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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Rewiring HUD into the 21st Century

Rewiring HUD in the New American Political-Economy
A Proposal for a Different Kind of Federal Agency

What if HUD were made up of?
  • Eighty field offices, linked to political, intellectual, economic, and cultural institutions, in a dynamic regional network for social planning and action.
  • Eighty venues for communities to strategically join federal, state, and local assets to meet their issues and achieve their opportunities within a sustainable metropolitan and regional environment.
  • Eighty communities innovating within their regions, horizontally communicating good ideas across regions, retooling local and regional institutions so that all people through local congregations and associations have the ability to act to change their circumstances.
  • Eighty organizations creating a dynamic and resilient national organization that shapes policies for a new urbanism that protects the rural countryside, that locates people close to transportation, jobs, and educational opportunities, and that promotes sustainable communities in a new clean energy economy.
  • Eighty places for interaction, education, and power to build a diverse and equitable region that competes successfully in the global economy.

What if the role of HUD was?
  • Not only to administer and manage programs established by Congress according to rules established by technicians.
  • But also to constitute vehicles for all HUD programs and other federal and state agencies to connect to local communities.
  • And also to service local governments and their private and nonprofit partners to provide opportunities in human development for people in their communities.
  • And also to assist partnering institutions and leadership to think about and influence the policies that affect them at all levels.
  • And then also to foster innovative leaders and the organizations to support them?
What if HUD was not first a federal bureaucracy, but a dynamic and resilient organization of people and their organizations and if HUD staff worked not for a bureaucracy but for people and their communities?


I have worked almost eleven years for HUD, mainly as a Director of a Field Office in Fresno that serves the Central Valley of California. My previous 30 years of experience have been in nonprofit organizations that provided planning and organizing services to local communities, e.g. neighborhoods in Chicago and Toronto, Metropolitan and Regional communities in San Jose, Honolulu, and Cleveland. In every place I also taught and attracted students in urban planning and community organizing.

As an experiment for both the organization and for me, I signed up with HUD as a Community Builder and have stayed a Community Builder. As the director I have maintained the Fresno Office as a Community Building organization even when the program was terminated. We could do this in Fresno because the office was small and served a very poor region that drew little notice and support. I believe that our small team of field specialists did some of the best community organizing of my career by finding and promoting local leadership to create regional institutions that cut across jurisdictions and became vehicles for federal, state, and local public-private partnerships for smart growth, clean energy, new jobs, land use and transportation, and affordable housing.

Many of my colleagues, usually without fanfare, have forged their local field offices into places for connecting local and regional resources and fostering coordination among HUD and other programs around local institutions, issues, and opportunities. We did this knowing full well that the HUD administration saw HUD primarily a federal bureaucracy distributing and accounting for funds allocated by Congress.

Early on we saw what was happening with the housing market. There was no system for communication or planning within HUD to address a market that, without intervention, was about to fall. We could only prepare locally for rescue operations rather than make the structural change to prevent or deal with the causes.

A Proposal

With the new Obama administration arrives the possibility to rewire HUD using the principles and moving the agenda of the Obama campaign.

I propose that a team of HUD leaders voluntarily gather on their own time and dime, but with the full knowledge and approval of the Secretary and/or Deputy, to discuss ways to reinvigorate field offices to achieve their fullest potential. This team would get the assistance of professional organizers and planners in and out of HUD. The team would explore securing the participation of universities and of national training networks. The team would discuss and propose a recruiting, training, and consultation process, that is voluntary, begins with the regional heads, field office directors, and their field specialists to support and in many cases retool field offices so they perform the powerful function that they are well placed to perform.

Suggested Objectives and Measurements over an Eight-Year Period

1. Build a shared analysis and integral vision of the interdependent, interrelated, and contingent roles and responsibilities and the potential of all HUD activities to increase and sustain health and prosperity nationally, regionally and locally. Identify concrete measurable goals related to poverty, employment, affordable housing in safe and educational neighborhoods. Analyses for each region supported by a field office will take into consideration the industry sectors, the housing market, regional planning mechanisms, regional resources in education and culture, energy use and dependence, the political players and institutions, and the position of the region within the national and global economy. Measure: the quality and usefulness of these analyses.

