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Could the Recovery Act Help Reinvent Government?

Neal Peirce / Aug 21 2009

For Release Sunday, August 23, 2009
© 2009 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal Peirce If you think the Obama administration’s $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is just one big government boondoggle, check out some top regional implementation strategies.

Kansas City, Mo., for example. A big infusion the stimulus funds is being focused on a newly dubbed “Green Impact Zone,” a 150-block area of the inner city long plagued by poverty, violence, abandonment and joblessness.

The goal’s nothing less than turning around every negative indicator in an area that’s long been a glaring exception to the Kansas City region’s general prosperity–notwithstanding its proximity to major roads and a major health sciences cluster.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) of Kansas City gets credit for conceiving the Green Impact Zone idea. But the entire metropolitan region stepped in–the Mid-America Regional Council, city departments, neighborhood groups, community development organizations, employment and energy non-profits and others.

Their agenda runs from weatherizing every home that needs it to a bus rapid transit system, community policing to a home-by-home outreach including job training and placement.

The Kansas City story is not unique. California’s Business, Transportation and Housing Agency invited all 12 regions of the state to propose ways to spend stimulus funds most effectively. The star responder was the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, which mapped ways to connect the monies to advance the region’s 21st century goals, ranging from transportation and water security to workforce development.

All of the Bay Area’s nine counties and 101 cities came onboard, with mayors, county supervisors, business leaders and legislative delegations in Sacramento offering input. Proposals include a new stem-cell research facility, full conversion to LED streetlights, even ways to integrate electric vehicles with the power grid.

The Kansas City and Bay Area regions aren’t alone. The Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program has been able to identify several others–among them Memphis, Chicago, even smaller areas like Cape Cod in Massachusetts and Flagstaff, Ariz.–where regions have “gotten their act together” to connect dots and make ARRA funds serve cohesive areawide agendas.

Normally regions wouldn’t have the funds for such far-reaching–and one could argue historically long-delayed–initiatives. Which is why the Recovery Act offered such a rare opportunity. Understandably, people are judging the stimulus legislation–celebrating its six-month anniversary this month–on jobs it’s created. Estimates are running as high as 1 million, a serious anti-recession move.

But couldn’t–and shouldn’t–this massive outlay of monies go much further? Couldn’t it also be a big incentive to all 366 U.S. metro regions–where 83 percent of us live–to break out of rigid federal grant-in-aid channels? Couldn’t it help bypass the inflexible formulas that so often stand in the way of smart metro-scale action? Why not aim for truly “transformative” alliances and programs instead?

That’s the question senior Brookings analyst Mark Muro and his colleagues posed. Yet sadly, their nationwide survey didn’t find very many “stars.” And where they did–as in such regions as Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City and the Bay Area–there was often a regional vision, with strong government-private sector leadership, well before the current economic crisis.

This dictates a big lessons for regions nationwide: Don’t wait for a crisis. Get your top government, business, neighborhood and environmental leaders to the table early and often on joint projects. Then, when there is fresh national money, you’re able to respond quickly, effectively. The worst idea is to leave your key players–government leaders, housing and transportation officials, schools and universities, your chambers of commerce and citizen groups–in their own foxholes, isolated and lagging in forging inventive strategies for this ultra-challenging century.

But there’s a message for Washington and state governments, too: It’s a mistake–even when you want to see recovery money spent fast–to mindlessly pump out funds through existing federal-state-local spending mechanisms and formulas. Speed too easily becomes the enemy of reinvention: it eclipses the chances to engage metro regions and combine resources on the ground for meaningful, and long-term, economic recovery.

The Brookings researchers also warn that the White House and Cabinet agencies need to take the job of promoting state, regional and local innovation in using Recovery Act funds much more seriously. The idea should be to encourage mutually reinforcing projects and to highlight exemplary state-regional-local innovation through presidential statements–perhaps even a blunt Office of Management and Budget directive to all federal agencies.

