Earlier this week the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston announced the winners of its Working Cities Challenge, a groundbreaking effort to support cross-sector collaboration in the state’s small to midsize Gateway Cities. The Challenge put a spotlight on the fundamental role these communities play in providing access to economic opportunity for Bay State families fighting hard to make it into the middle-class. For political leaders crafting a narrative for 2014 races, the competition offers three important lessons:
1. Gateway Cities hunger for attention.
Bank president Eric Rosengren did a noble deed by going to bat to get national philanthropy focused on these long overlooked communities. Gateway Cities honored his commitment by rising to the occasion. Every Gateway City in the state embraced the challenge and submitted an application. The judges clearly came away impressed by the thoughtful proposals. Everyone who attended the awards presentation could pick up on this by the energy in the room. Win or lose, the diverse cross-section of Gateway City leaders brought together by the competition had great pride in their work. Just like Gateway Cities welcomed the challenge from the Federal Reserve Bank, these communities will gladly engage with any leader, Republican or Democrat, who appreciates the unique role they play providing economic mobility, and demonstrates a willingness to help them keep the promise of opportunity alive for those fighting for their shot at the American Dream.
2. The state can help Gateway Cities overcome barriers to collaboration.
One big obstacle the state government can take down is the lack of data. For the place that’s leading the “Big Data” charge, Massachusetts lags far behind the pacesetters on tying together administrative databases to allow agencies to exchange information and improve service delivery. This information is vital for communities trying to provide solutions on the ground. As noted by the White House Council for Community Solutions, today’s cutting edge urban revitalization initiatives are “data-driven change efforts with clear target outcomes for tightly defined geographies.”
The competition’s second palcegetter, the Fitchburg eCarenomics Initiative, is all about pursuing this model. eCarenomics will work to strengthen the North of Main neighborhood by developing a data-dashboard to measure progress and promote accountability. But implementing eCarenomics will be unnecessarily difficult. While there has been some progress (e.g., the education departments have been building a more robust longitudinal database to follow students), the Patrick administration has run into road blocks getting interagency data sharing off the ground (what’s happened to the Readiness Passport?). And Massachusetts seems doggedly determine to remain the only state not participating in the Census Bureau’s incredibly rich LEHD program. Cutting through the red tape to get these systems up would go a long way toward helping partners in Gateway Cities interact more effectively and solve tough problems. Taking up the fight for data-drive decision-making should be good politics for taxpayers concerned about the performance of public agencies.
3. Collaborative leadership isn’t a complete solution to the resource challenge.
The data-driven collaborative impact model championed by the White House has been promoted by many as the solution to an era of limited resources. While these efforts are good in that they promote smarter spending, Gateway City leaders are rightly nervous that these programs could become a reason to put off more systemic investment. There are many areas where directing public resources to Gateway Cities at scale could generate real return for taxpayers. Two winning entries provide examples.
Lawrence was the big winner with a concept for engaging parents in the education of their children. Parent engagement is the Holy Grail for urban education. The state calls family engagement one of the essential conditions of school effectives. This is backed up by solid research. Unfortunately, few urban school systems have been able to figure out how to adequately staff an effective family engagement operation. Loath to take resources out of the classroom, the best most cities have been able to come up with for the difficult job of parent outreach is a few very low paid part-time paraprofessionals. Finding funds to hire a sufficient number of skilled staff to support teachers working to connect with parents would likely go a long way toward improving student performance.
The Chelsea application, which focused on reducing the churn of residents in a distressed neighborhood, is another example of where the solution will ultimately require investment. Mobility is also a major issue for schools. Very solid research shows that transience not only harms the students moving, stable students in classrooms with constant turnover suffer as well. Transiency also has a big impact on public safety. Neighbors that don’t know one another have a hard time defending their turf. Reducing turnover in distressed neighborhoods would go a long way toward solving social challenges, but in many blighted neighborhoods, it will be nearly impossible to address this issue without making substantial investments to improve physical conditions.
MassINC Gateway Cities Innovation Institute
Correction: A previous version of this post suggested that Lawrence didn’t reprogram funds for parent engagement. The receiver has identified operational funding for parent outreach positions in the district budget.