The new localism: An Obama legacy?

In case the American public needed a refresher on the depths of Washington’s dysfunction, for the first time in modern history, Congress has refused to hold a hearing on the president’s budget. It’s true—even with a hearing, most of the ideas in the budget would be dead on arrival. But that doesn’t mean the administration’s ideas aren’t worthy of our attention.

There is a lot to like in the budget’s proposed investments in infrastructure, innovation, and inclusion, many of which would create a strong platform for sustainable, widely shared economic growth. But what’s really interesting is the administration’s call for the federal government to change the way it does business. It voices a very different theory of change than what we have become accustomed to hearing from Washington—namely, that real progress can occur only if the federal government empowers local actors, and that spurring cross-sector collaboration on the ground is essential in confronting our toughest challenges. In other words, the budget articulates the Obama administration’s vision for how the federal government’s modus operandi might better reflect the realities of the 21st century.

Too often in the past, the Federal Government has taken a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to working with local communities, ignoring the unique challenges and resources of each place. Such an approach fails to fully leverage local knowledge and leadership in maximizing the impact of Federal resources and Federal-local collaboration. Addressing entrenched poverty or improving resilience in the face of climate change requires cross-sector solutions that bring together different agencies and different assets from local, State, Federal, public and private stakeholders.

It’s also interesting to see (particularly because this is the president’s final budget before leaving office) how strongly the administration characterizes its efforts to improve the way it works with local actors.

From day one, the President called on the Federal Government to disrupt this outdated, top-down approach, and to think creatively about how to make our efforts more user-friendly and responsive to the ideas and concerns of local citizens. This new approach is simple. First, we partner with communities by seeking out their plans or vision. Second, we take a one-government approach that crosses agency and program silos to support communities in implementing their plans for improvement. Lastly, we focus on what works, relying on evidence and using data to measure success and monitor progress, fostering communities of practice to share and build on local innovations.

While the administration likely overstates the extent to which it has changed the way Washington interacts with local actors, several of its initiatives—limited as they may be in scope—have represented a major shift in the way the federal government operates. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities, launched in 2009, is a joint effort between the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency that has provided coordinated funding across agencies for local transportation, housing, and environmental projects. Several programs within the initiative provide grants to aid the planning process for these efforts, which allow local actors to develop synergistic approaches to transportation and housing development and to leverage investment from the private and civic sectors. Since its creation, the partnership has distributed over $4 billion in competitive grants and technical assistance to over 1,000 communities.

The Performance Partnerships for Disconnected Youth, launched in 2015, allows local governments to propose strategies for how they would combine funding streams from seven different federal agencies to improve outcomes for disconnected youth. If their proposals are approved, local governments are granted flexibility to carry out their approved plans. Nine pilot programs were introduced in 2015, and the program is set to expand in 2016. Similarly, the Upward Mobility Project, proposed in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget, would allow local actors to combine specific funding streams from the Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development in order to increase economic opportunity and reduce poverty in their communities. Both programs are based on the idea that giving local actors flexibility across federal silos helps communities achieve better results.

The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation also represents a major departure from the past. Federal investments of around $500 million have leveraged nearly $1 billion in private and civic capital to create seven manufacturing research institutes, each with its own technological concentration, in metropolitan areas across the country. The institutes work in close collaboration with the private sector and academia, catalyzing the development of new technologies, manufacturing competencies, and production processes, as well as providing shared facilities to regional startups and manufacturers. The 2017 budget proposes an additional $225 million for this initiative in order to reach 15 manufacturing institutes by the end of President Obama’s term. This initiative demonstrates that strategic, place-based federal investments can spark deep collaboration between the local public, private, and civic sectors.

In the scope of the federal budget, these programs are miniscule. But they are guided by very different principles than the top-down, hyper-compartmentalized federal programs of the past. Instead, they reflect the way the world really works. Local actors are frequently in the best position to design, plan, and execute approaches to pressing problems. With relatively small, competitive, targeted investments, the federal government can be an extremely effective catalyst for local action and cross-sector collaboration, both essential components in creating better outcomes for our toughest problems.

The next presidential administration—Democrat or Republican—should build upon the localist momentum that President Obama has created. Democrats, often seen as the party of government, have a duty to support the most effective solutions to public problems. As such, they must recognize the limits of federal power and find ways to encourage locally driven, cross-sector approaches. Republicans, often seen as the party of devolution, should embrace the lighter touch of the federal government’s catalytic approach. But they must recognize that federal investments can massively enhance local capabilities.

Will it be possible for the next president to transcend traditional partisan lines and advance American localism? Time will tell.