Promise Zones: Breaking Down Federal “Silos”
July 23, 2014
Author: Matthew Mantica, C’16
From my seat at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development these past few months, there seems to be a lot of talk about breaking down silos across the federal government. These “silos” are the traditional barriers that have long existed and blocked communication and collaboration between federal agencies. Recently, agencies like HUD have been transiting to this new way of doing work, forming partnerships among agencies to further their individual missions.
In the vein of ridding the government of its traditional silos, many agencies have also taken a relatively new approach to their community revitalization work by implementing what are often referred to as “place-based methods. The basic idea behind many place-based efforts is that no single strategy (grant program, technical assistance program, etc.) can act as a panacea for a community’s problems. Instead of the narrowly tailored programs of old, which might focus solely on people or just on housing, place-based efforts address all aspects of a geographic place.
One of the most representative place-based efforts to come out of HUD is the Choice Neighborhoods program. Choice Neighborhoods uses what the Office of Public and Indian Housing (which administers the program) describes as a “comprehensive approach to neighborhood transformation” to address problems with and resulting from public housing in poor condition.  The program channels grants to communities so they can advance the People (bettering educational outcomes and economic mobility) and the Neighborhood (increasing economic investment, safety and assets) of a geographic place, in addition to improving public housing. Choice Neighborhoods has been a significant change from the old way of administering revitalization programs. The HOPE VI program, an older HUD program aimed at combatting distressed public housing, focused solely on funding updated housing and ignored the other aspects of place that Choice Neighborhoods tries to address.
Choice Neighborhoods, however, is purely a HUD program; it does not break down silos across the government, relying entirely on HUD money. One upstart HUD program, where I am working this summer, is doing similar place-based work as Choice Neighborhoods but with the additional element of interagency collaboration. This approach, announced in January of 2013 in President Obama’s state of the Union Address, is the Promise Zones initiative. The goal of this initiative is to target communities of concentrated poverty to create jobs, increase economic development and educational opportunities, reduce crime, and leverage private investment.  One year after the announcement of the initiative, five communities (three urban, one rural, and one tribal) were designated after a first round of applications. These first five designees are communities and regional collaborations located in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Antonio, the Kentucky Highlands region, and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. HUD, which administers the urban Zones, and USDA, which works with the rural and tribal designees, plan to announce 15 more 10-year designations in coordination with the White House and other federal agency partners by the end of 2016.
Promise Zones are somewhat unique in that although Zones receive federal support, it does not come in the form of federal dollars. Instead, teams at HUD and USDA work directly with the local government or nonprofit, school district, or public housing authority that applied for the designation to help fight the concentrated poverty in their communities.
The local-federal partnership first consists of the “bat phone.” Similar to how the Gotham police signal for Batman when they need assistance, in each Promise Zone community there is a Community Liaison who signals to headquarters when the Zone needs help in a certain area. If Philadelphia, for example, has a funding need for an afterschool program, the Liaison notifies HUD headquarters in Washington. Someone at HUD is then tasked with finding applicable grants or technical assistance across the federal government —some assistance that the Department of Education offers, for instance — which may be useful for Philadelphia’s afterschool program.
The next step in this process is for the Designee to apply for a program. For an increasing number of technical assistance and grant programs offered by agencies across the federal government, the Promise Zone will be given “preference points” on their application that give them what amounts to a head start on other applicants. These points end up being extremely valuable in what can be overwhelmingly competitive grant competitions.
While a program that does directly not provide dollars may seem dubious, the Promise Zones initiative presents a compelling model for future place-based programs because it takes advantage of dollars that are out there through interagency collaboration. By breaking down silos and collaborating across government, the initiative is able to focus available resources on the communities that need them the most.
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