Conversations with Major Investment Leaders

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Conversations with Major Investment Leaders


The Partnership for Public Service spoke with leaders of past and current major investment initiatives—from recovery programs that sought to address the Great Recession to current legislation, including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. Our goal was to gather reflections and recommendations on how to implement these types of programs effectively. By documenting this knowledge, we aim to capture lessons learned that current and future major investments leaders can use in their own work.  

Below are excerpts from our conversations. 

John Porcari

Former deputy secretary of transportation and former Maryland secretary of transportation

John Porcari was the deputy secretary of transportation from 2009 to 2013, during the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which sought address the negative effects of the Great Recession. We spoke with Porcari about his experience implementing DOT programs that resulted from that legislation, as well as the similarities and differences between that implementation effort and current major federal investment initiatives.

Conversation Highlights
  • Agencies can support states and localities as they create grant applications by offering technical assistance and debriefing unsuccessful applicants to help them improve future applications. 
  • Federal leaders should elevate local and tribal priorities in their discussions with state officials to help ensure that formula funding is equitably distributed within states. 
  • Agencies should design project metrics that capture both outputs (such as number of bridges built) and outcomes (such as improvements to quality of life as a result of infrastructure projects), understanding that outcome metrics are often more complicated to capture. 

The primary direct experience was the Recovery Act during the Great Recession. That was during my tour as deputy secretary at [the Department of Transportation]. The Recovery Act was unique in a couple of ways—one, with the amount of money. It's also important to remember that the purpose of the Recovery Act was not actually to build infrastructure; the primary purpose was to get people back to work.  

I also had a unique perspective in that I was a state Department of Transportation secretary at the beginning of the Great Recession. A couple of weeks later, I was the deputy secretary of the U.S. DOT, so I had actually put together applications as a state DOT secretary for the state of Maryland. Obviously, I was then recused from those once I got to USDOT, but I was literally on both sides of the table.  

With the Recovery Act also came for the first time, for DOT at least, discretionary grant programs competitively awarded. For example, the TIGER [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] grant program was a large discretionary grant program with a lot of flexibility in what communities could use it for.  

The other part of the Recovery Act that's relevant is, just like today with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the bulk of the money was actually flowing by formulas to the states. The attention goes to the competitive grant programs, but they're a very small piece of the overall dollar number. The bulk of the funding is on a formula basis to the states, and it was the standard formula that Congress has had in place for a very long time.  

This meant that if you were a municipality, a tribal area [or] a low-resource community, you had to work through the state DOT, the state legislature [and] the state process to get anything because the states have great discretion in how they allocate the formula of money. Some states have state-specific legislation that sets up a waterfall of money going from the federal government to the state, to regions, to metropolitan planning organizations or to municipalities. Not all of them do. It varies by state.  

In terms of how we did the Recovery Act, it was very hands on. The secretary and I set up a system for the TIGER competitive grant program, where the applications were evaluated by the career staff [and] recommendations were made by the career staff, which then went to a senior review team of both career and political appointees. The final decision was the secretary’s.  

We paid very close attention to geographic distribution—partly because it was a brand new program, but also because the needs were so great during the Great Recession. We tried to make sure that within the first couple of rounds of TIGER grants, all 50 states received grants. There was a rural set-aside [of 25% of the funding] built in, so that also was part of it. There was not a specific set-aside for tribal areas, for example, but within the first two rounds, the tribal areas were early recipients.   

lf we started that program again from scratch, and had the authority from Congress to do so, we would have had, for example, the Department of the Interior helping with the tribal area grants, an obvious thing because we had no capacity at the federal level [at DOT] to objectively weigh tribal grants against each other in terms of need and cost effectiveness. So the whole-of-government approach at the federal level, and then capacity building in general, would be extremely helpful.

