State Government in the 21st Century

This newsletter signals a return to our reconstructing American government series. Previously, we urged a revamped Federalism, a new public service model, federal agency decentralization and law enforcement reform. This week, we introduce our ideas on state government (a more detailed commentary is on the way).

Big Story

With the presidential election challenges and recounts winding down, states are taking center stage. As our nation faces its most serious challenge in generations, our state governments will be tested as never before.  

States have never been more vital—or vulnerable. The presidential election, even with over 153 million votes cast, hung on a few swing states. US Senate control depends on the outcome of two contests in Georgia. States will play a decisive role in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and the final battle to defeat the virus. With help, state governments will spur the recovery. But, as Governors call for a second federal stimulus bill, the capacity of all 50 states to rise to future challenges cannot be assured.

Big Question

Are state governments ready to meet the test? Do they have the structure, management, resources, systems and capacity to defeat this pandemic? To lead the economic recovery? To protect us from future crises?

We expect much of our state governments. Quality education, accessible healthcare, swift justice, good roads and vibrant local governments. Conduct safe, reliable elections in the midst of a pandemic. Deliver vaccines to millions of citizens. Yet, we have long failed to give state governments the operating flexibility they need to meet such challenges. Many private enterprises meet new challenges with fresh ideas, sound strategies and agile operating models. How can we expect state governments to do the same with rigid bureaucratic structures that discourage innovation?

Big Idea

We need a more agile, responsive model for organizing and operating state and local government, one that promotes partnerships, innovation, efficiency, accountability and results.

If we were starting anew, we would design a structure with far fewer than 50 states and 90,000 local governments. We would insist on certain characteristics—multi-state coordination, streamlined executive structures, impartial state court systems and more productive, far-sighted legislative bodies. We would likely demand coherent local government policies, modern tax structures, integrated planning and budgeting processes, evidence-based fiscal management and more cost-effective services. Until we present our detailed ideas for improving state government later this week, you can learn more about reconstructing government at Civic Way.

Potential Models

  • Minnesota – in 2015, the Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) office worked with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Results First initiative to inventory over 500 state programs, assign data-based performance ratings and reallocate funds to highly-rated programs (e.g., regional mobile crisis response units)
  • Utah – the state conducts long-term fiscal projections, tracks 15-year growth trends for each tax source, recognizes unanticipated revenues as nonrecurring revenues and bases budgets on conservative tax collection estimates
  • Colorado – in 2016, the Office of State Planning and Budgeting began requiring agencies to present hard evidence for justifying new or expanded programs (e.g., expected outcomes, return on investment and program evaluation plans)
  • Tennessee – in 2019, Tennessee created the Office of Evidence & Impact which requires agencies to base increased funding requests on expected outcomes
  • Council of State Governments (CSG) – CSG’s National Center for Interstate Compacts offers technical assistance, training and information to help states create, implement and improve interstate compacts
  • Pew Charitable Trusts – the Results First Clearinghouse Database compiles data from multiple clearinghouses (e.g., public health and criminal justice) to help state and local officials shift resources to more effective programs

Other Views 

  • From 42 Agencies to 15: How Arkansas Overhauled State Government Without Laying Anyone Off, Alan Greenblatt, Governing Magazine
  • State Options for Reform, Brent Ferguson, Brennan Center for Justice
  • Let’s Reform State Government, Frank Donatelli, Chairman, GOPAC, Politico
  • Utah’s Secret Weapon for Long-Range Planning, Caroline Cournoyer, Governing
  • Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, David French, St. Martin’s Press

Civic Way System

The Civic Way system for strengthening governance helps state and local leaders see civic problems, fix those problems, own the solutions and track civic progress. Civic Way’s experienced advisors will help state and local leaders improve public institutions. To see some sample good governance tools, check out Civic Way.

Call to Action

Email us at BMelville@CivicWay.Org to share your thoughts or suggestions about Civic Way or this newsletter. Or comment below.

Civic Way is a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to helping communities revitalize democracy and governance from the ground up.  If you want to be part of the Civic Way network or learn more about our work, please visit Civic Way.