Interview with Xavier de Souza Briggs, Associate Director for General Government Programs at the Office of Management and Budget

Xavier de Souza Briggs, Associate Director for General Government Programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget has a portfolio that includes HUD, Treasury, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Homeland Security departments, as well as the U.S. Postal Service and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All of these make a direct and profound impact in the community development world.

Xavier de Souza Briggs, Associate Director for General Government Programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget is responsible for not only the “budget” of numerous government agencies and departments but also provides guidance to these agencies so that each of their individual programs and efforts contribute to the entire agenda and support each other. Briggs’ portfolio includes HUD, the Treasury, Commerce, Justice, Transportation, and Homeland Security departments, as well as the U.S. Postal Service and the government-sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. All of these make a direct and profound impact in the community development world.

And community development is a field that Briggs knows intimately. Early in his career he was a planner in the South Bronx and later a senior official at HUD during Clinton’s second term. He has also been a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and then at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He has researched and written on many aspects of the field including metropolitan strategies, race, housing, poverty and grass-roots civil society organizations. In his forthcoming book, Moving to Opportunity (co-authored with Susan J. Popkin and John Goering) Briggs takes a close look at this controversial program to help families out of communities with concentrated poverty.

Briggs’ most recent article in Shelterforce, “Urban Policy Next” (Fall 2008), laid out a comprehensive approach to urban development, including a push for increased public-private coordination for cities to compete globally, with regional planning centers and regional councils. Clearly, this is a part of the Obama administration: to not work in isolation. So how do we put it all together?

On June 24, 2009, Briggs spoke with Shelterforce at his office at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The hour-long conversation covered a range of topics including the philosophy and politics of urban revitalization the nuts and bolts of community development, visions for the future, and why, in trying economic times, “we have to act quickly and we have to be careful at the same time.”

SF: Please tell us how you arrived at the Office of Management and Budget?

Late last summer, I was involved with two of the Obama campaign’s policy committees, the ones dealing with urban policy and housing policy. They were overlapping but somewhat distinct groups. I was also helping to canvass voters, mainly in New Hampshire, since I could drive up from my home in Boston. Then, I got a call in mid-September asking me to be a part of the transition team for phase one, which meant the pre-election phase. They were asking me to join this team of people thinking about “how the Obama administration should govern if the Senator wins.” Suffice it to say, it’s something you make time for and it was an honor to be asked. It was extraordinary to be able to serve in this way and to reconnect with great people with solid values, policy smarts, and political savvy. The transition team experience was a real highlight of my career.

I was part of the HUD Agency Review Team. The transition was organized into agency reviews and then crosscutting themes like climate change or energy policy, things that are bigger than one agency.

We worked feverishly and delivered a document that was very prospective, because the outcome of the election was still uncertain, of course, and we had not had access to the agency itself. We had to rely on publicly available information, our own assessments of what had been going on at HUD and in the communities and issue areas in which HUD is active, and so on. But this was still a pre-transition — it’s not a real transition ‘til you’ve won.

But then you did win.

Obviously there was great excitement. And in the late stages there, in the last few days before the election, the feeling was that the team had done a great job. The transition leadership asked us if we would consider staying on as part of a Phase II, post-election.

The transition paid extraordinary attention to effective management and implementation, and what it would mean to have a successful first hundred days, first year, first two years, and so on.

And the word came very early on from Phase I prior to the election and was underscored in Phase II afterward: “We’re out to put the president and his leadership team and the whole cabinet in a position to steer the machinery of government in a way that very quickly signals a turn on policy issues, a commitment to making government work again, rebuilding the public confidence, and a commitment to transparency around results.”

All this was fantastic for me as someone who, beyond my urban policy background, has taught strategy, management, negotiation, and collaboration through the years. And to really know, too, that this was spelled out very concretely in working principles — this was fantastic.

What types of expectations did you have going into the transition?

The campaign ran under a “no drama” ethic. We wanted the transition to do the same. They basically said, “We thank you for your service, but this invitation is not a signal that you will be invited to serve in the administration. You do this for the country, period.” That was how it was, and I was fine with that. I think everybody else who signed up was, too. I appreciated that message. I think we all did.

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