Introduction and summary
America’s rural communities face many challenges, including poor internet access, inadequate housing and public utilities, and a shortage of quality health care. In addition, many rural areas remain dependent on volatile and uncertain resource sectors affected by automation, trade, and changing markets. Rural areas sometimes lack the essential infrastructure, services, workforce, or resources to take advantage of new growth and investment. As a result, traditional economic development strategies, such as offering tax incentives to developers to locate projects in economically disadvantaged areas, have often fallen short.
In contrast, modern place-based economic development approaches emphasize direct investment in workers, communities, and essential public assets. In this model, channeling capital into rural and historically underserved communities is aligned with investments in local capacity; adequate infrastructure; power, such as standing in planning and permitting negotiations; and partnerships to effectively leverage public and private investment into local jobs, revenue, and community benefits.1
The Inflation Reduction Act2 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)3 use tax incentives and other subsidies to encourage private capital investment in technology and deployment of infrastructure and facilities necessary to resolve the climate crisis and rebuild U.S. supply chains. Additional tax credits are offered under the Inflation Reduction Act if developers locate projects in historically marginalized communities and in regions facing an energy transition. Less well understood are the parallel and complementary programs designed to build community capacity, provide technical assistance, and improve federal coordination to help communities apply for, win, and leverage local benefits from public and private investments.4 Examples of programs discussed in a companion paper include the Federal Thriving Communities Network, community benefits plans, direct pay provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, and an embedded federal workforce such as the Economic Development Administration’s Economic Recovery Corps and the American Climate Corps.5
This aligned approach to place-based industrial policymaking, which centers substantial capital investments in rural communities while also building their capacity and leverage to secure local benefits from new growth, is essential to bring about the best outcomes for rural communities in the United States.
This report provides an early evaluation of the design and implementation of one of these critical rural capacity-building programs: the Rural Partners Network (RPN). Currently operating under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, RPN is the most robust and intentional effort in generations to coordinate rural-targeted capacity-building efforts across different federal agencies, along with the resources to facilitate such coordination. With 52 active projects and 60 rural community liaisons from 20 federal agencies in 10 states and Puerto Rico, RPN demonstrates the Biden administration’s significant commitment to reaching rural communities who need assistance.
The report begins with a review of rural economic development challenges and a framework for assessing rural policy and capacity. Next, the report describes the purpose and goals of RPN and program implementation over the first 15 months. The report ends with several recommendations to continue assessment and reporting, translate lessons into policy formation, and to expand the geographic reach of RPN.
The Rural Partners Network
The USDA’s Rural Partners Network is an innovative capacity-building program that places USDA Rural Development liaisons in underresourced communities to help them navigate and access rural development programs across multiple federal agencies.6 The RPN’s value is in its ability to equip federal staff to meet rural leaders where they are, understand their needs and capacity limitations, and then coordinate and align agency resources that best meet local needs.
Unlike other federal programs, RPN doesn’t require communities to go through an application process. Instead, the USDA uses public data and assessments—for example, poverty, income, and demographic data—to identify eligible communities. The agency correlates eligibility criteria with USDA assistance, locating communities that need support but are not applying for or receiving it. Agency staff then visit these counties and select community networks based on local characteristics, needs, and readiness. Once networks are identified, community liaisons are placed in the community network to identify existing plans and priority projects and match these local needs and strategies with the appropriate federal resources. RPN liaisons have relationships with staff across 20 partner agencies and regional commissions.7
A new framework for place-based rural economic development
Since the 1980s, U.S. economic development policies have been shaped by free-market economic theory that favors low taxes and a limited regulatory environment to spur private investment. By comparison, economic development strategies that targeted investment to a specific place or to a specific industry were discouraged as inefficient and as an inappropriate role for government. Instead, federal policymakers were encouraged to consider regional challenges to be the purview of states and localities.8 Rather than investing in places, policymakers encouraged people to leave underperforming communities and move to regions where jobs were more plentiful.
