Even though decentralization reforms are something commonly associated with developing and transition countries, even industrialized countries with a long tradition of democratic practice must from time to time assess their intergovernmental relations and local governance systems. This observation is even true—or perhaps, especially true—for the United States.
Although Americans are more sharply divided along political lines than ever, most Americans agree on the bedrock principles of the American federal system, including the distribution of powers and responsibilities between federal, state and local governments; the separation of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government at each level (which provides important checks and balances); the need for professional (non-political) public administration; the notion of local self-government; and the principle of democratic representation.
Despite a shared commitment to representative democracy, federal and state governments seem to be increasingly captured by political and special interests—for instance, as a result of gerrymandering or the influence of money in politics—and increasingly fail to act as governments “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Although a debate surrounding the weaknesses of American democracy has emerged, this debate has focused almost exclusively on federal and state governments, while much less attention has been paid to the extent and nature of local democracy in the United States. This is the case even though local governments—as the government level closest to the people—form the foundation of American self-government and democracy.
Until 1996, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (U.S. ACIR) served as permanent, independent, bipartisan agency that worked to study and consider the federal government’s intergovernmental relationships and the intergovernmental machination within the United States. ACIR’s mission was to strengthen the American federal system and improve the ability of federal, state, and local governments to work together cooperatively, efficiently, and effectively.
Given the limited analysis and attention paid to issues of federalism and local democracy in the United States since the de-funding of ACIR, the National Academy of Public Administration has launched www.federalism.us in 2020 as a platform to bring together and share existing knowledge on federalism and intergovernmental relations in the United States.