Make Localities Great Again

By Will Colegrove

All the hand-wringing from commentators regarding the next Administration’s interest in shrinking the size and scope of the federal government misses an important point: The Federal government hasn’t been great for a long time.

Instead, many commentators are finally coming around to a trend that has been building for the past decade: an increasing need for self-reliance by states and cities in the face of dwindling federal support, and a need to move innovation outside of traditional public funding channels. While the Obama Administration made notable important investments in urban areas over the past eight years, and new agencies like 18F and the United States Digital Service are doing some exciting and important work, this is still just a drop in the bucket compared to the breadth of rapid change happening in cities and towns across the United States.

Yes, it is concerning that important programs like federal supportive housing subsidies may suffer from further funding cuts. However, no matter what happens (or doesn’t) in Congress, cities and states will still have the ability to address housing affordability through local zoning, tax policy, and more. Whatever your opinion of AirBnB and other short-term rental sites, those regulatory battles are playing out in State Legislatures and City Halls, not on Capitol Hill.

On the innovation front, cities continue to lead the way. In New York City government, I was fortunate to work on projects like LinkNYC, which brought free gigabit Wi-Fi to the masses using old payphones. Public-private partnerships like these are opening up new ways to build public infrastructure, while sharing risk and sparing taxpayers. Cities are also pioneering the use of open government data, not just for transparency, but also to drive decision-making. From analyzing fire risk to predicting those at risk for homelessness, data-driven decisions are making local government more efficient. While the future of federal open data policy is undetermined, I expect those local trends to continue with or without a Chief Data Officer in the White House.

At the same time, cutting edge technology like autonomous vehicles and drones will be shaped by federal policy, but the testing grounds are cities like Pittsburgh, PA and Cambridge, England. (The Cambridge example is telling, as Amazon is testing its drone delivery outside of the US because of burdensome federal regulators). Perhaps we will see a massive trend toward federal deregulation, which will place even more impetus on cities to not just enact local rules, but also work collaboratively on a regional level. As Hollie Russon Gilman recently discussed in TechCrunch, it’s not enough for just our major metropolitan areas to innovate. Cities must share best practices with neighbors in suburbia and rural areas, so that smaller localities aren’t forced to start from scratch with every new idea.

It’s easy to get depressed when considering the unknown of the next federal government. But the future looks much brighter when we accept that the most meaningful developments are happening in our hometowns, not in Washington, DC.

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