When U.S. Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Shaun Donavan announced he was deploying mid-career agency staffers to work in Detroit’s city government, my first reaction was to ask: How exactly is this going to help anything? HUD can’t even manage its own programs properly, let alone entire troubled cities.
The Detroit News‘ Deb Price and Karen Bouffard quote “a congressional source: “The idea seems to be that by having federal officials on the ground in Detroit and other cities that they can make federal services and initiatives at work in the cities more coordinated, effective and efficient…” They acknowledge, with a wryly diplomatic understatement, “Spending federal money quickly and effectively has been a problem for Detroit.”
In response to the announcement, a column by Daniel Howes showcases one of of the catchier headlines I’ve seen from the News –“Feds come to Detroit, forget to bring jobs.” Catchy, but unfortunate, I thought: Was Howes falling prey to the same mentality that has kept metro Detroit in the economic gutter, that somebody else is responsible for “bringing jobs to us” rather than our taking responsibility for creating our own? Fortunately, the title turned out to be misleading. But like mine, Howes’ initial reaction is highly sceptical:
(T)he feds intend to answer government failure in Detroit with more government…
If you want to help Detroit, Mr. Secretary, I’d suggest focusing on policies that stabilize taxes, regulation and the creep of government control; policies that encourage the engine of Michigan’s economy to keep turning and keep responding to the market, not mandates; policies that make it easier, not harder, for business to reinvest in Detroit, to capitalize on its comparatively cheap commercial real estate and labor costs… But the description of how the feds plan to help these “pilot” cities, detailed at www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/07/11/announcing-strong-cities-strong-communities, sounds eerily reminiscent of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s feel-good-but-do-nothing “Cool Cities” program.
Unfortunately, Howes’ prescription is as short on specifics as the press release he criticizes.
Meanwhile over at the Free Press, Tom Walsh is feeling cynical, too:
(W)hen Donovan said Detroit was picked as one of six cities to pilot HUD’s new Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative “because they have a plan in place,” here’s what I thought: Huh? What plan?..
(R)esidents of Detroit have been teased for years with grand concepts for both neighborhood revitalization and transit, with nothing to show for it…
The best way to think about this initiative is that it provides a very diplomatic backdoor way for the Obama administration to make sure federal funds are all accounted for, and that they get spent properly and on time; put another way, to do what the Bing administration is supposed to do but is incapable of, which is to get these departments to quit wasting precious federal money.
That is the best case scenario, and we shouldn’t expect anything from these federal implants beyond this. They are not going to magically ensure service delivery improves, or return the city to solvency, or foster a more productive and positive work ethic among city employees, or get city officials to start thinking outside the box, or in any way make the city friendlier to business owners.
My main worry is that we’ll see them go native and get captured by the bureaucrats in the departments they’re assigned to, like Sheryl Robinson Wood. I would not be shocked if we see that scenario repeated a couple of times over before this project ends. The city government of Detroit is a black hole for good intentions.
Lest I be accused of naysaying and negativity, like when I pissed people off for seeming to write off urban farming, let me note I would love to be proven wrong. And, of course, it’s very kind of the Obama administration to try to do what it can for Detroit. It’s the thought that counts, right?