Intergovernmental Dysfunction and Ways to Tackle It

Why we need to consider utilizing and improving multi-jurisdictional or regional cooperation.

To better combat the coronavirus, California, Oregon, and Washington agreed this spring to form a “Western States Pact,” a collaboration of each state’s public health and economic measures. (E.g., they would coordinate which bordering counties would see stricter or laxer lockdown restrictions.) Similar pacts quickly popped up elsewhere in the northeast, Midwest, and south.

Some experts saw this as an opportunity to push for ambitious policies that transcend city and state lines. With some luck, we could begin to see more effective transportation systems, more uniform corporate tax structures, fewer discrepancies in the quality of life, and fewer fights over pollution and climate policy.

These pacts somewhat phased out, but this hope for untangling the minute differences in the regulations, laws, and issues at the state and local level hasn’t gone away.

Today on the blog, we’re taking a look at why these super-government plans are needed and examples of how they would work.

Intergovernmental Dysfunction

Although states and cities do collaborate from time to time, they’re frequently at odds with one another. We have countless different versions of laws, regulations, and policies on everything: taxes, commerce, the environment, gun access, housing, land use, transportation, food and water accessibility. to save time, let’s call this intergovernmental dysfunction.

This dysfunction does several things: 1) Pits non-federal governments against one another, 2) maintains inefficiencies in the systems we have in place, and 3) prevents communities from excelling economically.

Fortunately, there are some strategies that undo these effects.

Intergovernmental Cooperation & Regional Planning

In lieu of deliberate action by the federal government, there are two categories of solutions to these impacts, the first being very broad and the other more defined.

First, intergovernmental cooperation is simply when two or more state or local governments work together to address an issue at hand. The multi-state pacts created this spring to confront COVID-19 are examples of these. I should not that this isn’t a technical term; you likely won’t find it in literature or white papers. In any case, states do act this way rather often, mostly through interstate compacts.

Meanwhile, regional planning is discipline that create and implements an answer to a policy question that stretches outside the boundaries of a city or state. Basically, it’s like applying city planning to an area that doesn’t fit neatly into one city or state’s jurisdiction. The distinction here is that regional planning is not strictly state-to-state, but instead including multiple jurisdictions of both local and often state governments. Frequently, it is parts of multiple states encircling large metropolitan areas—Philadelphia and its suburbs with parts of New Jersey and Delaware; Chicago and its suburbs with parts of Indiana and Wisconsin.

Regional planning is a strong example of intergovernmental cooperation, yet it’s not as common in the U.S. as it is elsewhere.

Examples & Solutions

Let’s walk through examples of the three adverse effects of intergovernmental dysfunction.

Government vs. Government Competition

The most common example of this is probably one you’ve seen before. A big company wants to place its new headquarters somewhere and starts shopping around. In an effort to attract this firm, cities and states start a race to the bottom and offer increasingly generous tax incentives. (Remember Amazon HQ?) Although this may get a decent number of jobs, it sometimes costs much-needed tax revenue.

It’s not enough for some governments to simply take themselves out of the running—others will likely still offer subsidies and shift favor to businesses. Instead, they need to make a concerted effort.

For instance, Kansas and Missouri have a long history of economic competition. The Kansas City metropolitan area straddles the border between these states, so for years both have offered subsidies to corporations as a bid for them to move “across town” and over the border.

While this has helped those businesses, the overall job market in the actual metro region hasn’t changed because of it. Additionally, the differences in local tax abatements between the two sides prevented either from actually collecting tax revenue down the road since firms would simply move across the border once the abatements expired.

So in 2019, Kansas and Missouri agreed to a truce. Neither would use tax breaks to lure companies from one state to the other. Later, Kansas City, Mo., set its tax abatement terms to mirror its cross-border twin, further deescalating things and ensuring any company new to the metro area would be meeting its obligations to the community.

System Inefficiencies

Laws and regulations abide by government borders; most other things don’t do this. Let’s look at two examples from Chicago and Illinois.

Together, Chicago and Illinois have fairly strict laws on gun access (though the severity of these laws are sometimes overblown). Still, Chicago does see a great deal of gun violence.

Does this mean the gun restrictions don’t properly prevent this violence? Actually, no—a majority of the guns used in violent crimes in Chicago were purchased out of state. In 2017, one in every five recovered guns was purchased in Indiana, which has looser laws on gun access. To put it differently, Chicago and Illinois are doing their part, but bordering jurisdictions aren’t.

