The federal government has historically invested significant resources in the nation’s distressed cities. However, the benefits of these investments have often not been fully realized. Many of the most distressed cities have lacked the capacity to effectively use these resources and, in some cases, the segmented nature of the resources coming from the federal government has hindered the catalytic support federal programs might otherwise offer. The Strong Cities Strong Communities (SC2) Team pilot is an innovative effort to take on these challenges and develop a new approach for the federal government in revitalizing some of the most distressed cities in the U.S.
In September 2011, as part of SC2, the White House Domestic Policy Council and 14 federal agencies launched a pilot in six U.S. cities: Chester, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Fresno, California; Memphis, Tennessee; and New Orleans, Louisiana.1 At the start of the pilot, federal agencies assigned employees to interagency teams of experts called SC2Teams.Each SC2 team was comprised of a team lead and federal employees assigned to work for the city either full-time, part-time, or in an advisory capacity. The federal teams included a small number of team members working on-site in the pilot cities as well as a larger number of team members based out of their agency’s headquarters in the Washington, DC area or out of regional or field offices. The final evaluation report, Evaluation of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Team Pilot Initiative, provides a more complete description of the pilot effort.
In 2012, the Department of Health and Human Services contracted with Abt Associates and Mt. Auburn Associates to evaluate the first 18 months of the SC2 pilot. The goals of this evaluation were to assess (1) how the activities of teams were implemented, (2) how participants experienced SC2, and (3) what has been learned that can be used to enhance future program implementation. To complement the main evaluation report and explore select topics in more detail, the study produced two select topics papers, of which this is one.
The purpose of this paper is to delve in much greater depth into two features that differentiate the SC2 pilot from other federal initiatives targeted toward distressed cities: first, having federal staff from multiple agencies collaborate on locally identified, project-specific work; and, second, its use of federal staff to foster new partnerships amongst local stakeholders.
While the research completed for the final evaluation report identifies examples of convening new partnerships and collaboration across federal agencies, this paper seeks to glean additional insights into the federal role in revitalizing distressed cities by exploring in greater detail the most notable examples of these two areas of activity. The paper addresses two research questions:
- What determined when SC2 was able to increase coordination and collaboration among federal staff from multiple agencies and programs?
- What contributed to SC2 Team’s success when playing a convening role to facilitate local partnerships?
The remainder of this paper is divided into three sections:
- Section 2 looks at the cases of significant federal interagency collaboration and identifies some of the lessons that emerged from these cases.
- Section 3 looks at the cases in which team members successfully convened formal local partnerships in the sites and identifies some of the lessons that emerged from these cases.
- Section 4 discusses some of the implications of the findings on interagency collaboration and partnerships for the federal role in revitalizing distressed communities and future SC2 work.
1 In October 2012, after the contract for this evaluation was executed, Youngstown, Ohio, also became an SC2 Team site.
In order to answer the two research questions, the team first developed the criteria for determining which activities at each of the sites should be examined as examples of collaboration among federal staff across agencies and efforts to facilitate local partnerships. The following is a description of the criteria, which emerged from the project’s initial framing paper.2
Federal Interagency Collaboration: In line with a 2012 GAO report, interagency collaboration was defined as “any joint activity that is intended to produce more public value than could be produced when the agencies act alone.”3 The focus was on how staff from multiple federal agencies collaborated in their work with pilot cities rather than collaboration between agencies in Washington, DC that occurred while designing and overseeing the SC2 initiative but was not tied to specific projects at the local level.
Local Partnerships: This brief focuses only on partnerships or collaborations that involved a more formal structure with set membership, regular meetings, clearly defined leadership, and decision-making systems established to address a specific challenge or opportunity in the community since partnerships with these characteristics are more likely to result in enduring changes.
Using these definitions, the research team first reviewed all the existing data that had been assembled through the research for the larger evaluation report to identify activities that were interagency collaborations or local partnerships. This included interviews with key stakeholders during site visits in the spring of 2013, focus groups with team members, and multiple interviews with the team lead in each site. Follow-up phone conversations were held with the team leads to review the list and see if any additional examples could be identified from the first 18 months of implementation.
Based upon this process, and using the targeted definitions listed above, five cases were identified as examples of interagency collaboration, and three examples were found that illustrated the establishment of more formalized local partnerships that were initiated by a team member and met the criteria established for this brief. These cases were:
- Federal Interagency Collaboration
- Guiding high speed rail in Fresno.
- Blending Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds with Department of Transportation-Federal Highway Administration (DOT-FHWA) funds in New Orleans.
- Advancing the vision for the Fulton Mall in Fresno.
- Establishing a Permanent Supportive Housing voucher preference for individuals returning from substance abuse treatment and incarceration in New Orleans.
- Jumpstarting an agriculture-based technology cluster in Fresno.
- Local Partnerships
- Healthy Chester Coalition in Chester, Pennsylvania.
- Strategic Workforce Alignment Group in Cleveland, Ohio.
- Building Neighborhood Capacity Program in Fresno, California.
The examples were chosen because they best exemplified the characteristic of the respective activity during the study’s analysis period. While individual team members in all of the sites worked closely with city staff to address specific needs and also met with other team members periodically to plan and discuss their work, the cases selected as examples of federal interagency collaboration were ones in which the achievements were related specifically to the active collaboration of at least two different federal agencies. Similarly, it is important to note that in each of the sites there were many examples where team members convened meetings to discuss issues or where team members facilitated new relationships in the community, but, for the purposes of this brief, the selected local partnership examples demonstrated more formal activities that went beyond individual meetings or convenings.
The vision for the ad hoc papers did not anticipate substantial, if any, additional research. However, the evaluation team made a series of telephone calls to team members involved in some of these activities to fill in details about who was involved, how the work originated, and what elements of the process contributed to its success.
2 Mt. Auburn Associates and Abt Associates, Evaluation of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Pilot Initiative: Framing Paper, January 2013.
3 Perhaps the most cited definition of interagency collaboration is from Bardach, Getting Agencies to Work Together: The Practice and Theory of Managerial Craftsmanship (1998), which defined collaboration as “any joint activity by two or more agencies working together that is intended to increase public value by their working together rather than separately.” The 2012 GAO Report, Managing for Results: Key Consideration for Implementing Interagency Collaborative Mechanisms has drawn on Bardach’s definition for its work.