A Silver Lining to the Great Recession’s Dark Cloud: Local Government Collaborations

June 6, 2013

By James Brooks

Doing more with less was never more daunting a task than during the period of the last recession. Local governments experienced traumatic losses of tax revenues and transfer payments from the federal and state governments. These losses translated into local service reductions or eliminations, staff furloughs or lay-offs and a generalized decline in community well-being.

The strain on resources was also felt in the nonprofit community among the neighborhood and community-based organizations that serve a myriad of needs, including shelter, health services, nutrition programs, child care and education. Like cities, these service agencies had to respond to increasing needs while dealing with decreasing resources.

In the best of circumstances, local governments and nonprofit organizations adapted their efforts to better meet evolving needs. In practice, this manifested itself in creative partnerships spanning the government and NGO sectors, and often the private sector as well.

Research by the Urban Institute in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity International sought to identify some important principles that prove useful in building stronger and more sustainable collaborations at the local level. Although the report focused on the housing sector, there are broadly applicable lessons that fall under the report’s framework of planning, building and sustaining relationships with local government partners.

Among the most beneficial actions are the development of regularized and routine engagement between local governments and community organizations. Relationships need to pre-date a crisis, they need to be personal and they need to be interlocking. One of the report’s findings illustrates the point. Among successful Habitat affiliates surveyed for the research, 22 percent of the governing board members were either sitting or former local elected officials. Likewise, staff from community-based partners who made the time to contribute to the local government comprehensive planning and zoning activities were consulted by local governments more frequently on issues of mutual concern.

From the local government perspective, the value of these community partners cannot be underestimated. These partners bring first-hand accounts of citizen needs and concerns to government decision-makers. Moreover, whether in the fields of housing, poverty reduction, health care, education or workforce training, nonprofits have considerable technical expertise that adds value to policy discussions. NLC’s own research under the Building Resilient Regions project in the greater Phoenix area identified the significant contributions of a unified nonprofit sector working on housing, transportation, education and economic diversification issues.

Finally, close collaboration between local government and community partners can lead to improvements in government efficiency. During the worst years of the crisis in home mortgage foreclosures, Habitat affiliates and local governments found it mutually beneficial to adapt, modify and improve the process for building and land development, redevelopment and rehabilitation. Whether it was construction permits, building inspections, utility maintenance or hazardous materials removal, the procedures and decision points were anticipated and streamlined. The resulting trust built up between partners ultimately will last beyond the scope of any individual project.

The full research report can be found at the Urban Institute website. A summary of NLC’s research work in Phoenix can be found on NLC’s website.