More recently, economists working with empirical data have shown that nontax incentive programs, such as workforce training and direct investments in community infrastructure, are more cost-effective and better at creating employment opportunities when compared with expensive tax incentive programs. Research also finds that place-based investments are more effective in places that have experienced the most decline—so they should be targeted there.9
The Biden-Harris administration is charting a new course for U.S. economic policy, learning from experience and new research to implement a place-based industrial strategy. The new industrial strategy uses public subsidies and investments to subsidize private capital to build critical infrastructure and drive innovation necessary to reduce carbon emissions and secure domestic supply chains. The IIJA, Inflation Reduction Act, and CHIPS and Science Act deliver billions of dollars for infrastructure, renewable energy, manufacturing, and other economic priorities. These public investments also have a strong geographic dimension that seeks to reduce inequality between regions and between urban and rural areas by directing investment and incentives to underserved counties, cities, and neighborhoods.10 This public money also comes with job creation and workforce development standards, domestic supply content requirements, and environmental justice considerations.
In addition to directing investment to a place, communities also require capacity, coordinated federal assistance, and leverage—for example, standing in regulatory processes, public infrastructure, workforce, and community amenities—to turn private investment into public benefit. A third essential component of this new U.S. economic policy approach includes intentional and significant efforts to direct resources, staff, technical assistance, and improved coordination among federal agencies to build local capacity and secure local benefits when public and private investments are made in a specific place. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy requires developers to submit a community benefits plan for Inflation Reduction Act and IIJA resources applications. In addition, agencies participating in the Federal Interagency Thriving Communities Network are placing federal staff in communities and bolstering agency capacity to facilitate planning and engagement, better coordinate federal resources, and build trust.
Despite these aligned efforts, the headwinds facing rural communities are persistent, with assistance to rural communities too often siloed and out of reach for many communities.11 In short, the Inflation Reduction Act and the IIJA pose an implementation challenge: making sure that public and private investments deliver tangible benefits to workers, families, and businesses in the communities where they are made.
To assess the design and implementation of new federal programs, the Center for American Progress identified a set of agreed-upon principles for effective place-based economic development strategy, including:
- Focus significant and integrated investments in places. Communities are multifunctional integrated systems not effectively served by traditional siloed policy approaches. Place-based economic development policy should enable a comprehensive and coordinated approach to community development that can make significant, integrated, and transformative investments in communities that achieve multiple goals. For example, public funding for a new battery manufacturing plant may need to be aligned with investments in workforce housing; apprenticeships and technical training; resources for community-based organizations providing essential services such as child care and health services, and public assets such as parks and trails, or all of these investments.
- Work collaboratively at the appropriate scale. Place-based policy must be adaptable to the communities where investments are being made. Because the local context—including the type of economy, demographics, and community assets—is diverse across rural communities, meeting local challenges requires working alternatively at the neighborhood, county, or regional scale to maximize the synergies and catalyze the connections among multiple investments. The impacts associated with different types of projects also vary. For example, a new mine has environmental and economic implications different from a manufacturing plant or renewable energy generating facility.
- Invest in community-based organizations and residents. Providing effective community engagement ranges from informing to empowering. Informing includes transparent permitting and planning processes and information sharing. Engagement requires communities and individuals to be resourced to participate, including staff capacity, training, and funding to participate in public processes. Empowering can include participatory budgeting, community benefits agreements, and giving communities a direct say in permitting and regulatory decisions. Federal agencies also require capacity and authority to make long-term commitments in communities, to build trust, and to leverage local leadership and knowledge in planning and decision-making.
- Conduct ongoing evaluation and solicit feedback. Evaluation can determine if promised outcomes are being realized, ascertain if agencies and stakeholders are accountable for actions and to each other, and ensure transparency at all levels. Evaluation is best conducted by well-resourced nongovernmental and academic organizations empowered to participate in programs; integrate evaluation into policy design; and share lessons transparently with participants, regulators, and the public.
The next section of this report discusses capacity-building efforts at the federal government level, then introduces and evaluates an intentional effort to coordinate capacity building in rural communities through the Rural Partners Network.
