IN PRINT: Reflections of a Member of the U.S. Adviory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations October 2011 (first published in March/April 2011)

Reflections of a Member of the U.S. Advisory Commission on
Intergovernmental Relations

Published in Public Administration Review

By Richard P. Nathan
Former Director and Senior Fellow, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Richard P. Nathan

ABSTRACT: A broad consensus exists among people who work on U.S. federalism, intergovernmental relations, and state and local government on the need for a successor to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in Washington, D.C. The ACIR operated for 37 years to support and enhance knowledge of federalism, beginning with the Eisenhower administration and ending in the Clinton administration.

There is no agreement, however, on how a successor entity should be organized and funded — or even on what it should do.

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Richard Nathan, former director and senior fellow of the Rockefeller Institute, has written and edited books on the implementation of domestic public programs in the United States and on American federalism. He was a member of the ACIR at the time it was disbanded. His complete article on reviving the ACIR first appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of Public Administration Review.

There are now many players, both organizations and individuals, in the intergovernmental field, and they need to be sorted out in thinking about a successor to the ACIR. One important, overarching distinction for classifying groups that have a role in the intergovernmental field reflects a basic attribute of American federalism that often is not recognized: American federalism is both an idea and an interest. It is an idea that emphasizes the vertical separation of power among central and regional governments in this country. It is also an interest in the sense that many agencies and organizations have a role or investment in what state and local governments should do, and how intergovernmental relationships should be structured and carried out.

The structure of the old ACIR was flawed, in that the commission’s 26 members represented too many and too diverse interests. As a result, the commission had a hard time reaching a consensus on anything, especially controversial policy issues. A new ACIR should focus on the idea of American federalism — as a neutral, independent body with the functions of informing, educating and convening, rather than advocating. The aim should be to advance understanding and in so doing, inform the governmental process. Officials from federal agencies, members of Congress and their staffs, governors, state and local government officials and agency heads, and academic experts should all be at the table. But representatives of these interests should not be the governing members of such an agency, in the way they were for the old ACIR.

We should encourage a discussion and debate on what the new ACIR should be and how it should be structured in order to bring federalism and intergovernmental relations back to the table in Washington.




The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.