Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | The billions in infrastructure dollars flowing to governments must work for residents of all backgrounds and political affiliations. Oklahoma City’s approach may hold the key to success.
State and local governments will soon receive billions of dollars in funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The IIJA is a major bipartisan achievement with the potential to rebuild American transportation systems, bring clean drinking water, expand high-speed internet access, address climate and environmental issues and invest in historically underserved communities.
Despite its potential, the public is waiting to see if state and local governments will actually deliver on the promise of the IIJA. In an era of perceived government dysfunction and partisan gridlock, the disconnect between what people expect governments to do and what they actually deliver is corroding public trust and the legitimacy of public institutions. We can all agree that the IIJA has tremendous potential to do good, but the true test is making sure it delivers results for a broad spectrum of people.
In meeting this challenge, we believe leaders across the country can learn a lot from the success of Oklahoma City’s collaborative effort known as Metropolitan Area Projects or MAPS, specifically the most recent iteration of that long-running initiative, dubbed MAPS 4. The approach used to develop and pass MAPS is not necessarily groundbreaking, but it can feel like it in today’s polarized atmosphere. The MAPS approach reminds us that outcomes can in fact please a broad spectrum of residents, not just the partisans on one side or another.
The nearly 30-year-old MAPS approach simply is an opportunity for city leaders to directly engage with residents to discuss the future of the community and determine the financial commitment to make that future a reality. MAPS doesn’t focus on core infrastructure but addresses the “extras” that improve a city’s quality of life, such as youth centers, streetlight improvements and facilities to support victims of domestic violence.
In the latest MAPS round, Oklahoma City leaders had to contend with the reality that their voters are politically purple, as evidenced by the fact that in the largest section of the city the two major party candidates were separated by exactly one percentage point in the most recent presidential election results.
Important to this process is starting early. While voters didn’t decide on MAPS until late 2019, Oklahoma City leaders kicked off a robust public relations campaign in the fall of 2018, inviting residents to “dream big” and tell city leaders what they wanted to address. Residents were then invited in the summer of 2019 to 26 hours of public meetings at city hall attended by the mayor and council, where project presentations were made and any resident could rise to speak.
The initial package that emerged included 16 projects and totaled nearly a billion dollars. The priorities stretched across the ideological spectrum, and probably only the mayor liked all 16 projects. That choice was intentional and meant to respect the pluralistic nature of the community and allow for many perspectives to be represented in the outcome.
The final package included traditional economic development projects, like arenas and stadiums, but 70% of the spending went towards neighborhood and human needs, including:
- $40 million for mental health and addiction facilities.
- $17 million for a “diversion hub” to serve people interacting with the criminal justice system.
- $38 million for a facility serving victims of domestic violence.
- $50 million for addressing homelessness.
- $25 million for a civil rights center.
- $110 million for youth centers.
- $87 million for sidewalks, bike lanes, walking trails and streetlights.
- $87 million for transit.
- $140 million for neighborhood parks.
This was a novel approach in a national political environment where proposed outcomes almost always satisfy one “side,” with the highest priority placed on outcomes that don’t provide a “win” for your supposed opponents. Leadership in Oklahoma City was accused by some of attempting to please everyone through MAPS, to which they responded, “Yes, that’s what we’re supposed to do!”
MAPS tax passed in December of 2019 with 72% of the vote in the capital and largest city of one of America’s reddest states. It was the highest percentage of support for any sales tax in modern Oklahoma City history. The MAPS approach prioritized community engagement, collaboration, inclusion, transparency, trust and ultimately a pragmatic willingness to compromise and include many viewpoints in the final outcome. As a result, Oklahoma City overcame gridlock, moved the city forward and did so with the unified, bipartisan support of residents.
Implementation is now underway and is overseen by a citizens advisory board and subcommittees that include dozens of residents committed to seeing the project through over the next decade.
Governments must be transparent, inclusive and creative. And if we truly want Americans to have confidence in our government again, we need to seek outcomes that please the most possible residents. If our personal priority is addressed, we must accept that it is okay if someone else’s priority is addressed as well – even if that someone else is not a member of your political party.
We hope that the bipartisan spirit that passed IIJA will echo throughout the implementation. Through IIJA, we have an unparalleled opportunity to make critical investments in our states, cities and counties that can enable human flourishing. With that comes another unparalleled opportunity to restore trust in government. We can do it if we follow the lead of Oklahoma City.
Dan Vogel is director of the Centre for Public Impact’s work in North America. He has 20 years of experience working with private, public and nonprofit organizations to drive public impact and social innovation.
David Holt is the mayor of Oklahoma City, the 22nd-largest city in the United States. He was first elected in 2018 and was reelected in February.