Capacity building and place-based development in rural communities
Experts have established that building capacity is crucial for community development, especially in rural areas.12 Capacity is an umbrella term that captures various aspects of a community’s abilities, including but not limited to staff, expertise, funding, leadership, and networks.13 A rural community needs all of these elements to achieve locally defined economic development goals. State and federal governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have made various efforts to provide communities with these elements through capacity-building programs, including funding, staff, and training services for rural communities. To describe these efforts, the Aspen Institute has defined community capacity building as “the combined influence of a community’s commitment, resources, and skills that can be deployed to build on community strengths and address community problems and opportunities.”14
The most important aspect of capacity-building programs is that they are specific in describing the kind of capacity being delivered and to what end. In other words, capacity for what purpose? In place-based industrial policy, communities require capacity to achieve several goals, including the ability to define local goals, identify federal resources, and access and manage federal grants and loans. Since the IIJA and Inflation Reduction Act invest in rural communities by funding infrastructure developers through tax incentives, rural communities need additional capacity to meaningfully engage in project permitting, siting, and benefits negotiations to secure local benefits from private and public investments.
This additional capacity may include staff; technical assistance; training in federal grant writing; resources to allow participation, such as child care, food, and meeting spaces; expertise and resources to complete necessary plans and studies; and matching funds. In addition, it may include long-term capacity investments in a local NGO that can serve as a resource hub for the community and region, including the capacity to negotiate and enter into community benefits agreements, conduct monitoring, and engage in mediation and hold companies accountable when necessary.
CAP’s evaluation process for the Rural Partners Network
This report provides a preliminary and high-level program assessment of the Rural Partners Network.15 The first step in program assessment is to understand the goals and purpose of the program. This report will do so by understanding the program design and examining programs preceding RPN. The second step is to understand program implementation. The two relevant key implementation aspects are capacity building in community networks and coordination and collaboration among agencies. Principles of placed-based economic development practice and capacity building described in the previous section inform this report’s approach to evaluating the processes and goals of RPN. It is too early in RPN’s life to use quantitative or qualitative methods to assess program outcomes.
CAP reviewed RPN documents and interviewed policy experts in place-based economic development and capacity building to evaluate program implementation. CAP also conducted semistructured interviews with approximately 30 people among agency leadership and RPN staff (such as USDA Rural Development state directors and RPN community liaisons) in six states—Alaska, Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, West Virginia—and Puerto Rico. These interviews helped the authors understand the program design and the implementation procedure to identify strengths and barriers in the implementation process. Quotes in this report illustrate the themes that CAP heard from all community liaisons.
The USDA has established multiple systems to track RPN processes and actions such as a program tracker dashboard, signature project memos, and frequent RPN forums hosted in community networks. Despite having a robust assessment system, it is still too early to assess community outcomes since RPN was implemented only a year ago. Early successes described in this report are anecdotes used by community liaisons. They are included to deepen understanding of RPN program implementation and identify where challenges or barriers may still exist.
The rest of this report applies place-based economic development, capacity building, and coordination principles to evaluate RPN’s stated purpose, program design, and implementation to date.
Purpose and design of the Rural Partners Network
Past federal government efforts to deliver resources to rural communities through federal programs to boost rural economic development helped inform the design of RPN. In 1994, President Bill Clinton allocated funding and special tax incentives nationally to 135 empowerment zones and enterprise communities based on strategic community revitalization plans.16 This program is a foundation for later rural capacity-building and economic development programs, although it was not specifically targeted only to rural areas and still deployed free-market policy tools—such as tax incentives—to achieve stated goals. The programs also required communities to pass multiple rounds of criteria to qualify for funding, making access difficult for communities with limited capacity and historic mistrust of federal programs.
The Obama administration continued to advance rural capacity and development programs through USDA Rural Development’s StrikeForce Initiative for Rural Growth and Opportunity.17 StrikeForce 2013 was designed to identify communities with significant portions of their populations under the poverty line and collaborate with these communities to assist them in accessing USDA funding and assistance. With a relatively lenient eligibility criterion compared with empowerment zones and enterprise communities, the program quickly reached 970 counties in 25 states and Puerto Rico by January 2016, delivering resources to many communities. The program was limited to USDA programs and came to an operational halt in 2016.
