Can we make national and local governments work better together?

Imagine a room packed with more than 1000 mayors from all parts of the world. Add different civil society representatives, stakeholders from the private sector as well as legislators from regional and national governments. Now picture them discussing on round tables how their cities could become more sustainable. Imagine then a concluding session in the plenary where all findings would be boiled down to five key recommendations. What’s the result? Well, “building political will” is definitely among these five key findings. Why am I so sure? Because I experienced these sessions literally a hundred times.

Political will is indeed lacking when it comes to making our cities greener, cleaner and more liveable. But frankly, that’s not the point. The question is:  what will actually generate this political will and what are the causes of its absence? What do we have to change so that mayors, local authorities and governments will actually start to act?

Certainly the different measures for making cities more sustainable need to make economic sense. They need to fit the needs of the people and they have to be compatible with the social DNA of every single place. But that’s not enough. They also need to be supported by national governments. Most importantly, the different governmental levels need to work better together. This article focuses on this latter point. How do we overcome the competition for power between national, regional and local governments? How do we ensure that representatives from across levels of government really understand that sustainable development requires them to collaborate much more closely? How do we make better use of integrated urban development policy approaches? Just as the legendary Leipzig Charter from the year 2007 states:

Ensuring simultaneous and fair consideration of the concerns and interests which are relevant to urban development in which the spatial, sectoral and temporal aspects of key areas of urban policy are co-ordinated.

Habitat III: an opportunity for multi-level governance?

The upcoming UN Habitat III conference to be hosted in Quito next October will bring together a huge range of stakeholders and actors, ranging from the UN-level down to the municipal level. This will be a precious opportunity to launch and promote cross-cutting proposals to enable this multi-level governance that we so much need.

A concrete proposal: National Urban Policy Commissions (NUPCs)

A proposal that we believe could offer a concrete tool to improve multi-level governance, would be the creation of National Urban Policy Commissions. These would be cross-ministerial and cross-governmental  commissions co-led by national, regional and local governments which would help to bridge incompatibilities between local and national legislations and hence help the effective and consistent implementation of national programmes within the local context (e.g. sustainability programmes). The Commission would be composed of members from different levels of government (from the city to the national level). This willNational Urban Policy Commissions ensure representation of all government levels and that these can work cohesively and constructively on establishing and implementing a sustainability roadmap for cities. Other stakeholders such as civil society organizations, interest groups and the private sector would also be involved within these commissions to ensure comprehensive representation and to stimulate cross-sectoral collaboration. These NUPCs would also be the institutional platform for the design as well as the implementation and monitoring of National Urban Policies (as outlined in Habitat III Policy Paper 3) as well as of the New Urban Agenda (as to be agreed by the UN General Assembly in October 2016). This would allow the commission to assume two key roles. On one hand, the role of improving multi-level governance by supervising cross-level collaboration. On the other hand, it would serve as a dedicated national taskforce for the implementation and monitoring of the New Urban Agenda following its ratification at the Habitat III in Quito in October 2016.

What would NUCPs actually do?

The main tasks of the Commission would include:

  • Design National Urban Policies. The Commission is in charge of the design, implementation and monitoring of National Urban Policies.
  • Facilitate coordination and help cross-departmental collaboration. The Commission is in charge of encouraging projects and collaboration across governmental departments and national ministries to find integrated, and cross-silos policy solutions for cities. Many times departments both at the national level (e.g. ministries) and at the municipal level (e.g. city councils) struggle to work jointly and cohesively. The Commission therefore facilitates collaboration across governmental departments to ensure coherence across sectorial policies at the national as well as at the municipal level.
  • Establish Cooperation Projects Across Levels of Government. The Commission ensures enhanced coordination and collaboration across the different levels of government. Coordination between the national and municipal governments is essential in ensuring improved effectiveness of policy implementation, greater efficiency in the administrative procedures as well as ensure consistency and coherence between national and local policies. It is also important to ensure a balance between top-down and bottom up approaches.
  • Supervise the Implementation of the New Urban Agenda. The Commission is in charge of ensuring that the agreements of the New Urban Agenda are considered when designing and implementing National Urban Policies. This Commission will be adapting the international targets and objectives agreed in the New Urban Agenda to the national and local contexts and explore concrete action-oriented solutions to achieve those targets. The Commission therefore facilitates the enactment of the New Urban Agenda and ensure consistency of national and local policies with international agreements.
  • Coordinate Multi-Stakeholder Engagement. The commission engages different experts and stakeholders from a variety of sectors (government, private sector, civil society, etc.) when drafting National Urban Policies. This ensures that all voices are heard and all interests considered in an open, fair and transparent way.
  • Coordinate City-to-City Collaboration. The Commission also facilitates the cooperation of cities across the country and promote exchange of knowledge and best policy solutions among cities from the same country and from abroad.

Going back to the analysis that progress in making our cities a better place is hold back by the lack of political will. Yes, but that shouldn’t be a conclusion. It should be the point of departure to actually generate this political commitment.


Stefan Schurig, Director – Climate, Energy and Cities, Member of the Management Board, WFC