Common Place   /   November 6, 2014

Urban Policy: Part 2—Lessons for Small Towns

Guest Blogger

Navigating the Washington networks is fraught with difficulties. Although lobbyists are often characterized negatively, without their services those outside of the Beltway would be lost in the complexities of federal policy. Communities looking for government assistance or hoping to influence a particular policy need such experts. In fact, city leaders in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago maintain full-time offices of federal affairs in Washington just to keep an eye on measures that might affect their cities. But American metropolises are not the only ones vying for a piece of the federal pie.

Suppose a small city or town wants a grant to stimulate its economy. At my time at the Economic Development Administration (EDA) this summer, I was able to witness first-hand how a small Florida town tried to influence public policy in order to make its community more economically competitive. To do this, city officials hired a lobbyist who planned a trip to Washington for the mayor, city manager, and other high-level leaders. This lobbyist then put the city’s delegation in touch with well-placed employees at federal agencies such as the Department of Commerce, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The lobbyist also scheduled meetings with the town’s Congressional delegation.

In talking with this lobbyist, I learned about other ways that municipal groups might share their concerns with Washington. For example, he suggested that city delegates might meet with representatives of the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, or other interest groups. In addition to their own lobbying efforts, these associations and interest groups also develop research that advances their goals—research that a city could adapt for its own needs. However, as my lobbyist friend pointed out, it is also important to find out who sits on the board for these groups and how much influence these individuals might have.

Cities might also try to persuade a foundation like the FordMacArthur or Rockefeller Foundation to pilot an innovative program in their communities. Lobbyists can provide assistance in contacting these foundations or putting city officials in touch with organizations like Living Cities—a philanthropic collaborative of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions working to improve the well-being of cities.

In addition, cities might collaborate with trade groups and unions such as the National Home Builders AssociationAmerican Trucking Association, and United Transportation Union. Even though these groups may have different goals, their expertise can grant city officials access to resources and information that offers a better way to influence public policy outcomes.

Think tanks such as the Brookings InstitutionCenter for American Progress, and the Urban Institute also play a critical role in shaping the public-policy conversation. Through research and white papers, think tanks aim to inform and influence policy-makers and government leaders. In addition to their original research, think tanks often collaborate with academics and build on their ideas. Brookings's well known urban-policy book, Metropolitan Revolution, applies many ideas from the Harvard Business School Professor and management guru Michael Porter to its own case studies.

In fact, the EDA is partnering with Porter to develop a Cluster Mapping Tool for communities. Similarly, EDA is working with a team of professors at Indiana University to create statistical tools known as Stats America to aide in economic development. Last summer, developers from both Harvard and Indiana University provided training sessions at EDA and the Brookings Institution to familiarize high-level staff with these new tools. Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has featured Cluster Mapping and Stats America in her recent speeches.

While EDA and the Department of Commerce support innovative public policy, they are also concerned with the political optics of assisting communities. That is, EDA dedicates a substantial amount of its time making Congress  aware of the benefits its grants and programs make to their home states. Talking with EDA officials who have worked under several administrations, I learned about their frustration over how the agency's priorities and public policy have shifted with prevailing political currents. Too often, they told me, the EDA’s grant-making process serves as little more than a photo opportunity to burnish the administration's image.

While working with lobbyists and meeting some of the District players is important, shaping policy in Washington basically comes down to money. It may make us uncomfortable, but money and policy ideas often have a symbiotic relationship. Foundations invest in ideas that they believe work or show promise.  At the same time, these same ideas might have been accompanied by monetary contributions to the foundation itself. The same is true for think tanks, trade groups, and associations like the National League of Cities, to name one group, who also rely on donors' contributions.

The complexities of Washington and the role of money mean, for example, that the small town from Florida must find a different way to influence public policy. Engaging Washington can't (and shouldn't) be avoided, but trying to find a path through increasingly complex policy issues and protocols can be discouraging. Cities are learning that collaborating at the local and regional level is a more advantageous way to shape their communities for the better. Cooperation allows cities to pool their resources and influence in order to implement innovative solutions that might not otherwise be possible. The federal government recognizes this, too. While at EDA, I sat in on several meetings between small towns and senior EDA officials. The advice that I heard most often? “Have you tried working with your neighbor?”

Malcolm McGregor is a graduate student at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He has interned at the Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration, in Washington, D.C.