Right now, they report, some federal programs–for example the new energy efficiency and conservation block grants–are allowing lots of local flexibility, and positive results. But the federal government’s separate weatherization program is so rigid, stuck in details like the types of eligible buildings, that localities, contends Muro, have to “turn themselves inside out” to try to access it.

Will we Americans, with our tangled federal system, be smart enough to make these changes? Tradition says no. The pressing need for a sounder national future says yes.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com.

4 Comments

  1. Robert Justice
    Posted August 26, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Our economy is empty. 85% of it is in services and the only manufacturing we have is electronic toys, i-pods and such. We are facing an enviromental crisis and need to change our energy supply from fossil fuels. We have been told that all our energy could be supplied by wind power. If you read, nothing could be farther from the truth. We need to build 200 nuclear power plants over the next 50 years to replace fossil fuels. A nuclear plant costs $5 billion and will require the same amount of steel and concrete as the Empire State Building among other things. You could have built 100 of those plants with 2/3 of the stimulus package. We need to rebuild our steel industries to accomplish this and to be able to build all the infrastructure items including new electric cars and mass transit systems. The longer we waste the less chance we have to make this work before enviromental disaster.
    Robert Justice
    Kingwood, TX

  2. Neal Peirce
    Posted August 27, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Right after the plea for nuclear power plants in the Robert Justice column, I received this release from the Nuclear Nuclear Information and Resource Service (http://www.nirs.org):

    WASHINGTON, D.C.–August 27, 2009///The so-called “nuclear renaissance” is finding few friends among state lawmakers in the United States. The nuclear power industry has been shut out across the board in 2009 in its efforts in all six states – ranging across the nation from Kentucky to Minnesota to Hawaii — where it sought to overturn what are either explicit or effectively bans on construction of new reactors, according to the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS). Efforts to overturn bans also have failed to advance in Illinois and West Virginia and Wisconsin.
    Michael Mariotte, executive director, Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said: “While the nuclear power industry and a few members of Congress claim the U.S. is on the verge of a nuclear power resurgence, the industry looks more like a critical patient struggling to get by on life support out in the real world beyond the Beltway. No one seriously expects the industry to go away. But the truth is that things will be even tougher for their state lobbyists in 2010 now that the freeze on Yucca Mountain has taken long-term waste disposal off the table and also in the wake of new evidence of runaway construction costs that make nuclear power even more of a boondoggle.”

    Dave Kraft, director, Nuclear Energy Information Service, Chicago, IL., said: “Authorizing construction of new nuclear reactors without first constructing a radioactive waste disposal facility is like authorizing construction of a new Sear’s Tower without bathrooms. Neither makes sense; both threaten public health and safety.”

  3. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    The Guardian newspaper suddenly took off its website an article about how coal power plants and coal ash was creating abnormalities and cancer. Apparently uranium naturally occurs in coal and is concentrated in coal ash. If you google the article title”Children crippled by India’s uranium waste” you can see how many website picked it up.
    There has been information also about rise in diseases linked to nuclear testing and accidents.
    See:
    Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass’s book:
    Secret Fallout, Low-Level Radiation from Hiroshima to Three Mile Island,
    © 1981 by Ernest J. Sternglass, McGraw-Hill Book Company.

    One should also not forget the WPPS debacle. Nuclear power plants are also also expensive. Nuclear industry needs to address issues about health hazards and waste disposal.

  4. Mayraj Fahim
    Posted August 28, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    A thought comes to mind, why don’t MPO’s and COGs engage citizens. They can use their websites.

    A small city in British Columbia has illustrated it doesn’t cost much to do that.

    Please see:
    http://www.creativeclass.com/creative_class/2009/08/27/how-to-engage-citizens-on-a-municipal-website/
    How to engage citizens on a municipal website

    http://www.govtech.com/gt/96128
    Nanaimo’s Online City Hall