What would it take to deliver results on the ground?
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act is remarkable not only in its sheer scope — 1.9 trillion dollars — but also in the discretion afforded its recipients. Simply put, there are very few strings attached.
This presents city, state, and federal agencies with an incredible — if potentially unnerving — opportunity: A chance to build a blue-sky strategic plan, and then actually fund it.
Why would this be unnerving?
Consider the Top Chef competition. In the earlier challenges of a season, contestants are given a limited set of ingredients (or some other prompt) and told to make the best meal possible within those parameters. However, in the final challenge, contestants are simply asked to make the best meal of their life.
It’s much more exciting. And so. Much. Harder.
It’s human nature: We think we want to be free from constraints—and then we find it’s actually terribly difficult to be free from constraints. Constraints make our decisions easier. Structure is comfort. Boundaries leave us less exposed.
For agencies deciding how to spend stimulus money, let’s first acknowledge that disbursement is difficult. The easiest thing to do — both politically and generally — would be to give money to the people who are asking for it the loudest. The squeaky wheel, as they say, gets the grease.
The harder, but ultimately more effective, approach is to pause: Articulate clear, measurable goals. Put yourself on the line publicly for those goals. And then invest in interventions that deliver on those goals.
How do you do this?
Take the long view. This bill was triggered by the need to recover from a devastating pandemic; there are certainly short-term needs to fill. But you had goals before the pandemic: What were those? You have goals for a future beyond the pandemic. What are those? Use the money for its stated purpose — to recover — but don’t lose sight of what you were trying to achieve before the pandemic happened, and what you’ll want your legacy to be long after it’s over.
Put yourself on the line. The best leaders are willing to be accountable. It takes courage, but it’s the only way to build trust, improve systems, and ultimately deliver for the people you serve. We know it feels risky — but a clear delivery system will make all the difference. Which leads us to the next piece of advice:
Have a clear delivery system. More and more, governments are trying to work backwards from the outcomes they want, rather than forwards from the money they spend.
Let’s pause for a moment on that.
Governments are good at debating and deciding inputs — such as how much money they spend. Case in point? We all know this bill is $1.9 trillion; much of the public discourse and political debate was focused on this dollar amount. And while there’s certainly a time and place for carefully considering inputs, they aren’t an end unto themselves; rather, they are a means — an investment in long-term outcomes. We all know this bill by its $1.9 trillion price tag; imagine if one day we knew it by the outcomes it made possible.
That’s a shift in thinking for many governments, who tend to focus heavily on inputs and policy, and less so on implementation and outcomes. After all, inputs are easier to control; they are decided by a relatively small group (Congress). Outcomes are much harder to control. Outcomes are determined by a vast network of players, including the public itself. As a leader, it can feel prohibitively risky to put yourself on the hook for the Great Unknown that is moving from idea to implementation to impact. But as hard as that is to do, it’s everything.
So, if you are leading a city, county, state, or tribal government, or if you run an agency that’s receiving ARP funds, here’s what we would do if we were you:
- Pause. Don’t disburse money to the people asking the loudest. Even if they do end up being the right recipients, you’ll feel more confident if you’re working proactively towards goals rather than reactively to requests.
- Prioritize: Examine your short- and long-term goals, and pick 2–3 as a primary focus. Use the funds to recover from the past year while also considering the years ahead.
- Promise: Tell the public what you intend to do, and hold yourself accountable through transparent, consistent communication. You’ll not only stay focused on outcomes, but you’ll also build trust, engagement, and momentum along the way.
- Plan: Set a delivery system in motion that puts outcomes (rather than inputs) at the core.
- Practice: The sooner you implement your plan, the sooner you’ll be able to course-correct, build momentum, show your progress, and achieve your outcomes.
Do this and you’ll achieve the rarest of things: An ambitious vision, with money to back it and transformative results to show for it.
This bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Like those Top Chef finalists, we mustn’t waste the chance to make the best meal of our lives—or in our case, to drive real-world impact for as many people as possible.
A hat tip to our friend Shana Young, State Schools Superintendent for the District of Columbia, for inspiring us with the Top Chef metaphor.