During the next several months of the election season, we're likely to hear a lot about what’s not working in the federal government. But in fact, much is going right across the country, especially when federal and local leaders work closely together on common goals.
My organization, the Partnership for Public Service, recently collaborated with more than 20 federal agencies to create a new training program for their employees who work directly with local governments, nonprofits and businesses tackling issues such as economic development, education, transportation and public health.
At the local level, citizens are directly affected if problems like high crime and school drop-out rates are not addressed. At the federal level, big problems often take time to research, to get appropriate funding and ultimately to implement—though often from a distance and without direct involvement.
When federal leaders collaborate with local officials and community organizations, however, you get the best of both worlds. You get a direct connection with citizens combined with the resources, best practices and other assistance of the national government. Local residents and leaders know what their communities need, but they can use extra support.
In San Antonio, Texas, for example, federal leaders are becoming genuine teammates with local leaders—elected officials, city employees, nonprofits and others—to engage in evidence-based strategic planning. Rather than coming in with the answers, giving money and then walking away, they have been working with local officials to define and understand the goals based on available data, and then seeking to make smart investments that can unlock support from other sources. In addition, the federal officials are remaining partners throughout the implementation stage of various projects to assess progress and make course corrections if needed.
This effort includes the Department of Education, which has provided grants to support San Antonio’s public schools, local youth centers and community colleges, as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has provided assistance for affordable housing and the renovation of vacant housing.
In another example, the Department of Justice has established the Office of Justice Program Diagnostic Center, which uses data to help some 30 communities from Florida to Washington state make informed decisions about their law enforcement strategies, whether that's about reducing robberies or dealing with juvenile delinquency and gun violence. Along with providing the data, the Justice Department is giving strategic planning support and technical assistance to help these communities address their challenges.
One of the best stories we discovered was in Gary, Indiana, which looks poised to be an example of urban renewal. A number of federal agencies are working closely with the city's leaders and a local philanthropy to build libraries, arts centers and public parks—and they are making inroads.
When federal workers get more involved at the local level, the experience of many communities around the country is a far cry from the old punchline, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
These various initiatives prove what's possible, and serve as a challenge to other federal agencies and program leaders to move in this collaborative direction. If you're interested in learning more, check out the Community Solutions Community of Practice website run by (and for) federal employees interested in sharing what works.
If you have other examples or insights, please share your thoughts in the comment section below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.