Weekly B-MOW: Improving EDA’s Investment Approval Process

“Government should operate more like a business!”, they say. Maybe yes, maybe no. But one business-like area that it is always exciting to hear government talking about is customer service.  Whether you’re at the Department of Motor Vehicles (trying to get a driver’s license) or the Small Business Administration (trying to get a low-interest loan), you want a quick, clear response from a friendly, professional staff person. For those of us in the economic development world, the thing we want from the government is often grants, and so it’s pretty cool when a federal agency revises their funding process to be more responsive and faster. Which is why this week’s Best Meeting of the Week is “The Improving EDA’s Investment Approval Process Webinar.”

First of all, webinars are actually pretty good as things go. The EDA (Economic Development Administration, BTW, which is part of the Department of Commerce) used GoToMeeting, and you could see their powerpoint and hear them talking. I’m sure there’s tons of similar technology out there, but it totally worked. Anyway, the point of the webinar was to explain EDA’s new investment process, and the most important part of the new process is fast turnaround time. Apparently, over the last few years, the response time on a grant application averaged 200 days (!?!), but now they’ve committed to a hard yes or no within 20 business days. They also used to have a rolling application process, and now they have a quarterly deadline, which helps as well.

This whole conversation made me think of something that one of my board members said at this week’s Economic Development District Board meeting (obviously the second best meeting of the week), about the relationship between economic development, land use and transportation in other countries. He said that, in all of his travels, most countries around the world have economic development as the primary goal, and then they make land use and transportation decisions that feed up into that strategy. Here, in his opinion, it’s the opposite, where we try to jerry-rig economic development into other activities.

The reason I bring that up is that the EDA is a little, tiny agency under a bigger agency that is one of many. And – I mean this in no political way – maybe that explains a little about why the federal government has had a tougher time jumpstarting the economy. Did all the road projects funded by the Recovery Act maximize the transportation of people and goods between employment centers? Is the $5 million Sustainable Communities grant that PSRC just got from HUD going to ensure that people have convenient, affordable access to their jobs? How will the Department of Energy’s incredible amounts of investment in new clean tech projects over the past two years connect in a comprehensive way with the green economy funding from EDA, Department of Labor, Department of Defense and others?

It’s clear that there’s a structural issue here; the silos of various agencies can contribute to a disincentive and an inability to work collectively as one federal government on creating jobs…which is, at the end of the day, the most important thing (IMHO). And I do know that they are starting to address this. Some of the folks at last week’s B-MOW were members of TARIC – the Taskforce for Advancing Regional Innovation Clusters – which is an interagency group that tries to coordinate on these issues. I hope they’re successful, and I wonder whether it’s possible without more substantive changes in the way government functions.

In the meantime, though, at least we’ll get quick responses on our grant requests to the EDA!

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