Well, first, because the TIGER grant program was pretty broad, there were subcomponents of it—for example, a maritime component. A state like Maine—which may not have had an early application that would make it through the process [for another transportation mode]—had a maritime need and could get a port grant. It was thinking more broadly, across all the transportation modes. Also, we had some very frank discussions with elected officials—with senators and representatives, governors and their staffs in the states, basically saying, 'You need to get your act together.' We had early applications from some states and municipalities within states that just didn't meet any kind of minimal criteria. We went back, and we set up both a formal debrief process where the career staff debriefed them [state and local officials who submitted applications]—anybody that asks—on their grant, which they're also doing now [for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law] and is certainly a best practice.  

But even informally, we wouldn't wait for that. We'd call up the DOT secretary or the governor's chief of staff or someone just say, 'Okay, you didn't get funding awarded in this round. You need to know you have some basic deficiencies [in your application]. You didn't meet the stated criteria.' And so we tried very hard to have kind of an early wake-up call and informally use, for example, the state highway division offices—there's one in each of the states—to use the Federal Transit Administration regions, the FRA [Federal Railroad Administration] regions and have the regional administrators and their staff provide some technical assistance. There's a fine line there because they will be evaluating applications, but they certainly can help on the technical side beforehand. So we tried to kind of short circuit deficient jurisdictions by telling them quickly, and either formally or informally providing help. 

It's an excellent question because, again, the majority of the dollars are formula, and the formula is not going to change. We  had a lot of meetings with elected officials and with a congressional delegation, for example, often pushing for a rural project that was not a state priority, even for the use of formula money. …We would basically be part of that discussion with the state DOT and say, 'You have a final call on how you distribute the money within your state. But you need to understand that there's a defined need here, that we're hearing from the congressional delegation on this, that the mayor, the public works director, they've been through the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process, they've had their permits, they're ready to go—[it’s] shovel ready, and we think is shovel worthy.’ So those were discussions we would have as well.  

And ultimately the federal government—in this case, DOT—can't force the states to make different decisions. But they can sure have a strong voice in the discussion of the allocation. It didn't happen all the time, but we absolutely inserted ourselves into some of those discussions. Just because it was clear in some cases that there was an equitable distribution issue, that there may have been a semi-voiceless community that had no way of impacting the project decisions otherwise. And we were not reluctant to actually jump into that. 

First of all, I think it’s important to recognize the basics, which is federalism in the U.S. as it's applied to infrastructure is bottom up, not top down. So the project decisions and the allocation of project priorities are done at the local and state level.  And I believe that that's how it should be.  

The coordination part of it, it is important to have a federal partner that supports state and local priorities within reason— provided that they don't violate [common sense], being supportive of that. And having the ability at each level—federal, state [and] local—to bring your capacity to the table—your capacity to help the project, planning capacity [and], in some cases, community involvement capacity. Again, if you're building the project from the ground up, there are a lot of communities that don't have an organic capacity to discuss the project priorities and have a local consensus—you have to offer spaces, help [and] resources that start to provide the tools.   

So with our ground-up project selection process, you also have to make sure that at the ground level, you're lending federal, state and local resources, as appropriate.

This was a while ago, but with the Recovery Act, for the first time, we did frequent webinars where anybody can log on—it could be a community activist; it could be a local elected official; it could be a local transportation director—and we would talk through what the programs are, how you apply for them [and] answer questions. That was an easy tool that we should frankly should have been using years before that, but it's much more common now.

Typically, for every Notice of Funding Opportunity put out by the federal government now, they have at least one or two webinars where any interested party can listen, and you can usually submit questions. There are some very direct ways to give feedback that didn't exist before at the most local level. For example, a tribal community can know through a webinar whether they even qualify for a grant—whether they should spend their time [applying for it] or not. And that threshold question turned out to be pretty important. And unless you can establish the basic parameters of the program in a straightforward, coherent way, people could be wasting their time.  

Two, there are public involvement tools that literally didn't exist [during Recovery Act implementation]. Smartphones, for example. In my personal opinion, I think it’s professional malpractice if you don't use these tools—where anybody interested in a potential project can sign up, get project alerts [and] participate in surveys on a project. There are actually pretty sophisticated programs for public involvement that I love because I think they're like an almost zero-cost way for people to get involved and to gather information on a project, build a consensus, [and] find out fatal flaws early on, that kind of thing.