The Biden-Harris administration has reemphasized this intentional effort to provide well-coordinated place-based investment in rural communities. To lay the groundwork for President Joe Biden and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s intention to do things differently in rural and underserved communities, USDA Rural Development staff, many of whom have rural development experience from previous administrations, commissioned a third-party assessment of RD efforts to give recommendations to the administration on how to design a program that demonstrates such efforts.18
The StrikeForce 2.0 initiative was launched within the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to coordinate and target assistance from NRCS to rural and underserved communities.19 StrikeForce 2.0 was later expanded into the Rural Partners Network initiative in April 2022.20 RPN came to life and is designed based on previous experience, recommendations from the RD evaluation, and robust, academically sound principles in capacity building.
The Rural Partners Network’s goal is to intentionally set up a framework for interagency coordination and to build capacity in rural places. Housed within USDA Rural Development, RPN solves for capacity and coordination by training and resourcing community liaisons who are placed in eligible community networks. While not being the first or the only federal capacity-building and coordination effort, RPN is an important model to learn how to facilitate an all-of-government approach to capacity building and rural development.
RPN has received continued support from the government to “build the ship as it sails.”21 In February 2023, the Biden-Harris administration announced $262 million in additional funding for the program, and in May 2023, USDA Rural Development announced a total of $394 million in additional funding for the program in fiscal year 2023.22
RPN is also embedded within the Federal Interagency Thriving Community Networks that includes other types of technical assistance, targeted funding, and resources across federal agencies. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation efforts to improve community engagement in designing and permitting highways, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Environmental Justice Technical Assistance Centers, and the Economic Development Administration’s Economic Fellows all fall under the Interagency Thriving Communities Network. The network is also a venue for partner agencies to share lessons, deepen collaboration, and align capacity-building and technical assistance programs delivered by different agencies in a particular community.
By design, RPN is set up to do deep work at the community level through the RPN liaisons and rural desk officers (RDOs) for each partner agency. (see Figure 1) The RPN national office at USDA Rural Development and the partner agencies coordinate at a higher level when additional alignment and resources might be needed. And at the highest level, RPN is set up to do broad work of policy formation by sharing lessons up to the Interagency Council for Rural Prosperity housed within the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. This section describes the design of RPN from the bottom up, which reflects how the program is intended to be implemented.
Identifying RPN community networks
The difference between RPN and other federal programs is that communities have no application process. Instead, RPN uses public qualitative data and quantitative assessments to identify a list of eligible counties; visit them; and select community networks based on local characteristics, needs, and self-identified geographies. RPN used several national indices of economic distress and vulnerability to find communities likely to need capacity and development assistance. They correlated these places with recent and current federal assistance to identify places in need that were not receiving federal assistance. They then visited those places and asked what their needs were, what barriers they had to accessing federal resources, and their readiness and willingness to participate in RPN. Community networks helped to define the geographies to include in the network based on existing relationships, economic ties, and shared goals.
RPN identifies community networks as collaborations among local leaders, residents, civic and business organizations, nonprofits, service providers, development agencies, and others representing the diversity of a region’s population and perspectives.23
Through this process, RPN identified two to three community networks in 11 states and territories. The first RPN cohort includes 14 community networks in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and New Mexico. In November 2022, the program extended to include an additional 22 RPN community networks in the second cohort, covering counties and Tribes in Alaska, Nevada, North Carolina, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Puerto Rico.24
Hiring community liaisons
Engagement with community networks starts with hiring and placing community liaisons on the ground under the supervision of USDA Rural Development state directors. USDA is unique among federal agencies because it has 4,000 staff placed in states and communities across the United States to deliver farm and small business loan support and other rural development assistance. The state director network provides the agency capacity and expertise to manage RPN community liaisons in community networks nationwide.
Making government more accessible
The key difference between RPN and other federal programs is that RPN liaisons reach out to communities instead of waiting for people to come to them. As put by the community liaisons, they have their “feet on the ground” to identify community needs25 and “go above and beyond the call of duty” to help people in rural areas.26
RPN strives to hire liaisons from the communities themselves, helping build trust, ensure cultural awareness, and leverage existing regional knowledge and relationships. For example, in Mississippi, all the community liaisons hired to date are from the Mississippi Delta region. They deeply understand the difficulties communities face in these areas, from lacking affordable housing to having no public transportation or basic broadband. These lived experiences greatly assist the liaisons in their community engagement process.
RPN liaisons may also come from other federal agencies or economic development backgrounds, bringing profound experience and extensive professional networks ready to help communities navigate the federal government systems. Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Mississippi, and North Carolina have community liaisons with long-term experiences in federal government, including from within the USDA. Liaisons also come from NGO, state, and local government, and some with U.S. military experience. In Alaska, hiring community liaisons with existing professional networks and a desire to work in rural and remote communities is central to their ability to work with Alaskan and Tribal communities with significant and unique challenges.27 Community liaisons are advocates for community members and help surface and resolve locally defined priorities that help achieve broadly shared community goals.28
Community liaisons hit the ground having already done homework to surface likely needs and follow a loosely structured process to identify community partners with whom to engage. This preengagement work includes a more detailed socioeconomic profile; reviewing of existing plans; and identifying local institutions providing services such as local governments, NGOs, or religious organizations.
Community liaisons analyze critical demographics of the community network, including geography and natural history, population dynamics, governance structure, infrastructure, environmental conditions, and key economic indices, including but not limited to gross domestic product and poverty.
In Alaska, a socioeconomic assessment was used to produce a travel preparation document with detailed descriptions of boroughs, unincorporated communities, and Tribes within the community network before liaisons traveled to meet with stakeholders. The document outlined the site visit agenda; provided a deep dive into demographic, economic, and land use conditions; and offered a cultural portfolio of the community to carefully prepare liaisons substantively and culturally for community engagement. In Alaska, RPN adapted the Federal Emergency Management Agency Interagency Recovery Coordination Team’s travel document process.
Assessment of existing plans
Community liaisons also identify existing community development plans. These plans include strategies for community development, disaster recovery plans, land use plans, and economic development plans, such as a community economic development strategy.29 As several community liaisons noted, the last thing a rural community needs is another plan. Rather, the challenge lies in moving from planning to action. Liaisons identify existing plans to surface local challenges, agreed upon development strategies, and readiness for federal resources.
In New Mexico, community liaisons attend community meetings and make presentations to introduce stakeholders to RPN, then engage with local stakeholders to surface local plans and projects eligible for federal assistance. By engaging with communities frequently, within their existing structure and on their terms, community liaisons in New Mexico have identified 48 working projects within three community networks. As part of the strategic plans, assessment community liaisons in Alaska, Arizona, and Mississippi work with USDA Rural Development state directors to access and understand community development plans and then identify existing federal funding that could be used to implement local projects. This practice by RPN is different from other federal programs because community liaisons are not in communities to help create strategic plans, nor is the existence of a strategic plan required for assistance from RPN. Instead, liaisons evaluate existing plans and help communities make them a reality in the most efficient way possible.
In all community networks, liaisons travel to the communities and connect in person with community members and host frequent virtual meetings to discuss project needs and introduce RPN. In Alaska, liaisons must book charter flights to get on the ground and meet with Tribal leadership. In Arizona, community outreach means frequently visiting the site as well as attending community and program meetings, then reaching out to individual members of communities in need and asking if they need help from RPN. In Mississippi, where certain parts of community networks do not have access to broadband or public transportation, making connections means liaisons must travel to sites in person.
Community liaisons have a loose framework for identifying initial governance stakeholders, entities providing services in the community, and community leaders and members to engage with. The approach to stakeholder analysis is the most diverse across different community networks in RPN states. In North Carolina, part of the stakeholder identification process was engagement through luncheons with other Tribes. In Alaska, liaisons schedule meetings with Tribal leadership and respect their cues to identify key stakeholders. In Arizona, liaisons participate in community meetings and then reach out to leaders of rural communities in need and share how RPN can help in connecting the dots with other federal partners for a wide variety of funding. RPN helps rural community leaders who wear multiple hats navigate the federal funding process and a creates a direct point of contact for rural community leaders who might not have the time to deal with the details of funding opportunities.
