States are poised to lead. Here’s why
© Greg Nash

Federal dysfunction has led to yet another government shutdown. Pundits shake their heads and bemoan the polarization that leads to such stalemates. There is actually a bright spot in the American political system, however, and that bright spot is at the state level. Innovation and creativity are occurring. States are where the action is taking place. Ideas are becoming reality in policy making.

Governors are taking on greater importance as true policy drivers. In many ways, U.S. government is returning to its roots as a system where “the edge,” as it’s known in information technology, carries more weight than the center.


Americans are not satisfied to abandon progress in solving problems as their federal government is mired in gridlock. Although inadvertently, the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history has revealed the genius of our federalist system, in which the federal, state and local governments work cooperatively to solve problems and improve the quality of life of all Americans. Federalism requires all layers of government to work in sync, and the absence of any party upends the delicate balance upon which our system depends.

Amid these challenges, governors are redoubling their commitment to making positive change for their state residents. Governors chart the course for their individual states, and the skill set required is similar to that of business owners and organization executives of all types. This is evidenced by the always robust flow of experienced private-sector leaders into public office. Colorado’s Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisColorado governor stands by saying 'you're a selfish bastard' if you refuse to wear a mask Protesters surround Aurora Police precinct after photos emerge of officers mocking Elijah McClain's death Officer involved in taking pictures mocking Elijah McClain resigns MORE, a former internet executive, and Arizona’s Doug Ducey, the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery, are but two examples.

Running a state is a complex enterprise. Like new executives, incoming governors are building their senior management teams, which consist of the Cabinet, commissioners and supporting staff who direct any number of agencies and initiatives. And like the heads of publicly traded corporations, governors are subject to significant transparency requirements. They also must bring together local stakeholders, each of whom has as much vested interest in their state’s success as anyone with an equity stake does in an enterprise’s profitability.

And as governors manage their vast and complex enterprises, they do so not only with an eye toward the bottom line, but also the general welfare of everyone who lives and works in their states. After all, constituents are the ultimate boss – the Board of Directors, if you will – for any state leader. Meeting their expectations requires extensive input from private-sector, nonprofit and public institutions and individuals from all walks of life. Their opinions and expertise provide the clearest understanding of local challenges and the best guidance for moving forward.

This wellspring of ideas once led Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to refer aptly to the states as the “laboratories of democracy.” Much like a prototyping process, states can “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”

In this, states aren’t so different than the startups that populate the business landscape, and their responses to today’s biggest challenges are inherently customer-focused. The solutions aimed at Wyoming’s nearly 600,000 residents will, of course, differ from those arrived at by California’s 40 million, and states deliver custom-tailored answers in a way the national government frequently cannot.


These solutions are, however, routinely adapted across state boundaries. For example, Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam just announced a partnership to address climate change. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s success in bringing computer education to remote schools could be adopted in northern Maine or the frontier of Alaska. Cybersecurity technologies developed in Louisiana could make their way to Silicon Valley or Massachusetts’ 128 Corridor.

This is where the National Governors Association comes in, providing the venues for governors to share best practices and success stories. And with the NGA Global program, we foster dialogue beyond national borders, helping to make connections that open markets abroad and invite foreign investment here at home.

Fortunately, Congress is becoming more attuned to the features of our federalist system, incorporating greater flexibility into many laws and regulations. In health care alone, Medicaid is a state-federal collaboration and the Affordable Care Act offers states waivers to pursue novel approaches to lowering costs and improving quality. Such latitude should be widely adopted, because the best role for national leaders often is to lay out the goals and funding frameworks – then let the states fill in the blanks as they know best.

As frustrated as many Americans are by the political process today, we should all have great confidence in the wisdom of the U.S. system. When the federal government falters, the states’ chief executives only work harder.

The weeks ahead will prove exciting as state legislatures begin to convene across the country and governors are sworn into office and new terms. America’s governors are poised and eager to work together and bring home solutions that make a difference in people’s lives.

Pattison is Executive Director and CEO of the National Governors Association.