Strengthening State and Federal Connections: Q&A with Anne Zink
May 09, 2023 | ASTHO Staff
Partnerships between all levels of public health—local, state, territorial, and federal—are key to ensuring that health agencies are working efficiently and effectively. In this interview, ASTHO President Anne Zink (SHO-AK) shares how ASTHO plays a key role in facilitating the relationship between federal agencies and state and territorial public health. She also provides critical insight into fostering partnerships between jurisdictions and levels of government.
Some answers have been edited for clarity.
Why are federal connections important to the work of state and territorial health agencies?
Federal agencies are the cornerstone of all our work within the states. State health officials are this intermediary between our local health departments, our local communities, and the federal government. We're here to help braid funding and translate the federal government's intention, but also to communicate back to the federal government about what our local health jurisdictions and communities need. That way, we can collectively work as seamlessly as possible to meet our mission of creating the best place in the world for healthy and safe families, communities, and people.
Why should health officials look to ASTHO to facilitate connections with federal agencies and leaders?
ASTHO is fundamental and transformational in creating leadership opportunities. The federal government has over 50 states and territories to look towards—it can be a lot of noise. And so, ASTHO does an amazing job of helping to consolidate all our voices. It helps to make sure that blue, red, and everyone in between has a voice and a seat at the table, and then that seat is collectively represented at the federal level.
Just during ASTHO’s Spring Meeting, we had meetings with everyone, from HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra to ASPR, to talk about what's happening in public health from the state and territorial health perspective. It was just an incredibly robust two-way conversation. It highlighted to me the immense role that ASTHO plays in helping to provide a voice to state health officials at the federal government level and for federal officials to hear back in direct feedback how things are working on the ground so that they can better improve the programs, which they're trying to do.
What is the best advice you have for state and territorial health officials looking to build federal connections?
The best advice I have for state and territorial health officials looking to build federal connections is to use ASTHO and to lean in as much as possible. Most of us are good people trying to do good work in really hard conditions. We should be open and available, hear our federal partners' priorities, and find ways to partner with them. Having a low threshold to ask and say, "Do you need help with this? This is what I'm seeing. Help me understand why this was," can help to build those relationships and those connections.
At the end of the day, this is all about people. It's about the people we serve, but it's also the people we work with, both within our states or local jurisdictions and the federal government. ASTHO can help to provide those resources and relationships. But invest in and commit to the people you serve, the people you're serving with, and the people you're partnering with, and always keep the people you're serving at the heart of what you do.
After a federal-state connection is built, what’s one suggestion for sustaining that relationship?
I don't know if relationships are ever fully built. But sustaining a relationship is as important as the initial connection. Integrity is key. Be honest about what you know and don't know to maintain those relationships—that's fundamental to any relationship. I think trust is built on communication and accountability, so make sure you have regular communication in your partnerships and follow through on what you said you were going to do. Having that integrity in what you say can build those ongoing relationships.
It's incredibly rewarding to have years of relationships with federal partners and see projects you once had as a dream manifest into reality later. Seeing meaningful progress around ideas that are now a regular part of the way that we do care and work as a system has been one of the most exciting and rewarding things for me as a state health official.