It's an excellent question. And again, big distinction between the Recovery Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which have fundamentally different objectives. The Recovery Act, again, was to get people back to work, so the measure was jobs retained or created. I point that out because the phrase back then was ‘shovel ready.’ I use the phrase ‘shovel worthy,’ which is a very different metric. For the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, you're actually measuring economic impact, positive community impact, and, in both environmental and equity terms, the progress that you've made. These are more diffuse measures; they're much harder to measure.  

There are metrics like, for the Safe Routes to School Program, data should actually be showing you whether sidewalks that you're building between residential communities and schools are positively impacting safety. I think there's a broader quality-of-life metric where, whether it's easier to get to work via transit, whether you're going to have access to hiker-biker trails [and] whether there's local parks within a 15-minute walk for everyone. Those are the kind of metrics that I think ultimately are more important. Infrastructure investment is a means to an end, not an end in itself. You're building it for either quality of life, or adaptation to climate change or whatever. And broadly measured, those should all be improvements in quality of life. Again, not always easy to measure, but you know when you see it.  

There are hard measures so that every state keeps track of their percentage of deficient bridges and lane miles of deficient highway [addressed]. But the larger question is, if [you are] adding another lane to an interstate so that there's less congestion, is that actually improving quality of life for communities or not? And that's a harder but more important question.  

We need to pay as much, if not more, attention, I think, to the softer, larger metrics like quality of life, as opposed to just how many acres of concrete we poured. Pretty much every infrastructure organization [and] every transportation organization, the first dollar goes to fixing what you have. Fix it first—making sure your bridges don't fall down, for example. Unless they're woefully missing their primary job, they're taking care of that. It's the larger societal benefits and what they can do that are harder to measure but more important.

Mike Schmidt

Director, CHIPS Program Office, Department of Commerce

Mike Schmidt currently serves as the director of the CHIPS Program Office at the Department of Commerce. He previously led the implementation of the Child Tax Credit, which was expanded under the American Rescue Plan, at the Treasury Department. We spoke with him about how he approached setting up the CHIPS program, from establishing priorities to building a team. 

You can also read more about the work of Schmidt and his team in this Service to America Medals finalist profile.

Conversation Highlights
  • Building a strong team is crucial for implementing major investments. When launching programs, leaders should devote sufficient attention to recruiting and hiring staff.
  • Successful collaboration and coordination with stakeholders requires outreach, but also rests on building a strong program that meets customers’ needs.
  • Leaders should “treat bureaucracy as a dance partner, not as a roadblock.” Being nimble and finding ways to achieve objectives while being respectful of constraints and stakeholders is critical.

I have been working in government service for most of my career at the state level and the federal level—doing economic development work in New York state as well as serving as the commissioner of the New York State Department of Tax and Finance.  

At the federal level, I've been involved in two major programs. The first was the implementation of [an expanded] Child Tax Credit, which was a component of the American Rescue Plan that provided monthly payments to families with children, benefited over 60 million kids and pulled millions out of poverty. And the second is as the director of the CHIPS program, which I manage here at the Department of Commerce and is focused on revitalizing the U.S. semiconductor manufacturing industry. 

I think that identifying priorities is really grounded in the ultimate objectives of the program. For the Child Tax Credit, the objectives were clear from the outset. Number one, we wanted to make sure that the benefit of the tax credit reached as many families as possible and pulled as many kids out of poverty as possible. Number two, we wanted to build a system that was easy for people to interact with, which [involved] working with the IRS to do the nitty gritty work of building a program that works for as many Americans as possible.  

The CHIPS program was a little different. To me, one of the real charges from the outset was identifying the vision for what success looked like. Congress entrusted us with $39 billion to revitalize semiconductor manufacturing, but how we deployed those funds was largely up to us. I felt, and [Commerce] Secretary Raimondo felt, that we owed it to our broad range of stakeholders to explain what success would look like so that we could guide our program according to those objectives and measure our success according to those objectives. We ended up putting out a vision for success paper about six months into program implementation that has been the north star of the program ever since.  

