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Strong Cities, Strong Communities Convening


March 15 was a historic day for the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative (SC2), a partnership between the White House and 19 agencies and sub-agencies aimed at breaking down federal silos and helping cities facing long-term challenges build capacity and more effectively use federal funds. The White House SC2 Convening featured panel conversations and roundtables with mayors of pilot cities and philanthropic, nonprofit, and business leaders. Most significantly, President Barack Obama discussed his support for SC2 and announced the signing of an Executive Order establishing a White House Council to manage and further the initiative.

picture of Mayors John Linder of Chester, AC Wharton of Memphis, Ashley Swearengin of Fresno, David Bing of Detroit, and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans join HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan (left) to discuss the challenges facing cities and  implementation of the SC2 initiative.
Mayors John Linder of Chester, AC Wharton of Memphis, Ashley Swearengin of Fresno, David Bing of Detroit, and Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans join HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan (left) to discuss the challenges facing cities and implementation of the SC2 initiative.

Following welcome remarks from Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz, HUD’s Erika Poethig delivered a presentation outlining the scope of the SC2 initiative. See Assistant Secretary Raphael Bostic’s message for details.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan led a discussion on key challenges facing cities with Detroit’s Dave Bing, New Orleans’ Mitch Landrieu, Chester’s John Linder, Fresno’s Ashley Swearengin, and Memphis’ AC Wharton. The mayors praised the initiative. Landrieu, for example, described SC2 as a new way to improve vertical and horizontal integration across governments. SC2, he said, responds to frustration by people of all political parties at inefficient government processes and insufficient outcomes.

Discussing major problems their cities were confronting, all mayors cited violence and employment as central, interconnected concerns. As Linder explained, “crime is the absence of a response,” and well-developed economic development strategies are necessary to create opportunities for young adults and reduce the desperation that leads to crime. Wharton spoke to the need to match resources and services between governments, and explained that the Community Solutions Team brings fresh approaches and best practices that can come with a national perspective.

As Donovan opened the session to audience questions, President Obama appeared to great surprise and applause. The president underscored how important he believes the SC2 effort is: “We’re living in a time of limited resources,” he said, “…and yet need continues to be enormous. And so the question is, how do we consistently get more bang for our buck?” President Obama called himself a “fierce advocate on behalf of cities and metropolitan areas,” and cited the necessity of cities, suburbs, and rural areas to work together regionally to be competitive. He praised the mayors in attendance, and announced the establishment of the White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities via Executive Order, which will build on the early successes of the SC2 model.

A subsequent panel on aligning private, philanthropic, and public-sector collaboration discussed what made collaboration successful. Annie E. Casey Foundation Associate Director Scott Spencer explained that leadership was critical, and that philanthropy gets involved in projects when there is a driving force that inspires investment. Chris Coleman, the mayor of St. Paul, noted the need for cities to think beyond their immediate regions, as business recruitment is now global in nature.

The event concluded with four roundtables. A conversation focused on finding and retaining talent highlighted the challenges in attracting young talent to government work, as well as workforce development strategies that have been used to overcome these barriers. Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, suggested that governments should develop good metrics to understand whether or not current recruitment and retention strategies are working and establish strong networks to help develop and encourage new workers.

Participants in the economic visioning roundtable focused on the need for regions to innovate in the manufacturing and service sectors, to tap global markets, and to engage in the emerging energy efficiency sector. Amy Liu, senior fellow at the Brooking Institution, discussed the confusion that can emerge when regions have too many plans, and the need to prioritize strategies and develop a unified economic development plan. CEO of Collaborative Economics Dough Henton emphasized the role of data in economic visioning, but also insisted that planning is meaningless without leaders with strong implementation skills.

The efficiency and service delivery group had a wide-ranging conversation about how improvements to operational efficiency and the use of technology have helped local governments make progress toward their visions, as well as how philanthropy and business have supported such efforts. For example, David Eichenthal, senior management consultant at Public Financial Management, addressed how cities can apply information from 311 systems to develop business intelligence and link back to monitoring performance.

Finally, the community development financial institution (CDFI) and capital development roundtable discussed how distressed communities, such as the SC2 sites, can access and deploy capital effectively. The meeting revealed that local capacity in many forms was often missing, hindering a vibrant CDFI market. To solve this challenge, many cities have imported expertise by either having a large CDFI expand its coverage area or contracting with specialists from outside organizations for a limited period.

The SC2 Convening served as both a culmination of two years of program development and implementation and a launching pad into the initiative’s next phase. With President Obama’s mandate to think in new ways about partnership and better serving America’s communities, those engaged in SC2—both inside and beyond government—left committed to developing models that can help put local economies on stronger, more resilient footing.