Accelerating Job Creation and Competitiveness from the Bottom Up

I was invited by colleagues at the Center for American Progress to add ideas from my recent NPI working paper, The Acceleration Agenda, to their 10-day discussion on how to restore US competitiveness kicked off by Governor Ed Rendell last week.  

Accelerating Job Creation and Competitiveness from the Bottom Up

Many thanks to the team at CAP for kicking up this important conversation. In addition to the smart ideas already offered by Ed Rendell and Rob Atkinson to refocus federal priorities, here are a few more low-cost, high-impact, and very bipartisan steps we can take to accelerate growth and competitiveness, detailed in The Acceleration Agenda.

First of all, it's important to note that the news is not all bad. The Obama administration is leading a new robust set of long-term investments in education, broadband, and clean energy competitiveness through its unheralded "new foundation" program.

But we can go faster by rewiring our broken economic development system to better link entrepreneurs to financing and build nontraditional networks that connect innovators, suppliers, and customers across traditional geographies. At the core of this economic development strategy is a new emphasis on nurturing bottom-up economic growth rather than top-down government dictates. The reason: Different federal programs "siloed" at departments and agencies across Washington simply can't deliver results based on a one-size-fits-all strategy to meet the challenges of 21st century global economic integration.

There certainly is good reason to consider how to revamp federal programs so that they work more collaboratively and more efficiently, as the CAP report highlights, but even still policymakers need to consider a  bottom-up acceleration cookbook that features these ingredients:

Distributed federal engagement networks

An important finding in the Council on Competitiveness's Collaborate report makes clear how trusted, on-scene "barrier busters" in communities like Louisville and Denver have been critical to building working alliances between governments, the private sector, and community leaders. To be blunt: We need to make sure that more interagency meetings happen in frontline communities, not in Washington D.C. This is cheap to do and we can measure the benefits.  

Implementation partnerships with business

Bottom-up doesn't mean just states, cities, or universities get more money. We need locally-led, public-private partnerships to be the locus of competitive innovation, too. Here is where businesses and community foundations can step up. Government cannot build this last mile alone. Like the Welfare to Work Partnerships of the 1990s, this new generation of Jobs and Innovation Partnerships would engage businesses directly in problem-solving.

Flexible finance mechanisms

Public-private partnerships are critical to picking the right local projects, but then we need to fund them. The clear message emerging from bipartisan and business-friendly competitiveness consortia across the country is the dire shortfall of small amounts ($2 million to $10 million) of flexible seed and risk capital to kick-start the first wave of new entrepreneurialism. Filling this gap is critical. We just need to lock the smart people in a room for a few days.

Implementation waivers

New governors on both sides of the aisle are eager to pursue federal waiver strategies for economic development and infrastructure, similar to past efforts around health and welfare implementation. An executive order strategy, as recommended by CAP, can include this acceleration win-win.

Name the big idea

Separate economic sectors, such as small business, clean energy, infrastructure, exports, skills, and entrepreneurship, need to be better linked under one integrated framework.  The sooner we name it, the sooner we can get to work building it. We could call it U.S. Competitiveness Strategy, A Regional Race to the Top, 21st Century Infrastructure, or simply More Jobs Dammit. But we need to organize around a shared lexicon, both at the federal level as CAP has outlined, and at the local level as suggested here. Until we do, many promising initiatives from the White House and the different departments and agencies in the administration will move slowly in their own lanes, rather than speed along on a fast track we need to build together.

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