This post originally appeared on the Living Cities blog, The Catalyst, on June 18, 2014.
For the past three years, I’ve been part of a network of regional leaders exploring what’s working and what’s getting in the way of growing jobs in ways that also expand opportunity for low-income residents. We’ve now reached an important juncture in the Regional Prosperity Project and have been thinking about where to go from here in light of increasing interest and activity in this arena. I’ve concluded there are four areas of focus that hold the key to strengthening, sustaining and expanding this field of work.
1. What do we know with confidence and what key questions do we still have about growing jobs in ways that expand opportunity for low-income residents?
Although we’ve learned a lot over the past three years, there’s still a crying need for more reliable information about which strategies actually make the biggest difference on the ground. That’s because most of the current efforts to grow jobs continue to be driven by myths, anecdotes or the latest fads, with a premium on novelty, rather than effectiveness.
To make matters worse, as interest in this area has grown, the field has become cluttered with recommendations based on very little evidence. As a result, many of the strategies currently being employed to grow jobs are ineffective, and some may actually be making the situation worse for low-income residents.
Taking stock of what we know at this point about what actually works could cut through a lot of the noise and clutter, help unify the field, and guide innovative efforts on the ground.
2. How can we transform existing systems and redirect resources to where they can make the biggest difference?
In the course of our work, we’ve found that current approaches to economic development, workforce development, community development and land use planning all fall far short of what’s needed to meet today’s challenges. However, innovative efforts at the regional level are too often designed to work around these existing systems, or to adorn them with shiny new programs, without really challenging outmoded thinking and practices. As a result, it’s difficult for innovations to take root, or to be scaled up.
Another problem is that most innovative efforts are funded by grants, which are short-term and programmatic, while the work itself is long-term and systemic. Moreover, funders are increasingly demanding quantifiable results, which are easier to deliver with shorter-term projects. That leaves regional leaders in an ironic predicament, where they are forced to piece together enough short-term, programmatic grants to keep their systems change efforts going long enough to make a lasting difference.
However, even if the grants were restructured to focus on systems, rather than programs, there would never be enough of them to do the job. Ultimately, the only way to scale up and sustain innovative efforts on the ground will be to tap into existing streams of funding and redirect them to more productive uses. But, existing streams of funding are being staunchly defended by parochial and vested interests, and reinforced by administrative and legislative restrictions.
Turning that around will require changing the rules and norms that govern existing systems through protracted campaigns that build coalitions, shape public opinion, and fully engage elected officials, rather than working around them, as is so often the case.
3. How can we institutionalize the intermediary function at the regional level?
We’ve found that the vital work of building regional coalitions and holding them together often goes unrecognized. It takes a deep understanding of how different systems work, as well as respect, trust, skill and perseverance to navigate the inevitable changes in organizational and political priorities and leadership.
However, we’ve found that the individuals playing this “regional organizer” role are often doing it on the side, off the books, or in their spare time. In addition, these individuals are dependent on their boards’ and/or members’ ability to see the benefits of this broader role to the home organization and to be willing to make it a priority.
As a result, some regions have tried to institutionalize this function by creating intermediary organizations. However, those intermediaries have proven difficult to sustain. For one thing, it is very difficult to find funding to support them. Funders routinely assume that local business and economic development organizations should support the intermediaries, but these organizations often end up competing with each other for financial support, or get mired in conflicts of interest when the support comes with strings attached.
In order for intermediary organizations to have an independent voice and to sustain their efforts long enough to make a difference, they will need an independent and stable source of funding.
4. How can we achieve critical mass in this work?
When we launched our learning network, there weren’t many other groups coming at these issues from the growth angle. However, over the last several years, a number of other networks have sprung up. It’s clear that we can have a bigger impact if we combine our efforts, rather than continue to function separately.
Building a bigger platform would be particularly helpful to the individuals leading these efforts on the ground, since they are currently housed in many different kinds of organizations at the regional level – such as business-civic associations, economic development organizations, councils of government, and planning organizations. To make matters worse, these individuals tend to be orphans within their own national organizations, which are mainly focused on other issues.
A bigger platform would bring more credibility and visibility to this work, and it would help generate the escape velocity necessary to overcome the gravitational pull of existing systems.
Pete Carlson is president of Regional Growth Strategies