I spent most of my time in Washington, DC, last year working as part of an inter-agency team to launch the Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge, a $37 million initiative that marshaled resources from 16 federal agencies to pursue a common goal: accelerating the growth of regional economies. It was, largely, an experiment. In addition to what it was designed to accomplish on the ground–accelerated business formation and job creation, cluster development, greater inclusion of underserved communities and workers–there was also the in-house goal of government innovation. Could funds be pooled and the application process simplified in order for federal funding to work more effectively? There’s an enormous learning curve when it comes to applying for many of the federal government’s competitive grant programs. I have firsthand experience with that learning curve, and the Jobs Accelerator was an opportunity to test several theories about what could be done to lower the burden on applicants and increase return on investment for federal agencies.
In my opinion, we succeeded in some areas and failed miserably in others. But we did achieve proof of concept. We co-authored a multi-agency RFP that aligned funds from three separate grant programs, coordinated a multi-agency review process involving staff in Washington and regional offices, and 16 agencies signed off on a common set of goals, metrics, and performance standards. Shockingly, the world did not end, despite many predictions to the contrary. Government innovation is possible without screwing things up too badly.
I’m not sure what, if any, impact the Jobs Accelerator will have on long-term thinking about federal competitions. But apparently it did make a strong enough case to try it again. A second round of funding has been announced from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Appalachian Regional Commission, and Delta Regional Authority, with in-kind support from nine other agencies. You can get all the details here: http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/RuralJobsAccelerator.html.
Here’s my analysis of the RFP based on a quick review:
Coordination with federal-state partnerships. Working with ARC and DRA is a positive change. They are trusted partners for communities in some of the most distressed areas of the U.S. and are closer to the ground than most federal agencies. They can significantly enhance technical assistance to applicants.
Process improvements. The Rural Jobs Accelerator RFP is a bit shorter than last time (65 pgs vs. 76 pgs) and the application instructions are easier to understand in most places. Kudos to the attorneys and program staff. The application window is also longer this time, 60 days vs. 45 days. Probably still not long enough to avoid criticism but you are never going to win that battle anyway. Finally, applicants are given the option to submit proposals on CD or hard copy, as opposed to using Grants.gov. Lesson learned.
Maintains flexibility. The RFP calls out renewable energy, food production, rural tourism, natural resources, and advanced manufacturing as examples of “high-potential industry clusters,” so there is some steering involved. But it does say in several places that applicants are free to propose any industry cluster based on regional strengths as long as applicants can demonstrate growth potential. We’ll see.
Emphasizes urban-rural linkages. This may be my favorite part. There’s some amazing work going on in terms of innovation-based economic development in rural regions. You just don’t hear about it enough. See, for example, the Kansas Opportunity Innovation Network or the Center for Innovation at the University of North Dakota (PDF). Linking rural communities to cluster networks holds great potential for facilitating sustainable development while at the same time creating jobs and improving living standards.
Repatriation. I’m not sold on the whole “bring the jobs back home” line of thinking, especially if it diverts attention and scarce resources from working with existing companies to pursue innovations that grow new jobs here. I don’t think this should have been included as a goal. Smacks of politics and little substance.
Support Agencies. Feedback on the first Jobs Accelerator indicated that “technical assistance” pledged from non-funding agencies lacked specificity and, in many cases, was nothing more than what they were already doing. My read of the Rural Jobs Accelerator RFP suggests that not much has changed on that front.
Fuzzy metrics. Some of the expected performance measures (p. 37) are too process-oriented, such as the number of regional organizations targeted for engagement, number of symposia or workshops held, number of recruiting events at universities, etc. I realize the USDA funding is for training and capacity building, but quantity should never be the measuring stick when we’re talking about meetings and events. In fact, it should work precisely the other way around. Fund organizations that achieve outcomes with fewer events.
Overall, I think Rural Jobs Accelerator is a big step forward from last year’s version. The grants are smaller, but I guess that’s to be expected given the funding environment in Washington. And that may not be such a bad thing anyway since the USDA funding requires a cash match, which can be difficult for many organizations working in rural communities. I would have also liked to see more progress toward a truly consolidated application, but given the constant drumbeat of downsizing government these days, I can understand why they backed off a bit. Get things aligned too well and people may start to ask why we need multiple programs in different agencies addressing the same goals. Collaboration is well-loved right up to the point where it can be confused with consolidation, but that’s a post for another time.
Good luck with your applications.