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We All Should Be Rooting for the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force

Identifying the people and places left behind in the current economy is critical.

Earlier this month, President Biden signed an executive order establishing the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force. It will be co-chaired by Brian Deese, head of the National Economic Council, and Mitch Landrieu, Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator. This is a great first step toward implementing the very clear mission of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).

What struck me most in the Executive Order was this paragraph:

“This Task Force will be committed to break down barriers and drive implementation of infrastructure investments across all levels of government to realize the President’s vision of rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure and positioning the U.S. to compete and win in the 21st century.”  

This charge is a great first step toward addressing a significant intergovernmental challenge.

I have previously written in Government Executive about the need for horizontal and vertical coordination to achieve successful implementation—not just of the IIJA but also of agency base funding as well as funds administered through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan. The new Infrastructure Implementation Task Force should immediately define the people and places that have been left behind and create SWAT teams to bring available federal resources to them. Recent remarks by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg before the National League of Cities were an excellent first step in this direction.

Another step in the identification process would be to use the 10/20/30 Persistent Poverty Formula advocated by U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. This suggests that at least 10% of the funds should go to places where more than 20% of the population has lived below the poverty rate for at least 30 years. One place to start would be to work with the National Academy of Public Administration’s newly created Center for Intergovernmental Partnerships, on which I serve, to work with its constituent groups to help identify where the Clyburn criteria exist. For example, Congressman Clyburn has said that there are more than 400 counties that meet his criteria. The Task Force could meet with Congressman Clyburn and his staff to verify this estimate and determine what other areas might qualify.

But the issues don’t stop with identification. The new Implementation Task Force should actively work to see that state, local, tribal and territorial governments are adequately organized to receive and account for funds. This means examining where initiatives already exist and where bottlenecks, such as reporting requirements and other administrative matters, may make application for funds difficult. Speed should be emphasized with clear deadlines for submission of funding applications. This should allow for rapid funding for those who are prepared in areas like broadband and technical assistance for those who need it so they can apply in subsequent funding cycles.

The Task Force can also help to shape the Build Back Better Act so that its implementation in areas such as wildfire management can proceed in tandem with other infrastructure initiatives.

The President and his team have experience successfully managing large programs such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The selection of Director Deese and Coordinator Landrieu and the issuance of the executive order creating the Infrastructure Investment Task Force are strong positive steps toward successful implementation. 

One area where the IIJA could use improvement is in the need for an independent oversight agency like the Recovery and Transparency Board under ARRA to guard spending integrity. A strong relationship should be initiated with the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which is currently in place and has used agile government techniques in identifying and warning against waste, fraud and abuse.

Much remains to be done, but these initial actions are a great start at successfully implementing the bipartisan Infrastructure Act. 

G. Edward DeSeve, former Special Advisor to President Obama for Recovery Implementation, is a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, the Coordinator of the Academy’s Agile Government Center and a Visiting Fellow of the IBM Center for the Business of Government.