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How the New Stimulus Can Strengthen Local Governments

The American Rescue Plan can help local leaders do a lot more than cover budget shortfalls. The funds offer a chance for them to address equity issues, engage residents and create the future they want to see.

A homeless encampment underneath an overpass.
A homeless camp in Los Angeles, which has an intensive collaboration around homelessness data to better predict who are most at risk of eviction or homelessness. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
We’ve heard it over and over: Never let a crisis go to waste. But while that might have become a cliché, it’s still good advice. And it’s a lesson America’s mayors and other local government leaders should heed today as they confront overlapping economic, public health, climate and racial justice crises in their communities.

With the recent passage of the American Rescue Plan, offering new federal resources to address budget shortfalls and meet urgent needs, local government leaders have the opportunity to change the future of municipal governance, address deep-seated equity issues, better engage residents and emerge from the current crisis better prepared for the next one.

To do this, however, mayors and other local government leaders should focus on five things that would help to both address the crisis at hand and boldly create the future they want to see:

1. Deploy data to meet immediate needs. Local governments will start receiving their share of funds from the new federal stimulus package over the next several weeks. To invest those resources quickly, effectively and equitably, they should start gathering and sharing the key data sets needed to prioritize spending and ensure that it meets residents’ most pressing needs.

In Los Angeles, for example, intensive collaboration around homelessness data has begun to allow for better predictions of those who are most at risk of eviction or homelessness in order to intervene earlier. In Newark, N.J., the city has used behavioral nudges to increase landlord registration for rent control by more than 450 percent. As eviction restrictions are lifted across the country, city and county officials and local housing authorities should accelerate their sharing of key data on evictions to help ensure that assistance is targeted at residents most in need.

2. Invest in today’s — and future — emergencies. The American Rescue Plan’s direct fiscal relief to local governments is explicitly allowed to help cover costs associated with responding to COVID-19 and to address critical revenue losses caused by the public health emergency. Cities should pair that spending with investment in their internal capacity to respond to a range of emergencies.

Cincinnati, for example, spent years building up its system to better track and address the growing opioid epidemic in its backyard. That experience helped the city respond quickly when the pandemic struck: It was able to shift its entire performance and analytics team to support its planning and response to COVID-19.

3. Invest in all kinds of infrastructure: physical, data and social. Another allowed use of the new federal emergency relief to local governments is for long-overdue investments in infrastructure such as broadband, drinking water and sewers.

These kinds of investments can serve multiple purposes. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote in his 2018 book, “conventional hard infrastructure can be engineered to double as social infrastructure.” Or also, I would suggest, as data infrastructure. Boston; New York; Tempe, Ariz.; and several Colorado localities, for example, are studying sewage to help address the COVID-19 crisis by using the data as an early detection system.

Similarly, Boulder, Colo., recently invested in new broadband across the city with a critical goal of addressing connectivity disparities disproportionately affecting lower-income communities of color. In doing so, the city also invested in its own data infrastructure, piloting a new data-driven procurement approach that enables it to more quickly, reliably and equitably align its purchases with core community values.

4. Test, evaluate and fund what works. Cities are the new laboratories of democracy, and with $130.2 billion in direct funding flowing to local governments, cities must be aggressive in piloting new programs that could make a meaningful difference in ameliorating many of the simmering American inequities that have been brought to full boil over the last year.

For example, Dayton, Ohio, is testing new strategies to reduce the racial kindergarten readiness gap and is working with scholars from the University of Dayton to evaluate the program’s effectiveness. And in more than two dozen cities across the country, mayors are testing new ways of providing a guaranteed income to residents.

5. Don’t just partner, share. One of the biggest challenges we hear from local governments is that the decentralization of data and decision-making authority makes tackling massive challenges like COVID-19 so much harder. Cities, counties and community groups often control different data and have different spheres of authority, making it difficult to see the big picture when making decisions.

But the enormity of the pandemic has begun to change this siloed existence. Memphis, Tenn., and surrounding Shelby County, for example, have begun working together to address challenges like equitable vaccine access with a coordinated data and performance staff. That work has led to more opportunities for unique collaboration to maximize relief to residents. As cities and counties receive new federal funds, they should expand and formalize these partnerships.

Now is the time to formalize relationships among local governments, community groups, businesses and other stakeholders to help localities make faster progress on long-term challenges like declining economic mobility. In Racine, Wis., for example, the city is working directly with a collective-impact partnership, Higher Expectations for Racine County, to develop performance measures informed by the community and data to evaluate the impact of its Rental Empowerment and Neighborhood Tenant Services Initiative.

Local government leaders are the nation’s most trusted political officials. In this pandemic, when providing residents with reliable, evidence-based information and services can save lives, it is incumbent on them to continue to build on that trust. The American Rescue Plan gives local leaders a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make collective, data-driven decisions and innovation the modus operandi in government.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

Vice president of local government and managing director of What Works Cities at Results for America
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