As a unique federal pilot, the SC2 initiative can offer valuable lessons for existing or future federal programs or activities, especially for federal providers of technical assistance to localities and for federal staff based in regional offices. During data collection, the research team asked team members which components of the approach might be replicated elsewhere in the federal government. Several themes emerged, with most emphasizing improved avenues for federal agencies to learn from and engage localities. While these ideas are not new, our evaluation provides further evidence that the following are promising approaches that could be pursued in the future:
Engaging cities using a bottom-up approach. Team members regarded the bottom-up, grassroots approach to local engagement as a promising component of the approach that could be extended to other federal programs designed to provide technical assistance (TA) to localities. This includes having federal employees, when providing TA, ask localities how they can be of assistance, rather than dictating how they will try to help and then quickly deploying federal resources in response to local stakeholders’ responses. Additionally, a successful component of the SC2 engagement that could be replicated is having what was described as a “local face of the federal government,” meaning federal representatives who are deeply involved in a local community and readily available to local stakeholders, as it encourages local stakeholders to approach those representatives with requests for assistance.
Tailoring strategies and technical assistance to local conditions. Team members valued the SC2 model’s flexibility, which allowed them to provide technical assistance that addressed local priorities and needs. Members regarded that characteristic as an additional component of the approach that could be extended to other federal activities. One team member noted that the engagement was the first time in his career he had seen the federal government evaluate whether specific strategies for assisting local communities were actually needed, rather than assuming that assistance of any kind would be useful to all communities. Another noted that local problems are naturally unique due to the local context, blanket approaches cannot work in all areas, and that the value of the SC2 approach is that it encourages federal agencies to highly tailor their approaches to assisting cities.
Conducting assessments to gauge local readiness to benefit from programs. For assistance to be locally tailored, the federal government must successfully ascertain local challenges and opportunities. While the SC2 assessment process was not without problems, it was regarded as a valuable tool in understanding the context of pilot cities and seen as a SC2 component that could be replicated elsewhere in the federal government. Assessments could be valuable to federal grant programs in helping determine which localities could benefit from a program, thus becoming a means for a more efficient use of federal resources.
Coordinating federal efforts around place-based strategies. Team members also saw an opportunity for replication of the SC2 approach’s emphasis on coordinating federal place-based activities. More specifically, the approach’s strength is that federal coordination takes place with a great deal of relationship building at the local level and engages mayors to help guide federal investment. One SC2 team lead noted that each federal agency involved in his pilot city had investments in that city prior to SC2 but that being on the ground is what allowed team members to gain a comprehensive understanding of those investments and then align them to more efficiently and effectively address city needs. The emphasis on engagement and communication across departments within agencies is another component of the approach that would be useful to replicate in other cross-agency initiatives.
Leveraging regional offices as a means of better connecting federal staff to local governments. Finally, the engagement’s use of team members based in regional federal offices was seen as an approach that would benefit other federal programs and activities. Regional staff can help federal agencies understand local conditions and build relationships with local stakeholders that could facilitate streamlined and sustained federal assistance to localities. The Chester SC2 experience offers a promising test of the viability of a regionally driven approach of federal engagement in economically challenged communities. More so than in any other pilot city, the Chester SC2 team consisted of regionally based federal staff members. The team there agreed to continue working in Chester after their official engagement ended, and they said they intended to offer their services to low-capacity communities elsewhere in the Philadelphia region on a limited basis (one day a month) with input from Washington, DC-based POCs. This post-pilot team may merit further evaluation, specifically of its ability to address local needs in comparison to the standard SC2 approach.