While the approach varies by state, some of the most important elements in engaging successfully with community stakeholders are building trust, listening to community members, and being patient and respectful. Successful engagement requires a particular set of skills from community liaisons—skills that are not easily learned or found—yet are seen across all RPN hires.
Despite the different approaches taken by community liaisons in other networks, the common point of these community needs assessments is to understand the critical factors regarding the community to prepare liaisons to visit the sites and meet with key stakeholders.
Signature projects and host entities
The preengagement assessments and community outreach result in several primary outcomes is for RPN community liaisons to successfully find a signature project in each community network and identify a host entity. This is where community liaisons have the most flexibility in their approach. They can tailor the kinds of projects to prioritize—known as signature projects— based on the types of needs surfaced and the characteristics of different communities and stakeholders. Indeed, finding a signature project varies from state to state. For instance, in West Virginia, the RPN supervisory liaison and Rural Development state director form a statewide signature project selection committee that includes USDA Rural Development staff, host entity organization representatives, delegated members from each community network, and at-large experts with no direct community relationships. This holistic approach in selecting signature projects in West Virginia demonstrates that these projects reflect community needs and guarantee communities have direct input in determining which projects receive funding and support.
Examples of RPN signature projects include disaster recovery home rebuilding and affordable housing in Puerto Rico30 and post-wildfire restoration work in New Mexico.31 Other signature projects include a solar energy generation and distribution project in the San Carlos Apache Tribe community network in Arizona,32 a workforce development center in Mississippi,33 the Pioneer trail-town project and a nonemergency medical transportation project in West Virginia designed to help rural and isolated people access medical services in regional medical centers,34 and the pathway to high-paying jobs project in New Mexico building a skilled workforce for the rural meat-packing industry funded through the U.S. Economic Development Administration.35
Community liaisons also identify a lead host entity that can serve the community network by applying for a managing federal grant, co-hosting community forums, and convening stakeholders. Host entities are diverse and include but are not limited to local government councils, academic institutions, religious and nonprofit organizations, economic development districts, and a public housing authority.
Signature project: A signature project is an identified key project in a community network that the community network wants the Rural Partners Network to support.36
Host entity: A host entity is an organization based in the local community that serves the entire network and is the primary contact point for community liaisons in projects in the community networks.37
Community network forums: Community network forums are frequent events that RPN community liaisons host to bring in community members, introduce RPN, discuss available programs that communities are eligible for, and listen to community needs.
Matchmaking: Connecting community networks with partner agencies
At the end of the day, RPN’s core function and power derive from connecting community networks to staff and resources available from RPN’s 20 partner agencies. Effectively, the community liaison’s role is to match community networks with rural desk officers at federal agencies with information, technical assistance resources, and funding to meet the community’s needs. The RPN national office provides a contact list, contact forms, and formatted emails that community liaisons can use to communicate with RDOs. On their side, RDOs are trained in RPN’s process and goals and are authorized to work directly with community liaisons and host entities in community networks. Each RDO’s role is to connect community networks with relevant departments and resources within their respective agency. RPN community liaisons facilitate the engagement between the RDO and community members and can follow up on the connection to ensure project success, if necessary, effectively adding staff capacity to community networks to ensure tasks get done between meetings and communities are better able to access federal resources. The relationships are formalized for signature projects: Each signature project is assigned an RDO.
How matches are made
Each partner agency—such as the departments of Transportation, Energy, and Commerce, as well as the EPA—has a rural desk officer in each state where RPN is supporting one or more community networks. RDOs are trained to understand how RPN operates, and RDOs serve as points of contact for RPN liaisons to match community networks with information and resources within relevant federal agencies and programs.
Once community networks and RDO connections are established, liaisons have autonomy to work on projects that the community identifies. Some RDOs continue silently tracking engagements and partnerships between community project leaders and partner agencies. Others must facilitate continuous meetings between local nonprofit organizations, community members, and federal agencies. The level of engagement depends on the community’s ability to leverage the connections made by RPN into actual benefits.
