions with positive results. And, while cautionary in her assessment of the impact of our current political environment on participative citizenship, she ended on a note of hope that today’s younger generations demonstrate a strong desire to make a difference. Our challenge is to convince them to do that through the political process.

Our first panel examined the future of public service, or as moderator Tina Nabatchi asked, “How do we put the ‘rock’ back in bureaucracy?”  Suggestions ran the gamut from better job titles to infusing new technology into the practice of governing to recruiting employees with data science, analytic, and integrative thinking skills.  There was a sense across the panel members that the very nature of government work is changing, and that government systems and the government workforce are not keeping up.  Closing that gap through technology development, innovation in government service delivery, and modern recruiting practices are key to ensuring that the public service remains a vibrant and attractive opportunity.

The lunchtime panel explored the difference between “government” and “governance,” agreeing that “government” generally refers to institutions and organizations and “governance” refers to the rules and processes by which those institutions accomplish their purposes.  With that agreement, though, came an extended discussion on the increasing complexity of governance, requiring solution sets that are co-produced across and among state and non-state actors, and the increasing challenge of finding leaders who can operate effectively in that complex environment.

The panel explored the importance of investing intentionally in leader development, improving data sharing capabilities, and ensuring transparency in government performance reporting so that future public service leaders have the tools they need to be successful.

The day’s third panel discussed threats to citizenship.  Several ideas surfaced, tied to the concept of identity:  political identity associated with political parties themselves rather than the policies espoused by those parties, cultural identity that creates a “we versus they” perspective, and the practice of identity politics across a variety of vectors that seeks to divide rather than unite.  The panel also raised economic inequality, alternative facts, and changing policies regarding immigration as threats to active citizen participation.  They then considered what it would take to overcome these threats and settled on two essential actions summarized by initiative and engagement:  initiative on the part of governments at every level to positively engage citizens, and initiative on the part of individual citizens to actively engage in government.

Max Stier, President of the Partnership for Public Service, wrapped up the day with an assessment of the current health of the federal civil service.  Max’s frank assessment was that our government is fundamentally unhealthy, like a rusted out car that we just keep changing the tires on.  To restore health to the government, he asserted we must restore the government workforce to health by focusing on four points:  recognizing that the demographics of the federal workforce do not match those of the nation and taking positive action to adjust; raising the morale of the federal workforce, which as currently measured averages 17 points below that of private sector employees; addressing the legacy General Schedule that does not reflect best private sector practices for skill and impact differentiation through pay; and finding a way to align the goals of short-term political leaders with the long-term health of their departments and agencies.  Max mentioned there were some bright spots in reform, but not enough, and he articulated specific roles for universities in the recovery process, including rotational assignments for faculty into government positions, improved career counseling for students seeking government employment, and convening discussions and research focused on big government problems. 

As our three sessions have unfolded, I am sensing some common threads that tie them together. 

  1. First, states and communities who are successfully advancing innovative policies take the time to deliberately engage their citizens face-to-face over long periods of time to communicate complicated policy implications and build trust and legitimacy through transparency. 
  2. Second, face-to-face democracy is hard.  It takes time, and requires risk-taking leaders who are willing to engage directly with their constituents. 
  3. Third, resilient communities require more than risk–taking, engaged, and innovative leaders.  They require active, informed, risk-taking citizens who decide to engage in the maintenance of civil society.

I hope you’ll join us, in person or online, as we pull those threads through the framework of Prioritizing Governance for Resilient Critical Infrastructure in our last session of this series at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government on October 30th.

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

Watch the Entire Day 

Prioritizing Governance for Resilient Critical Infrastructure

Our recent national experiences with hurricanes, earthquakes and fires have reminded us of many things:  the incredible power of nature, the power of caring communities, and the taken-for-granted nature of electrical power.  When the power goes out, whether because of a natural disaster, an intentional attack, or simply a failure of an aging grid, we expect it to be back on before our phones lose their charge and our frozen food thaws.  Usually it is, but will that be true in the future?

That question prompted the Academy to make “Prioritizing Governance for Resilient Critical Infrastructure” the theme of our fourth and final Governing Across The Divide symposium in 2017.  Having already examined the changing role of states in policymaking, innovation in cities, and the future of citizenship and public services, we wanted to consider how well our intergovernmental system works to ensure the critical infrastructure lifelines of transportation, energy, water and communications are, and remain, reliable.  There was no better place to have that conversation than at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, in partnership with George Mason’s Center for Critical Infrastructure Protection.

