Promoting Equitable Investment and Job Generation in Fort Worth, Texas

Guest blog by Robert Sturns

When I began the Leading Economic Growth program, my goal was really driven by a desire to understand how we could have a more equitable distribution of investment and jobs throughout my community. As we really begin to dig into issues of economic complexity, I discovered that our issue was much larger than just ensuring an equitable distribution of jobs. We really needed to focus on driving overall investment to the community as a first step and then ensure that those opportunities were experienced across the City. You can see this shift in thinking occur as you look at the fishbone exercises I completed over the course of the program.

As I studied the issue and thought through our challenges, I began to really see the binding constraints that are impacting our efforts. While marketing and promotion of the City is an easy first step that should be encouraged, it is increasingly difficult to convince new large-scale businesses to open in certain areas of the city. Business consolidations and web technology have eliminated many of the traditional neighborhood serving businesses and left low-income alternatives in their place. Because the high-skilled jobs are in other areas of the city that lack public transportation, these communities do not get the benefit of growing know how through a formal corporate environment and rely on individual operators in a less formal environment that impacts wages and know how. Low human capital is also a challenge for our underserved areas in that the high school graduation rate for minority (particularly African-American) students lags significantly behind their white counterparts.  This suggests that they will not be prepared for the incoming jobs of the future if we do not begin to take steps to address this problem.

Since marketing/promotion of the City has been an identified area of need that could be easily implemented, I was very interested in working on a CINDE like approach to our marketing challenges that would engage partners at the city, chamber(s) of commerce and the business community. By utilizing this model, the entities could focus on specific targets within an industry and spend time and effort on marketing to those businesses and building relationships. We have already begun having those conversations with the chamber of commerce, and have developed a perception survey that was sent out to over 100 site selectors to gauge their impressions of Fort Worth, and why we may not be seeing as many recruitment opportunities as we would like to see. Following the survey, both the city and chamber will begin to look at how we can develop a more comprehensive and proactive pitch campaign utilizing additional feedback from our local business community.

As I mentioned, identifying the true binding constraint on our growth was also a key part of the course that I focused on during the program. Fort Worth completed an economic development strategic plan three years ago that comprised over 200 recommendations or policy reforms to be undertaken by various organizations across the city. While we have made progress on many of the recommendations, that has not resulted in significant new business attraction/investment or new job creation. The recommendations and polices we have pursued do not seem to have identified the real binding constraint of why we are not attracting more development opportunities. In particular, one challenge that was highlighted in my fishbone diagram, is that we do not have the resources in place to accomplish some of the more primary tasks we need to complete as identified by the plan. In looking at how we could improve our efforts, we will need to drill down to what is our true binding constraint and focus our efforts there as additional resources are not likely in the near future. It will be imperative to pare back a lot of the recommendations going forward and focus on what is truly making an impact on our community.

A final insight from the course that was very illuminating was on the concept of the city’s identity and sense of “us”. Fort Worth, while being the 13th largest city in the U.S., describes itself as being a large city that maintains a small-town feel. We pride ourselves on our western heritage by embracing slogans like “The City of Cowboys & Culture” which is part of our identity and make up the sense of what makes us Fort Worthians. However, that sense of “us” does suggest a community that is not very diverse or progressive to those not from Texas, and can be a significant challenge when trying to attract new investment from other parts of the country. Younger residents of the city have a much different perception of the city and how it needs to promote itself. While they still have pride in the “maverick” spirit of the city, younger residents are more aligned and interested in the progressive neighborhoods, artists, creatives and entrepreneurs that make up the community. In addition, our minority residents often do not see themselves reflected in the perception of “us” that is promoted nationally and should have better representation. In considering enhanced marketing efforts and promoting the city in order to deal with the growth challenge, we will have to balance keeping some semblance of what makes the city what it is, while promoting the opportunities it can provide and what it could be in the future.

Given that my growth challenge is specifically about investment and equity, I was really intrigued by the efforts of bringing inclusion to the forefront of our growth strategies and would like to explore this in more depth in the future. In looking at models like the Brookings Metro Indicators or OCED, setting metrics on wage growth, poverty rates and job growth in underserved areas, seem to be efforts that should be pursued at the city, state and national level. The big question will be how to balance growth while also tackling inequity. As Dr. Hausmann so eloquently put it during our closing session, the problems we face may be clear, but the proposed solutions may not give a full answer to the problems due to our assumptions and beliefs about the nature of the world. We need to look outside of assigning blame and focus on addressing the overall problems of inequality. How can cities/regions/countries truly galvanize support across multiple entities and expand cooperation in order to focus on addressing the problem of inequality? This will likely be the defining issue of economic growth over the next few decades.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Leading Economic Growth Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. 65 Participants successfully completed this 10-week online course in May 2021. These are their learning journey stories.

To learn more about Leading Economic Growth (LEG) watch the faculty video, and visit the course website.

What Scrabble-playing Monkeys Have to Do with Contractors in Texas: Lessons from Leading Economic Growth

Guest blog by Maggie Jones

Finding contractors in Texas right now is hard. Really hard. Finding contractors to work on a niche federally-funded home repair program with lots of red tape and paperwork is nearly impossible. Or so we thought. Fortunately for us, the many lessons from Leading Economic Growth over the last 10 weeks have been and will be put to work over the months and years (and then some) to come, not only for this particular challenge, but for future obstacles as well.

Society knows more, not because individuals know more, but because individuals know different.

What a relief! We do not have to know all the things! Want even better news? It is probably better that we don’t. This point resonates when thinking about the game of Scrabble. Imagine everyone on your team or in your community has the following letters: A, B, and C. There aren’t many words you can spell (or points you can get). But let’s say everyone on your team or in your community has different letters – perhaps 10, or 15, or more – then you can build longer words (and get more points). The same applies to productivity and ultimately economic growth.

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PDIA and Coordination Challenges within Government

Guest blog written by Nevena Bosnic, Mehdi El Boukhari, Ama Peiris, Matthew Welchert

Over the past seven weeks, our group embarked on the learning journey of problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) as it applies to coordination challenges facing the various levels of government as well as civil society in addressing homelessness in Tarrant County, Texas. We had the great pleasure to work with an authorizer, Maggie Jones, who serves as the Assistant Director of Tarrant County Community Development. Our team – comprised of graduate students from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts, Harvard Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Harvard Kennedy School of Government – provided a diversity of perspectives and richness of insights. Together, we confronted and struggled through the challenges that come with working in complex adaptive challenges as we constructed and deconstructed the problem, sought potential entry points, developed and acted on ideas for interventions, and finally, reflected and iterated with yet another round of the process. Through this blog post, we hope to share with readers: (1) our key learnings from the course, (2) insights we gained about the problem we sought to address, and (3) words of wisdom for other students and practitioners.

1. LEARNINGS FROM THE COURSE:

  • The ecosystem is large and not all actors have a clear picture of how they fit within the larger system. Thus, they do not strategize well how they as an individual organization can encourage better coordination. It can be helpful to think of a metaphor of topographical map wherein your key organization is in a valley. You may see other related organizations and actors in some nearby hills and bluffs, but you might be blind to what exists beyond those heights. PDIA requires you to venture forth beyond the hills to get a sense of the total ecosystem. 
  • There are a lot of different stakeholders who are working independently to fight homelessness. There is little to no capitalizing on each other’s strengths because each stakeholder is bound by short term objectives and constraints. Coordination inherently requires compromising a degree of control to others, but asking organizations to share or give up some of their autonomy is a difficult ask. Constructing a problem that matters helps rally and galvanize support. 
  • It is alright to not have a big idea which might theoretically have a large impact. It is often better to try multiple small, achievable actions to shift towards greater change. Complexity is daunting, but by deconstructing the problem and identifying where there is sufficient authority, acceptance, and ability to act you can begin to take action. Rather than focusing all of your efforts on a big solution, removed from potential feasibility, taking immediate, fast action where possible provides lessons and begins the process of change. 
  • Huge challenge in understanding all of the many moving parts. Interactions and causal relationships are unlikely to reveal themselves without first pushing at the problem from multiple angles. By taking many different, small, independent actions pathways and connections might become more visible. 
  • The wonderful world of positive deviants. Do not reinvent the wheel. It sounds simple enough, but if you do not explore, ask around, look for the small successes already underway, then you risk missing solutions already in action. 
  • Deconstructing the problem is an endless process. You will always go back to redefining the problem and uncovering new root causes (rather than manifestations of the problem). Iteration can be trying, even frustrating, but the process of purposeful repetition building on what has been learned is critical to uncovering new solutions, and taking meaningful next steps.
  • Un-learning’ or learning you were wrong is still learning. Through the process of iteration and adaptation, you will likely be wrong. Indeed, you should be wrong. Embrace the potential for an idea not panning out, or an action not producing the desired result. By hitting a wall, you now know there is a wall there. In dealing with complex problems, even learning the boundaries of action is an important step. But be sure to learn and adapt. Why is the wall there? Where is a backdoor? It is in asking these deeper questions that PDIA’s repetition allows us to overcome hurdles. 
  • Examining change space is something most people don’t think about outside of PDIA. This results in a lot of efforts being made, sometimes to no avail. Crawl around the design space; which means to explore and make use of other success being done elsewhere. Perhaps a best practice has been implemented with success elsewhere. How would it be applicable to my situation? But remember to reflect inwardly as well. There is likely a great deal of latent potential within your own organization which can be brought to bear. Change will require many kinds of actions, from both without and within. 
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A Reflection on PDIA in Action: Homelessness in Tarrant County

Guest blog written by Akbar Ahmadzai, Emma Davies, Renzo LavinFernando Marquez

Six weeks ago, the class counted off numbers: One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. One, two, three, four, five. Repeat. Some of us were fortunate enough to have been assigned to group 2. Others convinced classmates to switch with them. Regardless of how we got there, all of us in group 2 would be working on Homelessness in Tarrant County. Had any of us been to Texas? No. Had any of us worked on homelessness issues in the past? No. Yet, in the next six weeks, through reading numerous documents and reaching out to people knowledgeable about the issue, we too would learn about the problem of homelessness in Tarrant County. 

On our first day, our group was inclined to think that access to affordable housing was the main driver of homelessness. An obvious solution to this problem seemed to be increasing the number of available units. After our first call with our authorizer, Maggie Jones, the Assistant Director of Tarrant County Community Development, we quickly realized we were wrong in two key ways. First, the problem was much more complex than just the lack of housing and we would have to dive deeper to understand it better. Second, there were no obvious solutions to addressing homelessness and, given that homelessness is a multidimensional problem, several measures would be required to tackle sub-areas contributing to homelessness. 

We were introduced to a large network of people, agencies, and community organizations working on addressing homelessness in Tarrant County. Within the first week, we learned that “more than 2,000 individuals experience homelessness on any given night in Tarrant County” and, during the point in time count, there were 560 unsheltered homeless people despite 602 available beds throughout the system. Furthermore, there were many people at risk of losing their housing and becoming homeless in the near future. Armed with this information, we defined (constructed) the problem as follows:

Continuing to engage with people working on homelessness in Tarrant County and reading several documents related to the issue of homelessness helped us identify various subproblems and factors that contribute to homelessness in Tarrant County. The question “why” proved extremely helpful when deconstructing our problem. For instance,

Continue reading A Reflection on PDIA in Action: Homelessness in Tarrant County