The Washington region will get some professional counseling in hopes of improving its paltry performance in selling its goods and services abroad.
The Global Cities Initiative, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase, will oversee an in-depth study to help the area figure out how to boost exports to offset some of the economic pain caused by the slowdown in federal spending.
A coalition of three regional organizations — representing government, businesses and universities — asked for the help by applying to join the initiative. They did so because the Washington area, despite including a major world capital, is near the bottom of the heap when it comes to doing business overseas.
Among the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, Washington ranks 98th in the share of its economic activity fueled by exports, according to Brookings. That contributed to the region’s weak economic growth rate from 2010 to 2014, which ranked 93rd.
Greater Washington’s entry in the initiative was perhaps the most significant of a series of recent efforts to foster increased cooperation among the District, Northern Virginia and the Maryland suburbs in response to the federal spending cuts known as sequestration.
The three jurisdictions have been such rivals in the past that they had to overcome skepticism at Brookings and JPMorgan Chase about whether they could work together effectively.
“We had to sell ourselves because their experience of the region was that there wasn’t a there there, that we were too disparate,” Roger Berliner, chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said.
“We have been fiercely competitive among ourselves, [but] frankly, it doesn’t serve us any longer,” Berliner said. “This gives us an opportunity to grow the economic pie, rather than [each] competing for a small piece.”
The three regional organizations in the coalition are the council of governments, the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area.
Experts at the initiative will assist in an intensive study lasting nine to 12 months to identify which industries in the area have the greatest potential to increase exports or attract foreign investment. Then the region will decide what steps to take to help companies in those sectors boost sales abroad.
Some of the industries likely to benefit are cybersecurity, biotechnology and hospitality.
The initiative has advised nearly 30 metropolitan regions in the United States, and others abroad, on how to be more internationally competitive.
In Louisville, the small and medium-size companies that it identified as potential exporters increased their foreign sales and more than doubled employment over three years, according to Marek Gootman, director of strategic partnerships and global initiatives at Brookings.
Among other things, the initiative has advised local economic development agencies to develop a common strategy to focus on exports.
It also has urged universities and community colleges to do more to train workers to fill jobs needed by industries with promise as exporters.
“Most of these markets decided they weren’t putting enough effort into exporting,” Gootman said.
“Regions didn’t really know what they were doing and weren’t doing,” he added.
One of the best things about the export advice from the Global Cities Initiative is the price. It’s free.