American government comprises a variety of actors playing multiple roles, a complex and variable system of federalism, and an increasingly interconnected array of public and private organizations addressing essential societal goals.
Government is the means by which society pursues essential objectives: maintaining collective security, administering justice, providing the institutional infrastructure of the economy, ensuring that vital social capital is enhanced through improvements in health and education and through strong families and communities. When people talk about "the government," they often mean elected officials in Washington or the state capital. They might also mean the array of government agencies that watch over the environment, collect taxes, build roads, fight crime, or conduct a host of other activities. Government can also mean the local tax assessor, the town clerk, city hall, or a tribal council. Government is actually a dynamic mixture of these goals, structures, and functions.
By any measure, American government is big and pervasive. A variety of domestic Federal functions have broad effect throughout the United States: social insurance programs like Social Security and Veterans Benefits; a national tax code; the postal service; land, wildlife, and other resource management programs; environmental quality and remediation projects; the national park system; the interstate highway system. In the mid-1990s, these and other non-defense programs and agencies employed about 2.1 million people and spent about $1.6 trillion.
State and local governments represent an even larger force. Of the 19.5 million people employed in civilian government jobs in 1995, 85 percent were employed by states (4.7 million) and localities (11.9 million, including about 5 million public school employees). In most functional areas, including public health, welfare, and safety, state and local employment exceeds Federal numbers by wide margins. Total expenditures of state and local funds for these programs was approximately $1.3 trillion in 1994. Of the $1.6 trillion in Federal outlays noted above, $218 billion or about 17 percent was in the form of intergovernmental transfers rather than spending on direct Federal functions.
The sheer number of units of government is, of course, concentrated at the local level. In 1992, there were nearly 39,000 general-purpose units of local government in the United States (about 3,000 counties, 19,000 cities, and 16,000 towns), plus more than 14,000 school districts and more than 31,000 special districts handling public water works, sewer systems, fire protection, and other special local functions.
These patterns of employment, spending, and responsibility mean that most people and organizations interact with government at the state and local levels. Many government programs and functions operate at more than one jurisdictional level, with Federal, state, and local agencies playing different roles in a single program. Public education, for example, is governed by local boards of education, who make district-level policy and carry out statewide curricula requirements. State education departments set those uniform requirements, certify teachers, and distribute state aid to local school districts. In most states, elementary and secondary education is funded through a complicated mixture of mostly state and local funding, with small amounts of Federal aid available for targeted programs, such as Head Start and school lunches.
While elementary and secondary education have long been under mostly local and state control, other multi- level public programs have been designed and controlled with a much more forceful Federal presence. In recent years, design and control responsibilities for some of these programs, public assistance being the most notable, have been "devolved" to the states and often from there to local communities. At the same time that decision-making has moved to the state and local levels, however, Federal oversight has been expanded and tied to increasingly detailed flows of information about specific activities and performance. For example, the welfare reform law of 1996 (PL 104-193) gave states broad authority to redesign their cash assistance programs and to create strong welfare-to-work programs in their place. This grand devolution of discretion, however, has been accompanied by requirements to track and report nearly 200 separate data elements to the Federal government. Many of these require entirely new information systems that connect states to localities, localities to one another, and states to their counterparts around the country. This richly interconnected environment complicates many aspects of government operations, but it also provides a setting in which many actors are experimenting with new tools and new ways of working. As a result, the public sector seems to provide a more supportive environment for the spread of innovation. The fact that electronic benefits transfer (EBT) is now the preferred method of benefits distribution across all Federal programs is testament to this fact. EBT began more than ten years ago as an experiment in Ramsey County, Minnesota. It was developed by the county human services agency in response to a local crisis in which no bank would cash welfare checks without a user fee. Cited by the Ford Foundation Innovations in American Government Program, EBT spread among state welfare agencies, and then to other kinds of programs. In 1994, a task force created by the National Performance Review called for a single electronic delivery method for all Federal benefits.
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