Friday night was the opening day of the 2010 meeting of the Mayors Innovation Project in Washington. At that night’s dinner reception, the keynote speaker was Xavier de Souza Briggs, who serves as Associate Director, General Government Programs in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). (When I first read that title, I thought to myself, “that’s a title that sounds totally meaningless, but probably means that he’s one of the ten most powerful people in government.” After hearing him speak, I’m convinced I was right.)
Briggs, a widely known academic and practical expert on issues of social justice in the city, is on leave from the faculty at MIT. He offered an extemporaneous and wide-ranging discussion of how various government budgeting policies impact urban experiences. His office was one of the leading forces behind last summer’s guidance on place-based policies for the FY2011 budget. Briggs explained how the impacts of the federal government on cities and regions go well beyond the obvious policies and practices at the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Transportation (DOT). “First,” he said,” we should strive to be less duplicative and onerous” on our local government partners. He also outlined sweeping goals for changing the feds’ procurement practices to stimulate specific regional economic engines and for improved asset management by the military and the General Services Administration (GSA), which serves as the federal government’s developer-cum-landlord.
For a frame of reference as to how sweeping this budget guidance is, the last time there was a comparable practice in place came with President Carter’s 1978 Executive Order on Urban and Community Impact Analyses. That policy, in theory, required federal agencies to conduct an analysis of their policies’ impacts on urban areas and report that to the OMB, which would then evaluate that agency’s budgetary and legislative requests, eliminating the proposals with the worst impacts on cities. In practice, a 1981 General Accounting Office assessment of the program found that it had been “only minimally effective.” So Briggs and the new budget guidance have a significant task ahead of them.
As an example of the kind of responsibility for cities and communities that Briggs feels the feds should be taking, he cited the work underway to turn the mostly vacant psychiatric hospital at St. Elizabeths in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., into the new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security. (That agency, with over 140,000 employees, is 15 times the size of HUD.) Briggs described the project as a “historic opportunity to figure out how to maximize community benefits,” saying “This is not a once-every-ten-years kind of opportunity…this represents a once-every-fifty-years kind of opening.”
During the discussion session following Briggs’ remarks, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter asked Briggs about how a city might contact the right people at GSA regarding opening new federal office facilities in a city. Briggs responded by stating that they are trying to give that agency “more of a customer service focus” so that a mayor would know whom to contact. Nutter also asked a more pointed question about a proposal he said that he already floated to his legislators and people in the White House Office of Urban Affairs that would allow cities to borrow money for pension obligations directly from the federal government, allowing them to save millions of dollars a year off commercial lending rates. Briggs considered the somewhat complicated proposal on the spot, and said that while he couldn’t offer the mayor a full response that night, he could outline the concerns the federal government would have — how long would the loan terms be? Why were cities worthy of being extended such enormous credit?, etc.
After Briggs finished his thoughtful response, Nutter added, “With all due respect, when you speak about the “credit worthiness” of cities, I’d point out that the City of Philadelphia has been in business longer than the federal government.”
Briggs was completely engrossing and totally impressive in his intellect, candor, and obvious broad understanding of how hundreds of federal policies and programs affect the American urban situation, but the exchange with Nutter demonstrates how even the most competent and committed administration officials face a challenge in rendering the administration’s commitment clear beyond the Washington beltway.