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.

It seems that there’s a good deal of confusion as to whether certain services should be done by government, whether it should be done by the private sector, or the nonprofit sector and, more specifically, the CDC community.

I think you hit it on the head. In the South Bronx, for example, CDCs had, by the 1980s if not before, become surrogates for government. That’s the way Anita Miller — who ran the LISC South Bronx office before designing and launching the Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program with six large CDCs — put it years ago. And she was right. The CDCs had stepped into the breach in the worst years of disinvestment and abandonment by government.

And the president gets it because he’s a former community organizer, and he knows what it’s like to have to step in and fill in the gaps. However, I do think there’s a time and place to make tough choices and to say, “I’ll do a number of things, but I want to certify, as an organization, that my board is working with me, my staff is working with me, my funders are behind me as investors, and we are going to be extraordinary at two or three things. We’ll do some other things to help fill in the gaps where it’s absolutely essential, and here and there we’re also going to have the courage to say, ‘Someone else needs to do this work.’ We may not always love the way they do it, but someone else needs to take this on.”

I do think we need to continue the conversation we’ve seen across the field, over the last decade or so, about things like consolidation, mergers, and partnerships of various kinds. There are various ways to arrange the organizational lines around the work that needs to get done and it is time to be bold and to be relentless about results, even when it makes you unpopular, even when it’s an unwelcome message, even when it’s not what your board is used to hearing. If that ain’t leadership, what is?

We face tough choices. Dollars are finite and citizen expectations about results and reform are stratospheric. To find solutions, we’re asking that there be a creative, courageous, principled rethinking of how to achieve results as opposed to how to protect turf.

What will distinguish the leading organizations that help define the next stage of the field and not simply a set of policy priorities will have to do with the substantive problems out in the world and how we define them today — climate change, economic security, opportunity in a changing economy, those kinds of things.

It’s important that we have those priorities and beacons to chart our course by, but the hard work and the grunt work, but the priceless work, too, I think is also that leadership work on the ground. We want to invest in the capacity of this sector, but I think that leadership work needs to go further, too.

And then leaders in the field can speak more in a more united voice about what they think the federal investment — in the work of neighborhood revitalization, say — should look like and what it can yield in the way of results. A number of Administration proposals, from Promise Zones at the Department of Education to Choice Neighborhoods at HUD, present especially important opportunities to weigh in.

Is there a new National Community Development Initiative in the foreseeable future? What does an NCDI of the future look like?

We have much more discussion ahead about capacity-building strategy. We have more discussion ahead about the lessons, over the long haul, not just the last several years, how Living Cities has evolved, for example, out of NCDI. One of the challenges of the foreclosure crisis is that we need more effective capacity building for local governments, not just nonprofit community developers — how to plan strategically, how to blend and leverage different streams of dollars for greater effect, how to work most effectively with for-profit and nonprofit organizations and focus on outcomes, and more.

On the other hand, there is a new moment now, and we want to empower local leaders to integrate housing strategies with other key elements of sustainable, inclusive, prosperous communities. Just recently, OMB issued budget guidance to agencies on the administration’s principles for “place policy,” for approaching those goals in integrated ways on behalf of communities, being less fragmented in our approach. It’s on the OMB website, anyone can read it. A wide variety of agencies are taking up that challenge.

There are no blueprints for how things need to work everywhere, but we have working models of what those workforce systems can look like when they are high performing. Look at Project Quest in San Antonio and other models that were documented carefully more than a decade ago. I think you’re going to see us encouraging a lot of that forging of networks and asking for answers on that front. We need to use the excitement about green jobs to do real systems building and reform. We need to connect the supply and demand sides of the job market. The Vice President has charged HUD, Energy, and other agencies — who create job demand — to do that with Recovery Act dollars, to work in tandem with the Department of Labor, which supports the supply of workers with the right skills. But we have so much more to do.

And we want to have a bolder conversation about rural America. We need to think about real regional economic prospects, links between rural and metro areas, more coordinated federal funding. We have to balance demand for economic innovation — including green sectors — that is nascent but promising with efforts to build on things that are well established in rural communities, deeply rooted in traditions, skills, and other local assets.

How do we get this done with the urgency of the moment, but also maintain a long view?

You’re going to see us take this notion of place-based policy and use it as a discipline, use it as a focusing device across the agencies and within them across their programs, and also look to engage the wider world and do public engagement sessions and work with states and local governments and tribes and members of Congress to ask these questions. If we can create real strategies that strengthen communities, both rural and urban, what’s the most appropriate role for the federal investments and for regulations that shape local action? And how can the federal government better organize itself to act like one government and not dozens of stovepipes?

I think we’re going to have to have tough conversations about those things, and it’s going to unsettle some people, but there’s no other way to do this.

Thank you.

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Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.
Harold Simon is the former executive director of the National Housing Institute and former publisher of Shelterforce.

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