You see, Illinois is unusual for a Midwestern state in that it has fairly strict laws, whereas its neighbors all have significantly laxer gun restrictions. Here’s a look at how gun laws in Illinois and its peers are graded from Giffords, a pro-gun restrictions group founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords:

Source: Giffords Law Center.

It’s not a stretch to say that a multi-state effort to curb gun violence would surely lower gun violence rates in Chicago and Illinois.


Pollution and other environmental concerns similarly disregard state borders, something Illinois recently had to address. In 2018, manufacturing firm Foxconn promised to build a new plant in Racine County, Wisconsin, which borders Illinois.

The factory was expected to greatly increase local smog, but the state wanted to allow the plant to operate with lax pollution regulations. Answering this, the federal EPA loosened regulations for the area, which included parts of Illinois.

This didn’t exactly sit well with those Illinois counties, which were very vocal in their opposition to this plant. The Illinois Attorney General and the City of Chicago sued the EPA over the loosened smog restrictions, citing the potential effects of this pollution. The federal government eventually reconsidered the special exceptions for the Foxconn plant.

A story that ends with a legal battle isn’t exactly a happy one, especially when it involves public health and pollution. However, there are examples of intergovernmental cooperation overcoming similar dysfunction.

In 2009, northeastern states established the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont have all agreed to a cap and trade scheme for CO2 emissions. (Virginia’s membership was just approved to begin in 2021; Pennsylvania’s own membership is pending.)

RGGI, though not quite the holistic approach needed in the fight against climate change, is heralded as a successful market solution for the region’s high emissions. Additionally, it’s also saved millions of dollars in energy costs and boosted the participating states’ economies.

Prevention of Economic Excellence

The U.S. and global populations are becoming increasingly urban. Cities and their surrounding areas are now much more interconnected—and connected to other metropolitan areas. Because of this, these “megaregions” continue to be our primary economic drivers.

Still, we continue to treat cities as singular communities and jurisdictions rather than the center of economic wheels. All the while, cities and states retain incompatible standards, have different needs, and don’t coordinate on how to use their resources. That’s part of why we see inefficient land use (like urban sprawl), “commuter-related problems” (high traffic congestion and suffering infrastructure) and stubbornly high costs for energy and sustainability.

For example, you might live in a suburb but work in the city (or vice versa). You’re not the only person with this routine: Thousands of others commute one way or another every day, straining the public transportation systems we have in place. Highways are stuffed with cars and trains are overcrowded and overused.

This has a very real and adverse impact on the region and its economy. Operating costs for roads and railways climb as it costs more to maintain them, pollution stays high since thousands of locals commute by car, and you as a commuter might lose a good chunk of your day going from place to place.

Intergovernmental cooperation, specifically regional planning, is especially attractive for problems like this one, which requires more than the attention from one single jurisdiction but not the entire federal government.

A solution this particular example might be a more efficient mode of transportation, like a high-speed rail. This would require a great deal of coordination among jurisdictions, so an overarching plan or even a presiding regional body would streamline the process. This would produce something that would normally take years to hash out or would fail do to inaction, and it would allow each government to tend to their own individual concerns.

A Missed Opportunity

You might now see why there was some buzz when states were banding together this spring to share PPE and coordinate lock-down measures. The future implications seemed big.

But not much else news has been reported on these groups following their incorporations. This isn’t to say the pacts are not still operating, but the lack of hubbub does undo any momentum they had in prompting larger dialogue on intergovernmental cooperation and regional planning.

Here’s the bottom line. The federal government is only getting slower in its response to policy issues. State and local governments individually lack the resources to tackle big crises on their own. For as long as this remains the status quo, cooperation and planning at a multi-jurisdictional or regional level are likely our best shot at boosting our communities. It would also go a long way in helping the U.S. compete internationally with countries that are otherwise free of our intergovernmental dysfunction.

Interested in contributing to the site? Contact the blog here to get started.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter!

Related reading:

  • Want to learn more about the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative? Check out this fact sheet.
  • Separately from the RGGI, several northeastern states are collectively addressing emissions from the transportation sector and create a shared clean energy economy. Learn more about the Transportation and Climate Initiative here.
  • You can read the first chapter of the Lincoln Land Institute’s book Regional Planning in America: Practice and Prospect free online.
  • U.S.-based Regional Planning Association has a far-reaching plan to modernize America by 2050, heavily focusing on regions and their unique traits.

6 thoughts on “Intergovernmental Dysfunction and Ways to Tackle It

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: