Silos: So Good For Grain, So Bad For Government

I was reading my recent issue of Governing Magazine (standard issue for all good economic policy analysts) and seeing who made the 2009 Public Officials of the Year List (it was Gregoire in 2007). This year, one of the big names was Martin O’Malley, Governor of Maryland and former Mayor of Baltimore…or as devotees of HBO’s The Wire know him, “Tommy Carcetti.” The biggest praise for O’Malley was his breaking down of bureaucratic silos:

Whether the issue is education, public safety or economic development, O’Malley says, the problems are complex and the bureaucracies are fragmented. In his view, government won’t improve unless leaders dissect the interrelations between different agencies and hold them accountable for meeting measurable goals.

Ah, silos.  Why won’t you stay where you belong: storing food and firing missiles.  And yet, in all organizations (public, private, nonprofit), people get stuck within their departments or their issue areas and miss out on the incredible opportunities to share, leverage and create partnerships that transcend barriers.

The federal government has certainly been no different, but the current administration seems to be interested in breaking down some of those walls.  Most notable has been the HUD-DOT-EPA Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities and the potential $150 million in the FY2010 budget that would fund projects that help local jurisdictions better integrate their own local and regional planning to mirror this kind of holistic ecosystem approach. We can give a lot of the credit to good ol’ Ron Sims, who has been winning rave reviews in his new role as Deputy Director at HUD.

The ideal for local jurisdictions would be to have all federal agencies coordinating, particularly on the funding/grantmaking side of things. For example, right now, if you wanted to invest in building a green economy in your region, you’d go to the Department of Energy, through their focus on energy efficiency, smart grid and new technology; the Department of Commerce (both the Economic Development Administration as well as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s focus on the broadband necessary for smart grid application); the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency, through their focus on sustainability, low-income weatherization and residential retrofits; the Department of Transportation for transit and walkable communities funding; the Department of Labor, for both general green jobs training and specific investments in smart grid and electric worker training; the Small Business Administration; and on and on. We saw this clearly with the dispersal of the Recovery Act dollars, where clean energy money was spread in bits and pieces throughout all sorts of grant opportunities.

What would be awesome is if you could come up with a fully fleshed out proposal for developing a green economy in your region, figure that it could use $100 million in investment from the federal government, and then take it to a cross-departmental grantmaking board for approval. One application instead of twelve, and let them worry about how much of the money comes out of whose budget. The exciting thing is, this might actually happen. The HUD-DOT-EPA thing is a great start, and the whole focus on urban policy has created some pretty good talk to that effect:

…the federal government must break from the siloed approach to urban policy development – where each facet of policy operates independently from all others – and replace it with an interdisciplinary approach that appreciates the interdependent nature of issues affecting urban communities.

This is an issue that we’re going to be spending some significant time on over the next year, in collaboration with the Brookings Institute and two other regions – Minneapolis and Cleveland.  The Metropolitan Business Plan project is designed to be a “reverse RFP” whereby metro areas complete a holistic, aligned, and integrated business plan and use it as a prospectus when seeking funds from the federal government.  You’ll be hearing a lot more in the new year, but it has the potential to help create new opportunities for regions across the country to change the way they seek federal investment.

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One Response to Silos: So Good For Grain, So Bad For Government

  1. Michele says:

    Not really that great for grain – that’s how you get big salmonella outbreaks and even mold problems. Many blame the peanut allergy phenomenon on silo storage.

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