At Living Cities, we are interested in how local governments are experimenting with new structures to enable fresh approaches to tough problems. The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is one especially prominent example of that work.

Cities and communities are increasingly tackling today’s challenges in ways that cut across traditional programmatic boundaries. For example, many cities are working to make their communities more walkable and improve access to transportation, jobs, food and other basics, while others are working to improve student outcomes by creating supports both inside and outside the classroom.

The public sector, with its unique combination of resources, authority and leadership, can play critical roles in supporting these integrative efforts. But too often specialized and poorly coordinated bureaucratic structures – “silos” – mean that different parts of government work at cross purposes.

Take the example of regional planning. A 2011 federal report states that “DOT and HUD both have statutorily required planning requirements for receipt of federal funds. These requirements are not well aligned with one another, having different eligibility, timeframe, content considerations, and approval processes.” As a result, these plans can conflict with one another, and their authors compete for resources when it comes time to implement.

At Living Cities, we are interested in how innovative structures, innovative uses of capital, and innovative approaches to collaboration can help the public sector to achieve better results. In a recent blog post, I wrote about some of the ways that local governments are experimenting with new structures to enable fresh approaches to tough problems. The federal government, for its part, has been working to help produce innovation by reducing silos at the local level.

The Partnership for Sustainable Communities is one especially prominent example of that work. Since 2009, the Partnership has worked to align funding streams and rules across the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, with many more agencies participating informally. They have helped localities to integrate significant sums of federal dollars to develop and implement plans that integrate a focus on housing, transportation, jobs, economic development and inclusion, and more.

We are pleased to release today a strategic assessment of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities and its impact in helping to break down silos, commissioned by Living Cities and conducted by the Urban Institute.

The assessment focuses in particular on what can be learned from the Partnership’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant Program, which has awarded $195 million since 2010 supporting the development and implementation of regional plans addressing issues across the focus areas of the partner agencies.

The study finds that the Planning Grant Program helped its local grantees to break down barriers to collaboration within government and across sectors by incentivizing them to:

  • Create new collaborative structures, which intensified the representation of stakeholders typically left out of decision-making processes and supported deeper community engagement

  • Broaden the range of substantive areas actively considered in regional plans, including affordable housing, economic development, transit access, public health, and the environment

  • Expand the resources devoted to collaborative regional planning processes, and

  • Diversify participation across jurisdictional boundaries (e.g., by promoting engagement between city, suburban and exurban governments).

The Partnership created a supportive enabling environment for programs like the Regional Planning Grants to take root. Agency leadership developed a set of Livability Principles to guide collaboration among their staffs; agency staff then used these principles to frame programs like the Regional Planning Grants, and have also integrated them into existing funding streams where possible. Many agency officials had experience working together before coming to the federal government, which paved the way for productive collaboration when they arrived. And as they developed new programs and sought to align existing ones, HUD, DOT and EPA engaged with current and would-be local users of the funds to ensure that these programs and reforms would respond to their needs and concerns.

Enduring Change?

In addition to the findings above, the study also finds that the extent to which the changes produced by this program endure over the longer term remains an open question. The study points to a number of factors that will help determine whether the increased coordination becomes institutionalized or not, such as whether the “connective tissue” enabling regional collaboration can be sustained once Planning Grant funds are spent.

Even at this stage, though, the findings in the study provide some very interesting food for thought in considering the role that federal policy can play in reducing governmental silos – an issue of considerable interest across a number of policy areas. We invite you to share your insights and experiences, either below or in the Twittersphere (tweet your comments @Living_Cities).

Resource Document: Summary: Can Federal Efforts Advance Federal and Local De-Siloing?
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Resource Document: Can Federal Efforts Advance Federal and Local De-Siloing?
Download  More information