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Promise Zones: Blessing or curse?

Year-old economic program finds its first beneficiaries

Feb. 3, 2014 - 09:00AM   |  
By GREG REINECKE   |   Comments
Greg Reinecke is President of GeoDimensional Decision Group, LLC (GeoDD) and cofounder of GeoDD with Scott Stafford and Dr. Baldwin H. Tom FIMC. Collectively, they have over 90 years of experience in successfully solving large organizational problems.
Greg Reinecke is President of GeoDimensional Decision Group, LLC (GeoDD) and cofounder of GeoDD with Scott Stafford and Dr. Baldwin H. Tom FIMC. Collectively, they have over 90 years of experience in successfully solving large organizational problems. ()

Here we go again!

When we hear about a federal government effort to launch a large-scale project to effect social or economic change, some of us shudder to think that the usual inefficiencies and cost overruns will prevail. Worse, skeptics scoff at any potential to make real progress or lasting difference for those served. When the effort is all-encompassing and involves multiple agencies, there is a real potential for significant amounts of wasted effort and wasted resources. In other words, the return on the investment is expected to be poor.

Yet, the federal government must continue listening to, exploring, identifying, and implementing plans and programs to move our country and its citizens forward. One such program is the Promise Zone initiative that was announced by President Obama in his 2013 State-of-the-Union Address. At that time President Obama outlined his administration’s plan "to partner with 20 of the hardest-hit towns in America to get those communities back on their feet.” He said, “We'll work with local leaders to target resources at public safety, and education, and housing.” The program is projected to help regions improve the way of life for the poor and underserved focusing on factors that can positively impact food, safety, work, and health services.

On January 9th, 2014, the White House -- with bipartisan support -- identified the first five recipients of the Promise Zone program: San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. While bipartisan support is good and somewhat rare these days, implementation of these programs can still fall back into partisan politics. The current divisiveness in our country should caution all parties to anticipate the need to manage conflicts at all levels in moving the initiative forward. While all players involved want the program to be successful, the existing partisan discord will make difficult even simple agreements and consensus of actions. When each Promise Zone plans to move forward, they will need to join together by first ridding their territorial issues and partisan baggage. If these real issues are not addressed at the start, we can expect roadblocks, delays, loss of interest, and abandoned efforts that will surely result in poor performance and missed opportunities.

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We have some suggestions to ensure the Promise Zones are a cure and not a curse. The federal partners, which include the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education, will provide preferential status on grants aimed at alleviating poverty. But hasn’t this all been done before? Have there been lessons learned from the Clinton-era Empowerment Zones or the HUB Zone programs that can be applied to Promise Zones? Beyond learning from past successes and mistakes and unlike the difficulties besetting the management (or lack thereof) of the Affordable Care Act, there needs to be effective leadership coordinating the Promise Zone initiative, not just a committee or group.

With our history of difficulties in launching new public initiatives, it would be prudent to consider these first five Promise Zones to be a pilot program to learn from the experiences from these launches before launching the other 15. If this is the approach, then it will be critical to clearly and carefully define performance measures and milestones to characterize each stage of the pilot programs. It would be valuable to agree on measures and provide return-on-investment values from each of the five zones. As an estimate, we might expect that 70 percent of the activities and actions between the zones will be the same, with 30 percent unique to each zone. Thus, there should be a council of members from each zone to compare notes and share best practices as they each develop their zones. Collecting numerical data will improve our ability to make comparisons and optimize future use of talents and resources of the other 15 zones.

To up the odds for success, a neutral third party to help navigate the multiple agendas and differences in mission of the stakeholders is critical. In addition to unbiased leadership, systems that focus on fact-based solutions leveraging multiple big data sets, innovative processes leading to better decision making, and focused attention to people issues will facilitate the best paths forward.

If agencies, partners and stakeholders work together they can leverage and optimally use resources efficiently and appropriately. Lacking that, it would not take much to imagine the cost alone for paper shuffling and meetings with endless discussions to be a significant part of the expenditures, with less invested in the problem at hand.

The benefits for all parties engaged in using an effective process are clear, providing defensible options from which decision makers can select and take action. Robust data analyses, resulting in fact-based options and providing a true situational awareness of the program assures the greatest number of citizens will be served with the most efficient use of resources. This will make the difference between promises realized and promises lost. ■

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