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Reorganizing Beyond the Beltway

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So far, the Washington conversation around reorganizing government has focused, well, on Washington. That's not surprising, and the federal government clearly could be more efficient. But beyond the important work of streamlining agencies inside the Beltway, the strategy for reorganizing government must be expanded outside to better adapt to 21st-century realities and accelerate job creation.

Admittedly, this is all very nerdy stuff, which currently comes fully loaded with even nerdier jargon. Try talking about the need for smarter, distributed government at your next cocktail party. Yet there is a way to envision the government hybrid we need to build: like those amusing Esurance ads, we need new models for government service that allow citizens and businesses to talk to a helpful person when they want one, or do it on the web when they don't.

The approach we advocate is thus not about more government or less government -- it's about creating a federal government that sets a clear, national competitiveness strategy to meet our global economic challenges and then empowers local communities and businesses to deliver the desired outcomes. People at the local level best know the economic needs and assets of their communities, and federal resources and public-private partnerships can be of enormous help in enabling these communities to realize the opportunities they see and create a new model for "bottom-up" growth. These ideas are at the heart of the Obama administration's new Growth Zones initiative.

In research conducted with the respected public opinion firm Gerstein-Agne, we found that Americans are skeptical of nearly everything Washington does from the top-down, including reorganizing itself. But they are eager to partner with government to leverage local and regional knowledge as part of a national strategy.

The good news is that a public-private, partnership-driven approach has worked before to solve a tough problem and is beginning to work again. In the 1990's, the Workforce Reinvestment Act created community-based worker retraining and job opportunity programs using business, labor and community partnerships.

Today, dozens of examples exist around the country that point to the success of this model: In Colorado, over 1,500 aerospace and clean energy companies are partnering with local and federal government to get new technologies to market faster by leveraging local suppliers and to identify new markets and increase exports; In Charlotte, Tucson, and Portland, government purchasing power has spurred the growth of United Streetcar, the first American-made streetcar company in 57 years, which uses parts manufactured in over 20 states; and in Michigan, federal loans and state retraining programs have revived GM, creating a new battery industry worth 68,000 new jobs.

These results and their public support illustrate why we need to further deploy similar models to accelerate job creation, market innovation, and performance-based government. New efforts -- led by the Obama administration and a growing, bipartisan group of governors, mayors, and business leaders -- such as Startup America and the Jobs and Innovation Partnership initiative, point the way.

We can build on these successes by creating a number of low-cost mechanisms designed to re-tool federal economic development and energy and infrastructure programs and smooth out the funding pipeline from Washington to local communities, a necessity in a post-earmark era. These include:

Local job creation councils -- Groups of local business people and civic leaders come together to steer federal funding to local priorities in designated Growth Zones and self-identified clusters while meeting clear accountability and performance goals. Such local community councils are better able to deploy local assets and overcome partisan gridlock.

Solution centers -- While web applications and open data are critical advances we are seeing emerge from the Obama administration, sometimes (like those Esurance ads) people need intermediaries (translation, a human). One stop centers for federal and state economic development would offer direct frontline connections and support ranging from rural and small community loans (USDA), to free entrepreneurship training, to new SBA programs targeting the equity needs of small businesses and startups that deliver two-thirds of net job creation.

Flexible federal funding -- By allowing local communities and states to best decide their needs, the federal government can focus on the overall results a program is supposed to deliver. The newly proposed BUILD Act, which is designed to leverage private capital to dramatically reduce the taxpayer costs of infrastructure projects, is a perfect example.

While 8.8 percent unemployment and long-term debt are indeed daunting challenges, they also present once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to reform government in a bipartisan manner, based on local strengths and measurable outcomes. The bottom line is that bottom-up growth is something that both everyday Americans and economic experts think is the right way to reinvigorate our economy. So while it is good that we are focused on streamlining how big federal agencies like the Commerce Department can more effectively deliver outcomes, let's not forget that the biggest bang for the buck may come from moving the buck from Washington, D.C., to community-led growth.

Dan Carol and Morley Winograd are West Coast-based fellows at NDN's New Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC. Mr. Carol was the Issues and Content Director for the Obama campaign and is the author of the Acceleration Agenda (2010). Mr. Winograd served as senior policy advisor to Vice President Al Gore and director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) from 1997-2001 and is co-author, with Mike Hais, of Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America to be published this fall as well as Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press, 2008).