Evaluation of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Teams Pilot: Final Report. 6. Conclusion

08/25/2014

The SC2 pilot represents a new and promising approach to helping cities address economic development challenges and opportunities. It uses targeted technical assistance and collaboration between federal agencies to advance city priorities. Our evaluation, focused on the first 18 months of the pilot, found that the SC2 approach can be an effective means to address the priorities of cities facing significant economic challenges, especially in cases where the key players in the engagement—city leaders, team members, and federal agencies—are similarly focused on steering the engagement and providing time and energy to identifying and overcoming obstacles to progress. In the absence of such alignment, activities for team members are harder to identify, resources harder to come by, and progress delayed. There is also early evidence that the SC2 approach can transform the way team members do their jobs and has the potential to alter the way federal employees interact with their city government colleagues.

The efforts of the SC2 teams led to an impressive set of accomplishments in the pilot cities, 40 of which we have highlighted in the report as the most significant in the eyes of pilot stakeholders and the evaluation team. These accomplishments ranged from helping cities solve small isolated problems or mitigating bureaucratic barriers to developing sustainable collaborations and plans that are expected to benefit the cities long after the end of the SC2 engagement.

Our evaluation also identified a number of strengths of the SC2 approach that suggest its value above and beyond what was accomplished in the pilot cities. For pilot cities, the engagement represented a new means of interacting with the federal government whereby the city directs how the federal government can best help address local priorities. Additionally, cities appreciated new or improved relationships with federal representatives, as well as with local stakeholders. For the federal government, the SC2 approach gave agencies insights into how cities with capacity deficits operate and how better to target resources to their needs. Finally, the federal representatives valued the cross-agency collaboration that the approach promoted and the professional development opportunities it presented to team members.

Our evaluation also identified a number of strengths of the SC2 approach that suggest its value above and beyond what was accomplished in the pilot cities. For pilot cities, the engagement represented a new means of interacting with the federal government whereby the city directs how the federal government can best help address local priorities. Additionally, cities appreciated new or improved relationships with federal representatives, as well as with local stakeholders. For the federal government, the SC2 approach gave agencies insights into how cities with capacity deficits operate and how better to target resources to their needs. Finally, the federal representatives valued the cross-agency collaboration that the approach promoted and the professional development opportunities it presented to team members.

We identified several challenges to the SC2 approach as piloted. These challenges did not affect all cities and all team members, but were raised in the interviews as common issues that in some cases affected the success of the SC2 team’s work. The main challenges were the lack of dedicated financial resources for SC2 team activities, which affected federal agencies’ ability to allocate resources to the pilot; an insufficient determination of which cities were best positioned to engage in and benefit from the pilot; misalignment of team members’ areas of expertise with the specific areas of focus within cities; and the assignment of team members to activities over which the mayor had no influence, leaving SC2 team members with little ability to effect change. From our analysis of the strengths and challenges of the SC2 approach, and factors affecting SC2 teams’ accomplishments, we have identified a number of opportunities to improve the approach:

Prior to implementation of SC2 team activities, the approach could include a leadership audit as part of the assessment to better gauge local capacity and willingness to engage with a SC2 team, as well as a thorough weighing of potential risks and rewards associated with investing federal resources in low-capacity cities. Cities may also benefit from enhanced communication about what to expect as a pilot city, including who should be involved from the city and what roles they should play, what team members can reasonably be expected to achieve in a city, and what the limitations of the engagement are. During the commitment phase, federal staff could work to secure the commitment of mayors and key city leaders to the engagement and be more intentional about involving regional and state stakeholders.

As implementation begins, the federal agencies could provide additional resources to team members, including staff time and travel budgets, to help cities address their priorities. Additionally, SC2 team leads and the SC2 Council may benefit from monitoring the match between city priorities and team member skills throughout the implementation, not just during the selection of team members. This emerged as a critical issue given the importance of team members’ skill sets to accomplishing cities’ goals and the fact that city needs and priorities can change quickly as unexpected events occur.

Finally, as implementation nears completion, the SC2 teams could begin early communication with cities and individual team members about an exit strategy for the engagement. This may ease anxiety and ensure that all parties can plan for the transition in a way that will promote sustaining  accomplishments and relationships formed during the SC2 pilot. To help further the pilot’s expected long-term outcome of changing the way the federal government does business with cities, points of contact and the SC2 Council could promote the spread of valuable lessons learned by SC2 teams and cities. They could do this by adopting more formal strategies to capture and share what was learned during implementation with federal staff and cities that were not involved in the pilot.

These improvements could enhance an approach that has already shown great promise by helping six of America’s most challenged cities build the capacity and strategic relationships necessary to achieve sustained economic health.

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