The two other key priorities were laying out the nitty gritty program implementation—putting up a funding application, building up the process for evaluating applications and making awards. And the third [priority] is building a strong team to implement a program of tremendous impact, importance and complexity. Those were my three pillars: vision, program and team. 

I was the first CHIPS employee in September 2022. In that context, when you're immediately focused on vision, program and team, it is really easy to let the day-to-day urgencies of the moment take up so much of your time that you don't allocate [enough] time to recruit and hire. And it takes a lot of discipline to do that, particularly early on when you don't have an infrastructure in place to support the recruiting and hiring itself. [So I had to] focus on building that pipeline of talent and dedicating enough of my own attention to do that.

Secondly, there is a lot of value in getting a leadership team in place very quickly. I think it's very easy to start building out the lower and midlevel of the organization, but harder to find the right leaders. There's a ton of work to do and you just want people around who can do the work.  

Identifying that leadership team was essential for having fantastic leaders in place who have been absolutely pivotal to our success, and the team also ended up, in the medium term, providing a lot more leverage in hiring itself. You get leaders in and then they're focused on building their own teams, and they hire people who are focused on helping build those teams. What we found [through] our experience with CHIPS was that, for the first several months, we were trying to pull in one person per pay period [or] two people per pay period, and then eventually we reached an operating leverage on hiring that meant once we were into February, March [and] April [of 2023], we were bringing in 10-20 people per pay period. We pretty rapidly got to our target within the CHIPS Program Office—around 150 people, which is roughly where we are at now. 

Number one, it's hugely important to build relationships with a broad set of key stakeholders and to develop channels of communication, credibility and trust. The ultimate way to develop credibility and trust is to build and execute a strong program. So, in a leadership role for an organization like this, one has to balance engaging with stakeholders—and all the learning and trust building associated with that—with the need to put your head down and do the work of the program. In government, there are so many stakeholders [that] I could spend my entire day dealing with external parties, but my job is to run the program, first and foremost. I think it's important to maintain that focus throughout the organization and to build a really strong team, which we've built here with our external affairs team [that is] ready to help engage with outside stakeholders as well. 

I cannot overstate the importance of momentum in building and advancing major programs in government. There are so many ways that operating in government can slow you down, and a lot of those exist for very good reasons, but it just requires a relentless focus on maintaining pace to break through those barriers.  

In that context, it is very easy to fall into a trap where decisions are made too slowly because you're focused on getting perfect information before every decision is made, particularly in the early stages of implementation. The value of moving at a deliberate pace can't be overstated. Also, making sure you have good intuitions about when good is good enough, and when it makes sense to take time, take a beat and make sure you're getting something right.  

And then, I think it's important to interact with the broader government ecosystem in a way that is both respectful of the equities that government stakeholders have—all of which are there for mostly good reasons—and doesn't take barriers for granted when they're holding up programmatic objectives. One thing we like to talk about on our team is that we treat bureaucracy as a dance partner, not as a roadblock. [We try] to be nimble and operate within the system to meet our objectives, while [also] understanding and being respectful of the fact that everyone has a role to play.  

I probably would have taken another week of vacation in the first year of implementation. We have a joke on the CHIPS team that every time I address an all-staff meeting, I say that the next two months are going to be hugely consequential, and I just keep saying that every two months. The volume and urgency of the work is relentless. It's important that everyone makes the space for themselves personally [that] they need to continue to contribute the energy needed to get the job done.

I think we touched on this briefly, but it's just worth emphasizing how important the quality of [a] team is. At CHIPS, we have managed to unlock an extraordinary set of investments in the U.S. economy and the U.S. semiconductor industry: over $300 billion of investment, with all the firms capable of producing leading-edge technologies expanding here, investing in production capacity and bringing the most advanced technologies onto our shores.  

None of that happens unless you build an extraordinary team of people who can deliver on that scale and at that pace. Focusing on hiring and focusing on building out teams is hugely important.