#13 Working together

#12 Urban uncertainty
02/11/2020
#14 Safe or free?
30/11/2020

Instruments and relations between different levels of government

EURA Conversations Post #13 – 16 Nov 2020
by Cristina Stănuș

Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania

A previous piece in this series (Conversation 1, Robin Hambleton) has emphasized the role of cities / local governments in responding to the current crisis, while another (Conversation 9, Ivan Tosics) has argued that cities are sometimes not in a position to handle complex and simultaneous crises. The instruments at the disposal of the cities could make a difference. And any discussion about instruments requires, in my view, a look at relations between different levels of government (intergovernmental).

As I write this I think of news coming from different parts of the world, emphasizing intergovernmental conflicts over how to deal with the Covid-19 crisis. Places like New York, Madrid, or Manchester come to mind, while I am sure many more examples can be identified. Cities or city-regions have found themselves at odds with central/national/federal governments. Apparently, these are conflicts over the substance of crisis management. But there are at least two different, intertwined layers to them.

Intergovernmental relations imply that local, regional, and central governments work, at the same time, together and apart, on behalf of the citizens. The current crisis has very much worked as a stress test on formal intergovernmental relations. It has pointed out insufficient consultation, problematic intergovernmental fiscal relations leading to uneven financial burdens, the problems of cooperation between actors previously not expected to collaborate with each other, and a sense of mismatch between the emergency powers of national governments and the autonomy of cities and regions.

The problems of formal intergovernmental relations were further enhanced in some places by ideologically or politically driven elected officials, which have made the ‘working together’ part more difficult. Individuals and/or organizations have instrumentalized the less functional areas of intergovernmental relations for shorter- or longer-term political gain. While this latter layer has not appeared everywhere it is nevertheless significant.

To improve the ‘working together’ part of intergovernmental relations two challenges need to be met. On the one hand, there is a need to rethink vertical power relations within the government system and, possibly, add a ‘crisis mode’ set of rules to them.  Intergovernmental fiscal relations seem to be a key area for intervention. However, this is a medium- and long-term task.

On the other hand, there is the challenge of overcoming political polarization and partisanship when an acute crisis sets in. It is the latter which seems more difficult, as it requires city leaders and national leaders to put many things aside. And, as so many countries are on the verge of or in the middle of a second pandemic wave, more urgent.

There is a silver lining to this apparently pessimistic view. Intergovernmental relations have held up better in some places than others, with better results in terms of the substance of crisis management. So, there is space to learn from both the formal rules and the informal relations between local and national leaders in those places. Working together is possible after all.

In the next contribution to EURA Conversations Marta Lackowska, University of Warsaw, Poland, asks the question ‘Safe or free?’

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