Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Agencies highlight progress and challenges in collaboration

by Ethan Handelman, National Housing Conference

Today’s Federal Policy Plenary brought into sharp relief the progress made and challenges still to face in collaboration among key federal agencies. The panel, held during the luncheon session of the Solutions for Sustainable Communities conference, brought together John Frece of the Environmental Protection Agency, Beth Osborne of the Department of Transportation, and Stockton Williams of the Department of Energy. Their moderator was Julia Stasch from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the presenting sponsors of the conference.

Panelists highlighted the progress made at an operational level to build cross-agency collaboration into the culture. Stockton Williams observed the by building capacity within agencies, we’re creating an “institutional understanding of what we’re trying to achieve.” John Frece pointed out the cost effectiveness of the collaboration. As his agency has tracked costs, they’ve found that they’re “not doing additional work, just doing it arm-in-arm with the other agencies.” Beth Osbourne highlighted that collaboration has made clear the need for competitive, rather than formula, grant programs, because “the way you really innovate is engage the competitive spirit of this country.”

Challenges remain, as acknowledged by the panelists and highlighted by some questions from the audience. From statutory incompatibilities (e.g., the HUD grant requires something that the DoT grant forbids) to the pace of action, there is much work yet to be done. There was a clear consensus among audience members, however, that they are pleased with the direction of change and hope for more, even in an environment of shrinking federal resources.

Indeed, the TTHUD appropriations bill that came out of the House Appropriations Committee explicitly excluded funding for new sustainable, livable, or green community development programs. We need to reinforce with all of our legislators the concrete benefits that come from sustainable communities across America: better health, more affordable housing, less traffic congestion, better environment and overall more livable communities. Nothing speaks louder than proven benefits in the home state or district.

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