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A Government Retrofit: Federal Coordination

Anthony Flint / May 14 2009

For Release Sunday, May 17, 2009

Anthony FlintAs we stare down the economic recovery and a post-carbon future, we’ve got a lot of retrofitting to do.

Water heaters, furnaces, windows, and older buildings await energy efficiency upgrades. Transit systems need technology overhauls to communicate with riders on their mobile phones. Underground, aging water, sewer and steam pipes can’t stand much more deferred maintenance. Automakers need to revamp assembly lines to produce low-emission buses–and maybe even streetcars and trolleys.

Add one more thing that badly needs an update: governance.

At the local level, a more regional approach is necessary to marry land use and transportation, for example. “How else would we govern, except the way that we have settled?” asks Portland Metro councilor Robert Liberty in the recently released documentary film, Portland: Quest for the Livable City.

But it is the federal government that truly needs a version 2.0, to meet the energy, climate, transportation, and economic development challenges of the 21st century. After a few weeks on the job, Xavier de Sousa Briggs, associate director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, is astonished at how Washington’s agencies were “invented for 1977.”

“We cannot partner [with cities] better … unless we’re more integrated in how we function,” Briggs said at a conference for journalists, “The Next City,” sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

More detail on the conference is available by Robert Campbell at The Boston Globe, Tom Condon at The Hartford Courant, Citiwire contributor Alex Marshall, Mary Newsom at the Charlotte Observer, and Tim Halibur at Planetizen.

Briggs, on leave from MIT and in a position of significant influence on urban policy for the Obama administration, says it’s imperative that agencies “cut across the silos.” There is already evidence of this mandate, in the coordinated initiatives between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation, and HUD and the Department of Energy. If the housing of the future is to be energy-efficient and located near transit, this kind of integration seems to make a lot of sense.

Coordination would have been helpful in the $787 billion stimulus package, to achieve multiple policy goals in energy, climate, and transportation. Coordination will be critical in the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, if it is to be transformational as the group Transportation for America is advocating–a more holistic approach linking land use and transit, and a “fix it first” policy for the nation’s metropolitan regions. Any climate bill plowing back revenues into green infrastructure would also benefit from federal agencies working together in ways that break from the past. Silo-busting sounds like a familiar refrain. That may be because over the past several years the states, including California and Massachusetts, have already been experimenting with such overhauls. In Massachusetts, the Office of Commonwealth Development coordinated housing, transportation, energy, and the environment, aligning them all, both operationally and in capital projects, in a smart growth agenda. It was an uphill battle–I was a policy adviser in that effort–because government fiefdoms are well known for not playing well with others. State DOTs in particular rather infamously go their own way (and often that literally means the highway). Talk of coordination won’t suffice; it has to flow through the budget and the chain of command.

Taking the cue from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Arizona roped together similar agencies, in the case of Connecticut including economic development. New York and Virginia considered the coordination model as well. Back in Massachusetts, however, incoming Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, dismantled the Office of Commonwealth Development, set up by his Republican predecessor, Mitt Romney.

And so Briggs and Co. will have their work cut out for them, just as those refitting subway tracks or ripping out old furnaces face a staggeringly arduous task. Rewiring Washington may be the hardest retrofit of all.

Anthony Flint, a writer at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, can be reached at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to