2. New regional institutions are developed or retooled through collective, collaborative action to be agents of innovation and change for the region. Measure the number and quality of participating institutions. Measure: the significant changes achieved through these regroupings.

3. Citizen participation through congregations and associations, permanent organizations that ensure ongoing participation. Measure: the amount and quality of new leadership.

4. There are concrete outcomes. Measure: housing availability and affordability, energy independence and sustainability, employment and personal asset creation, vitality of the region in the new economy, safety and security of residents, businesses, schools, and educational achievement.

5. The Field Office is positioned and recognized as a vehicle for regional planning and organizing, for linking and changing institutions, for coordinating federal resources around specific placed-based projects, for servicing local jurisdictions and their partners, interacting with other field offices to build a dynamic and resilient HUD. Measure: the opinion of stakeholders and partners.

Process: How to get there:

1. Recruit the planning team with people within and outside of HUD.

2. Recruit a university as a site and resource for training. Recruit experts in new economy, climate change, new urbanism, contemporary science, change theory and practice. (See below)

3. Establish a training curriculum. (See below)

4. Work with the 10 Regional Directors for three days to get them to shape and buy into the objectives and process.

5. Recruit 2-4 field offices from each of the ten federal regions.

6. 5-day training for office directors and their field specialists with the beginning of local regional analysis and agenda. Class of 40.

7. Consultation with each field office on site.

8. Ongoing peer-to-peer communication and reporting.

9. Start with the next class of 40 along the same cycle with adjustments from lessons of the first class.

Elements in Training Curriculum

• The revolution in science and technology
Physics: chaos, uncertainty, and self-organization; string theory and multi-dimensionality; Evolutionary Biology, genetics, neuroscience and learning
Social sciences: new economic, social capital, language and culture
Technology: communications, energy, learning technologies
(The purpose here is to blow minds with new findings about the universe, world, and human development. Agitate towards new ways of thinking beyond stereotypes. Also to introduce concepts that are helpful in understanding the contemporary situation)

• The ecological challenge: global warming and its effects, notion of sustainability. (The purpose here is to help local actors see how they are connected to world processes; also a rationale for the new energy economy.)

• The emerging political economy: The energy challenge, globalization, nation-states, multi-national capital and industries, immigration and outsourcing, regions as starting points, housing markets. (The purpose here is that effectiveness has to take wider contexts into consideration; also to demonstrate regionalism as a starting point even beyond metros; and to see the connection between urbanization and ruralization.)

• Interrelation of HUD products and other federal resources in the Age of Recovery and beyond. (The purpose here is to foster action that breaks not only the silos in HUD but throughout the federal government and to discover creative ways of coordinating resources in places.)

• Organizing at diverse stages and levels. Base building for change. Exercises in leadership development. (The purpose here is to refresh participants in the principles and practices of organizing both so they can use these in the way they construct their office, and also to promote organizing and leadership development in communities).

• The HUD Field Office—ideal and real. (The purpose here is to realistically reconstruct the field office so it plays a more vital and vibrant role in positioning HUD and in fostering new relationships for change in local communities).

• Ethics and social change. Looking at some of the great ethical thinkers (e.g. Niebuhr, Dewey, Rawls, King, Ghandi) in how they found meaning in social action and civil service. (The purpose here is to encourage each participant to come to terms with his or her reason and passion for being an agent of change as a public servant.)

Some possible experts, thinkers, presenters, consultants:

Richard Florida, Rise of the Creative Class
Joshua Cooper Ramo, Age of the Unthinkable
Tom Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded
Francis Fukuyama, Trust
Zygmunt Bauman, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers
CS Holling, Panarchy
Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought
Gordon Frazer, The New Physics for the 21st Century
Peter Calthorpe, New Urbanism
Paul Krugman et al. Spatial Economy, Cities, Regions, and International Trade
Robert Reich, Supercapitalism
Naomi Klein, Disaster Capitalism
Peter Senge, The Necessary Revolution
Mark Gerzon, Leadership Through Conflict

Rollie Smith, 4-12-09