In 1787, there was such a thing called “The United States of America”, but it didn’t have a lot of power. The real power was held by the 13 former colonies, or states, each of which is a sovereign nation with its own laws, currency, and taxes. The United States of America was formed 6 years before that, driven by the need to fight a common enemy: Great Britain. So it had an army. Plus, it could negotiate treaties with other countries. But that was about the extent of its power.
After beating the British and securing independence, the central government was ill-equipped to deal with the new pressing challenge: the economy. It couldn’t settle the constant bickering among the states. Beyond the immediate problems, some people saw the limitless potential of a young nation poised to expand from coast to coast — a potential that can be harnessed only with a coherent national identity. For these reasons, many people believed that the central government needed to be stronger. These people were “federalists”. James Madison and John Adams were the philosophical fathers of the movement.
The federalist movement culminated in the constitutional convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. How hard that must have been! Imagine getting a group of revolutionary demigods from 12 states to agree on how to hand over power to a stronger central government. The fact they came out with a written Constitution was astonishing. And for this Constitution to be ratified within a year by nearly all the states was a miracle.
What does this have to do with data governance? When I talk to people trying to set up data governance, I find their challenges similar to those that faced the federalists. Their challenge is to convince people who have had nearly complete control over their data silos to give up some of the control for the benefit of the enterprise. Just like the states before the US Constitution, data silos are afraid of a central, authoritarian data governance entity taking away their autonomy.
How did the framers of the US Constitution solve these seemingly insoluble political problems? Among many things, they came up with a landmark concept, and the key feature of the new Constitution: federalism. They proposed a central government whose powers are limited, and these limits would be spelled out in the Constitution. Whatever lay outside the powers granted to the central government belong to the states. The states have their own elected governments and laws as long as those laws do not contradict federal laws. In essence, the US Constitution was created as a governance framework, and central to this governance framework is federalism.
In hindsight, all of this seems visionary. Back then, no major nation was governed by federalism. But many historians think the federalists had to do it to get buy-in from the member states: It was driven more by practicality than vision. It was a grand compromise. Regardless how it came about, we now know this: federalism is the core governance principle adopted by every large and diverse nation that’s well governed. Federalism allowed the US Constitution to be the oldest constitution still in use. For more than 200 years, through agrarian, industrial, and now information age, and through a massive expansion to the west, a civil war, world wars, this governance framework has guided a nation that is by any measure a remarkable success.
Federalism, the idea that power in an organization is shared between a central entity and sub-entities in a clearly defined way, is applicable not just for nations. For any human organization — a nation, a church, a corporation, or an NGO — to scale, a federalist governance model has proved to be highly effective and enduring. Data governance at large organizations can benefit a great deal by adopting federalist principles. In this blog series, I’ll explore a few practical ways to do this.
The posts in this blog series on federalism in data management: