Organizing for Recovery

The Biden administration’s rescue plan for the nation presents extraordinary challenges, but also extraordinary opportunities. Coordination at every level of government will be needed.

President Joe Biden is no stranger to managing recovery. As vice president, he personally led the implementation of the $800 billion 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and effectively achieved its goals—including job creation—with minimal waste or fraud.  

The challenge President Biden faces now is even greater.  

The incredibly ambitious scope of the Biden administration’s “American Rescue Plan” and the outlines of the expected subsequent phase, “Build Back Better,” raise both extraordinary organizational and management challenges and opportunities for the administration. While the legislative language is still forthcoming, the available summary suggests that the proposed scope will include aid to veterans, hospitals, small businesses, elementary and secondary schools, public universities and community colleges, renters and their landlords, the homeless, restaurants, child-care providers and workers, public transit, tribal governments, and federal information technology.  

Unlike ARRA, a number of the targeted initiatives lack existing federal programs to serve as conduits for funding. Both the American Rescue Plan and Build Back Better will focus on economic recovery and will require new regulations and practices to integrate all of the levels of government and their private and non-profit partners. 

Typically, federal investments occur in organizational silos. This vertical approach does not align naturally with the horizontal funding strategies necessary for local economic development. This mismatch between a vertical siloed approach from the federal government and a more coordinated horizontal approach between local and regional governments begs for an entity that can coordinate across agencies, programs and levels of government to create a more inclusive, cooperative approach that can optimize resources and achieve better results. 

The White House has many entities, such as the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council, that coordinate policy. They do not, however, coordinate in-depth policy implementation. The ARRA experience suggests cross-agency coordination must be planned for and executed as an essential element in effective implementation of complex policies.  

To ensure the success of these new investment programs, the president should immediately establish a National Investment Board by executive order that will focus on bringing needed relief to people and places that have been left behind and spur growth in the overall economy. The NIB should be chaired by the president and include all members of the cabinet and such other agency heads and staff as the president designates. The chief operating officer of the NIB should be the vice president, who would be charged with convening and coordinating its activities. The NIB would listen to the leaders of governments throughout the country and act on this input to design the program implementation for national assistance. 

The NIB would have two primary functions:

  1. Coordinate across all agencies and programs to assure collaborative approaches to achieve the objectives of the recovery statutes. This coordination would develop implementation plans for identifying, deploying and monitoring all funds, including those in base budgets, that might be used for recovery. 
  2. Develop outreach and cooperation mechanisms for working with each of the public, non-profit and private sector organizations that will receive these funds to ensure that they are deployed and spent with the greatest care and impact. 

The organization of the NIB should place a premium on organizational agility and accountability.  Agility suggests that the mission as stated in the legislation effectuating the recovery must be crystal clear. Speed should be a hallmark of the legislation, and the language should clearly establish deadlines for allocating and spending funds. Cross-functional teams at the federal and inter-governmental level should be empowered to find innovative flexible solutions and should persistently apply these to produce the results specified in the legislation. Accountability requires evidence that metrics have been achieved and that they provide a positive change in the lives of Americans. At the same time, results should be achieved with a minimum of waste or fraud.

Recovery needs differ across regions of the country. Using the organizational principles outlined above, the NIB can flexibly address these various needs, develop strategies that best invest resources to resolve them, and accelerate economic activity across them through new partnerships and arrangements with local, state and tribal governments. The NIB can establish partnership and coordination networks as the default response across the federal government and with the recipients of funds. It can apply and enhance available program tools and encourage recipients, particularly state, local and tribal governments to continue to develop their horizontal approaches to maximize impact.  

President Biden has laid out an ambitious vision for the country’s recovery from both the coronavirus itself and the economic devastation left in its wake. An equally ambitious management structure will be required to address these challenges and create new job opportunities. The creation of a National Investment Board is essential to that vision, to ensure the effective application of relief funds.

G. Edward DeSeve, former Special Advisor to President Obama for Recovery Implementation, is the Coordinator of the Agile Government Center, a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and a Visiting Fellow of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. Mark Pisano, Professor of Practice at the University of Southern California, is co-chair of the Intergovernmental System Standing Panel at the National Academy of Public Administration.