Our transportation panel set the stage for the day’s discussion.  They reminded us that, even though we weren’t examining specific financing alternatives as our focus, money does matter and there’s not nearly enough of it to address both the maintenance and construction needs we’ve already identified.  Twenty-seven states have raised gas taxes over the past two years, but as younger generations forego vehicle ownership and drivers’ licenses, and as more automobiles consume less or no fossil fuel, that rapidly dissipating source of revenue is no longer adequate to fund either state needs or the National Highway Trust Fund. 

The panel also raised the challenge of governing networks of privately or regionally held transportation assets, asking who will advocate for the network of inland waterways or the network of coastal airports or the national interstate road system.  And, while addressing major concerns about inertia driven by funding shortages, the panel discussed the difficulty of planning for, and regulating, future transportation systems in a world where rapidly changing technologies are altering demand patterns more quickly than planning and funding cycles can accommodate.  They did leave us with some hope, citing metropolitan regions like Los Angeles and Northern Virginia that seem to be managing demand and funding better than others, and the prospect that technology developments might give governments the motivation they need to repair underlying transportation assets.

Our energy panelists were more confident in the reliability and variety of adequate energy from fossil, renewable and nuclear sources, but less confident in the resilience of the distribution infrastructure.  Calling out “overcomplicated regulatory and governance regimes” that are more suited to traditional energy stovepipes than modern networks, one panelist noted that “the coordination never ends” on policy and funding priorities.  This inherently complex governance environment is made even more challenging by the significant role that private sector utility companies play as owners of the energy infrastructure and the interdependence of the many pieces and players in the energy network.

The water panel found much in common with the energy panel, including complicated regulatory regimes; a complex production and distribution network that includes over 55,000 drinking water utilities and over 16,000 wastewater treatment facilities; the impact of new technologies that inform consumers about the quality of their water in real time; and the challenge of improving infrastructure when you have to be “on” 24/7.  But the water discussion raised two new issues. First, a regressive pricing structure, regulated by states, actually makes clean water relatively more expensive for lower income individuals.  Second, the rate base for many small water utilities is shrinking below the sustainable level, leading to consolidation or privatization of regional water resources, or the establishment of water co-ops, each of which creates a new governance layer in an already complicated system.

Our last panel focused on the fragility of our communication infrastructure.  We’re operating in a broadband world under laws designed to govern radio and wire communications.  We have a governance system for physical assets but not one for virtual assets (spectrum and data).  We think about securing our communications networks against the impact of natural disasters, when we are far more vulnerable to “bad actors.”  This panel also discussed the critical role public-private partnerships play in keeping technology current, and they raised equity issues associated with not only basic access to the communications network, but also with maintaining standard levels of technology across communities to support critical first responder networks. 

Our two keynote speakers had the unenviable task of drawing out the common themes from these four panels.  Ambassador Richard Kauzlarich reminded us that governance is usually the last thing considered when people look at infrastructure systems, but our Cold War-era governance structure is no match for today’s global flows of digital information.  To truly modernize, we must be able to conduct meaningful risk analysis that allows us to assess and understand converging, disruptive conditions that confound our stove-piped governance structures. 

Dr. Mark Troutman used the recently released Safe Cities index to identify a framework for considering solutions for the “wicked problems” facing our infrastructure systems.  He suggested that the safest cities had systems predominately funded and delivered by the private sector that were integrated and monitored by the government, and they had developed human capital comfortable with operating in a multi-discipline space.

Going back to our opening question -- how well does our intergovernmental system work to make sure the critical infrastructure lifelines of transportation, energy, water and communications are, and remain, reliable?  The answer seems to be “barely” well enough, and so far we’ve been mostly lucky.  However, the principals we identified in our examination of best practices at the state and community government levels are the foundation of future resilience here. 

Innovation in processes, not just in technology, is critical to simplifying governance and including the private sector so that partnerships are flexible, sustainable and trustworthy.  Information that is timely, accurate, and focused on system performance builds trust and speeds response when failures occur.  Simplifying the interaction between and among various layers of government and the private sector will improve infrastructure resiliency.  Engagement that connects citizens and communities creates understanding and a shared set of priorities to clarify options and support hard choices.  We need bold, boundary-spanning leaders who understand both how to make our current mess of a system work and also how to drive us to efficient, resilient systems for the future.  There is much work to be done!

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