Strong Cities, Strong Communities

Over the past 50 years, federal and state governments have relied on local governments as the principal entity to implement federal and state programs and policies. In this series of web pages and policy report, we document one of the most recent models of collaborative federalism: The Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Initiative (2011–17). As part of a suite of place-based urban policies and programs designed to assist a diverse typology of communities confronting dramatic economic and demographic change, SC2 experimented with how the federal government engages with local government and how to facilitate greater cooperation among and across federal agencies.

At the time of its design, federal leaders did not have sufficient political capital for launching a traditional federal capacity-building initiative. They did not have the luxury of supporting a new program with large federal grants or elaborate federal technical assistance and training. SC2’s leaders had to devise new models and approaches for helping local governments that relied heavily on federal resources and staff. For example, a core SC2 principle and strategy was to embed federal government staff for designated periods of time within the offices of mayors and other local government agencies (the Community Solution Teams -CSTs) to ensure that any federal actions taken would be driven by and responsive to local priorities. Once priorities and potential federal resources or actions were identified, the CSTs could also help local government policymakers, directors, and their staffs navigate the vast federal bureaucracy and its processes and procedures.

The timeline graphic below outlines the major federal milestones for the SC2 initiative.

SC2 Timeline
Click here for a more extensive timeline of the SC2 initiative. 

Considering these economic and political realities, four overarching policy themes emerged to form SC2’s policy architecture:

  1. Improve relationships between local and federal governments by moving toward a partnership model
  2. Enhance local capacity for constrained local government
  3. Encourage regional and cross-sector (e.g., public, private, nonprofit) collaborations
  4. Change or alter the economic trajectory of distressed cities

These policy themes were then refined in a series of program principles to guide SC2’s programs, partnerships, and project activities in close and direct collaboration with local governments and their community networks:

  1. Provide coordination and support across federal agencies and programs
  2. Convene and connect relevant stakeholders at all levels and from diverse areas
  3. Equip cities with information, data, and tools to enhance decision-making
  4. Forge partnerships for facilitating economic growth and community revitalization

These policy themes and program principles came together under SC2’s five core program components that forged new partnerships and projects in the 14 designated SC2 cities and beyond:

  1. The White House Council on Strong Cities, Strong Communities
  2. Community Solutions Teams (CST)
  3. The SC2 fellowship program
  4. An economic development competition
  5. The National Resource Network

A hallmark of SC2’s success was the federal actors’ ability to align the policy themes, program principles, and program component across different cities with diverse challenges, issues, capacities, and assets. SC2’s collaborative approach to federalism offers important lessons that apply to many communities and actors. The following sections discuss the details of SC2’s program design, city selection, and program elements.