For instance, in Mississippi, after connecting community members and their project needs to federal agencies, RPN liaisons also joined community partners with local and regional nonprofits that have additional capacity support and technical assistance resources. NGO partners included Communities Unlimited, the Mississippi Rural Association, and Rural LISC. Here is where flexibility and autonomy are given to community liaisons to “make the match” between communities and federal agencies, or between communities and supporting nongovernmental organizations. But unlike the average matchmaker, RPN’s job is not one-and-done; liaisons stay on the ground day-in and day-out to continue coordinating and facilitating such connections until community needs are met.
Another core RPN function is hosting community network forums to continue expanding the network, deepen relationships, raise program awareness among community members, and address needs outside the signature project. At community forums, RPN often collaborates directly with RDOs to have staff on hand to help community members identify federal funding opportunities and fill out applications. Direct access to information, technical assistance, and federal staff capacity is a clear example of how RPN is designed to meet communities where they are, build their capacity to understand and access federal resources, and coordinate across agencies to deliver appropriate assistance.
It is worth noting that RPN seeks to build capacity for communities to later stand on their own. RPN liaisons help communities search for eligible programs and direct them to such resources. Liaisons do not do the work for the communities, but they provide capacity in the form of connections at the local, regional, and federal levels, which potentially lead to additional technical assistance and funding for local projects.
Reporting and policy formation
The Rural Partners Network’s national office has two main functions: conduct high-level interagency coordination and synthesize the information the community liaisons provide into lessons learned. If the community liaisons do the deep work of engaging with communities, the RPN national office conducts the broad work of engaging with other agencies, ensuring they know and support RPN, and build relationships with agencies to assist community liaisons on the ground.
The RPN national office collects and reports information on RPN’s activities to partner agencies and the Interagency Policy Council on Rural Prosperity and has designed a program tracker for that purpose. The tracker compiles information on signature projects, community network forum outcomes, and the relationships and contacts established in each community network and between community networks and RDOs. This demonstrates a significant effort from the RPN team to both show rigor in program design and facilitate program assessment.
The definition of success for RPN is different than that of other federally funded programs. Beyond targeting to support a set number of projects or measuring the amount of money each community network receives, success for RPN means communities have the expertise and capacity to tap federal funding. It also means communities have long-term relationships with local and federal partners that outlast RPN. Most importantly, RPN is only successful if communities’ needs are met and the federal government hears their requests.
At the federal level, the Interagency Policy Council for Rural Prosperity, which is made up of RPN partner agencies, shares lessons learned from community liaisons about rural community needs and challenges. In return, partner agencies provide information about resources and funding that could align with RPN projects. Most importantly, these discussions lead to potential policymaking and administrative process reforms that can benefit all rural communities and not just those in the network.
No example policy results currently exist from the work of the Interagency Policy Council for Rural Prosperity. Moreover, the federal government has yet to develop a coherent rural policy strategy for all rural communities in the United States. This is largely because no one has identified a “North Star” idea that would speak to all rural communities at once. The deep work done by community liaisons and Rural Development state directors could help surface what U.S. rural policies should be designed to accomplish and assist agencies and Congress in articulating a coherent rural strategy for rural communities throughout the country.
Finally, the Rural Development title under the 2023 reauthorized farm bill or modernization and of the authorizing legislation would be an opportunity for the Interagency Council for Rural Prosperity to turn policy ideas based on lessons learned from the ground into a reality.38 These RPN lessons learned could also assist the efforts to coordinate titles under the new farm bill to provide new institutions and capacity for coordination at the federal level.
Assessing the design and implementation of RPN reveals essential lessons about the intentional efforts made by the Biden-Harris administration to ensure federal investments are reaching rural and historically underserved communities, resulting in tangible benefits to communities when they arrive. Core design principles include deeper and more meaningful relationships between federal agencies and community networks, allowing communities to surface and articulate their needs, and matching local projects to the right agencies and programs.
Currently, RPN remains a pilot program that is only present in two to three community networks in 11 states and territories. It goes without saying that many more rural communities would benefit from RPN’s work. As the Biden-Harris administration continues to deliver on its new place-based industrial strategy, expanding and bolstering efforts to build capacity in rural communities and better coordinate federal resources will be central to successful outcomes for communities where assistance is needed most and where aid will have the best outcomes locally and for the nation as a whole.