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The Good Things That Can Happen When Cities and Counties Work Together

Boosted by an unprecedented infusion of federal funds, they have an opportunity to bring innovative collaborative efforts to bear on issues of economic inequality and mobility that cross jurisdictional lines.

Among advocates' fears for Florida's incarcerated youth during pandemic: Sexual abuse
Detention center workers escort youths through the halls of the Orange Regional Juvenile Detention Center in Orlando, Fla. Cities and counties that tackle interconnected problems like incarcerated youth can generate better outcomes and improve lives.
Growing economic inequality and disparities of opportunity are among the great challenges of our time. For many, the American Dream has become a fantasy: More than 40 percent of children raised in the bottom quintile of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults. White Americans are getting wealthier, while climbing the economic ladder is becoming harder for Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans in poor neighborhoods.

Reversing this rising inequality will require novel and innovative approaches from those on the front lines of providing essential services: city and county governments. And tackling the complex and systemic problems of inequality and poverty can’t happen just one jurisdiction at a time. Interconnected problems require interconnected solutions.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) of 2021 presents an unprecedented opportunity to catalyze city-county collaborations to address income inequality and boost economic mobility. Representing the largest-ever direct infusion of federal funds to local governments, ARP opens the door for city and county leaders to create transformative joint solutions to effectively address entrenched regional challenges. Because ARP allows funds to move more easily between jurisdictions, these dollars focus on collective need and can have a greater impact across city-county lines.

Historically, many city and county governments have operated more or less independently, with distinct geographic areas, sources of funding and services provided. However, systemic challenges to economic mobility and racial equity — such as affordable housing, homelessness, job quality, digital inclusion and broadband access, child care, and early childhood education — require regional solutions. When problems cross city and county lines, solutions need to do the same.

In a new report, Results for America identified best practices for city-county collaborations, including six case studies of interjurisdictional partnerships highlighting how local governments can work together to more effectively advance economic mobility. What we found is that the most impactful collaborations involved a clear, high-priority public problem shared by both jurisdictions. Both the city and county must devote resources and share benefits. In the end, fruitful partnerships produce an outcome that couldn’t be achieved by the city or county alone.

To see a powerful partnership in action, for example, we can look to Savannah and Chatham County, Ga., where in 2018 the region had twice as many court-involved youth than any other county in the state and the second-highest number of incarcerated youth. We know all too well the impact that involvement with the criminal justice system at an early age has on one’s lifetime of economic opportunity.

To combat the problem, leaders from the Chatham County Juvenile Court System, the Savannah Police Department and the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System opened The Front Porch, a community-based risk-reduction program designed to identify youth and families at risk of becoming involved with the courts and link them to community resources to divert them from the court system. In The Front Porch’s first year of operation, referrals from the Savannah-Chatham schools to the County Juvenile Court declined by 85 percent. In the first three years of operation, more than 700 youth have been served.

To unlock the potential of working together, cities and counties must first take stock of their current relationship and how they interact with each other. Is there coordination and co-creation? Open hostility? Radio silence? Leaders must also listen to people already doing this work, understanding potential legal and technological limitations, uncovering policy challenges and building awareness of other attempts to address the issue. Finally and most importantly, local-government leaders should also actively involve members of the community who are directly impacted by the challenge they are trying to address. Only when all key stakeholders — city, county and community leaders — are brought into the design process from the beginning are solutions that address the root causes at a regional level possible.

This work is easier said than done. It means changing the siloed status quo and actively building and maintaining trust between government partners that do not inherently have incentives to collaborate. No entity exists to bridge the gap between city and county governments, and it is rare that there is any sort of public mandate to encourage different jurisdictions to work together.

Yet it is imperative that city and county officials, if they truly care about reversing the decline in economic mobility across the United States, focus on collaboration. No matter how they are sparked — whether by external forces like mandates or crises, or internal drivers like shared priorities and budgetary constraints — collaborations have the power to significantly improve the lives of residents and address inequality by compounding any individual impact a city or county government could have.

Zachary Markovits is a vice president and Local Practice lead at Results for America, which advocates for evidence-based policies and programs in government. Jen Tolentino is the director of Local Practice at Results for America.

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