Last week we noticed the spread into multiple federal agency budgets of FY 2011 program proposals aimed at supporting regional industry clusters--the geographic concentrations of interconnected firms and supporting organizations that play such an important role in enhancing regional economic performance. Yet that is just one spreading governance "meme" on display in the Obama administration's second budget. Also catching on is another important paradigm: collaborative program delivery.

A defining characteristic of 21st century high-performance governance, the move to “join up” different but related activities reflects the recognition that real world problems are complex and interconnected and require multi-dimensional solutions. However, federal agencies like too many other American organizations have increasingly fallen short of this integrative ideal and succumbed to the inertia of program rigidity, siloed policymaking, and fragmented program delivery. Too often the federal government has failed to consider how its myriad different funding flows and program offerings connect on the ground during implementation at the state, metropolitan, and neighborhood level.

But it seems that with its 2011 budget proposals the Obama administration is attempting to go deeper into joined up governance. In fact, the new budget is really quite striking for the number of times it proposes collaboration, partnership, or the alignment of efforts across different departments and agencies as a strategy for maximizing impact. Whether it be in the realm of economic development, workforce training, or community planning, new and/or expanded ways for federal agencies to work together are breaking out all over the budget:

  • Regional industry clusters.As we mentioned last week, no less than five agencies--the Economic Development Agency, the Small Business Association, the Department of Labor (DOL), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)--are working to support regional industry clusters. But it's worth adding too that their efforts are not only parallel, but loosely coordinated, and grow out of extensive collaboration during the budget development process. (See page 22 of the federal budget request)

  • Workforce development and education. The newly proposed Workforce Innovation Partnership, supported through $261 million from DOL and $60 million from the Department of Education (ED), would incent states (including through the use cross-program waivers) to modernize their workforce systems by breaking down silos and streamlining delivery. (See page 4 of the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration Congressional Budget Justification and page 12 of the ED budget summary). In addition, as a part of ED’s $150 million Invest in Innovation Fund, the department plans to partner with the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies to identify the most effective interventions that can help states, schools, and teachers improve science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. (See page 8 of the ED budget summary)

  • Regional planning. Last year the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) together proposed the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to stimulate comprehensive regional and community planning to coordinate housing and transportation to improve environmental quality. Now, the agencies' nearly $690 million collaborative request more than quadruples the 2010 appropriation, as observes another post by our colleague Jennifer Bradley. (See page 22 of the HUD budget proposal; page 3 of the DOT budget highlights; and page 11 of the EPA budget-in-brief).  In addition, the USDA has now proposed a parallel Rural Innovation Initiative focused on increasing collaboration with other federal agencies to develop strategic regional plans to further economic growth (possibly through cluster development) and enhance quality of life and sustainability. The USDA requests $1.4 million for planning purposes and envisions setting aside 5 percent of funding from 20 different existing programs (for an expected total of $135 million) for implementation. (See page 14 of the USDA budget summary)

  • Neighborhood revitalization. Analyzed separately here, HUD’s neighborhood revitalization plans depend on collaboration with other agencies to succeed in their place-making missions. For example, HUD’s newly proposed $150 million program for Catalytic Investment Competition Grants (carved out of the Community Development Fund) would seek to leverage other federal neighborhood revitalization funds to bring innovative economic development initiatives to scale. (See page 23 of the HUD budget proposal). Further, HUD’s Choice Neighborhood Program, which would bring $250 million to bear on the physical and social revitalization of neighborhoods anchored by distressed public or assisted housing, intends to coordinate with  ED’s $210 million for Promise Neighborhoods, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) planned $40 million for gang prevention and prisoner re-entry, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’) Health Center Program. (See page 23 and 74 of the federal budget request; pages 24-25 of the HUD budget proposal; and page 24 of the ED budget summary)

  • Climate change research. Finally, the NSF budget proposes a 16 percent increase in funding for the Science Engineering and Education for Sustainability Program (SEES) to fundamentally change how the agency supports multi disciplinary research to better integrate and coordinate federal research and educational outreach in the areas of environmental change, human impacts on climate change, renewable energy technologies, and pathways to a low-carbon economy. While primarily nested within NSF, other agencies partnering in certain SEES activities include the Department of Energy, USDA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey. (See page 7 of the NSF budget overview)

In sum, while some say collaboration in government--and especially within the federal government--is an unnatural act between rarely consenting parties, the FY 2011 budget makes clear that the Obama administration has sought to unleash the genii of collaborations. With the new budget, multiple agencies have proposed to codify in hard program descriptions and budget numbers the sort of collaboration--at both the broad mission-level as well as in operation--that has been the focus of reportedly more than 100 federal interagency working groups on any number of issues over the last year. Sure, much remains to be seen about how effectively these joined-up initiatives may be implemented and work on the on the ground, but trying to institutionalize them transparently in the budget is clearly a step forward shaping a better performing government.