Aligning federal agencies for regional innovation clusters

I separately interviewed Karen Mills, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and Ginger Lew, senior adviser to the White House National Economic Council and to the SBA administrator, on the topic of regional innovation clusters and their past, present and future. When I inquired about the unprecedented cross-agency alignment in relation to her co-authored Brookings report, Mills credited Lew for her work in making that happen. Lew also co-chairs the White House Interagency Group on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. What follows is a co-mingled distillation of both perspectives:Q: Since authoring the Brookings report on the federal government’s role in cluster development in 2008, what’s been your experience of the process and progress?Karen Mills: When I came on board in the agency, I had written the paper for Brookings and had some hope of beginning to bring that perspective to the work we were doing.I was very, very pleased by the energy and attention throughout the White House, in both the National Economic Council and the Domestic Policy Council, and in other agencies in joining together in this cluster effort.We feel quite good about the progress that we’ve made and we have implemented a program for the SBA, which does rely on some of the foundational work that we did for that Brookings paper.In addition, we’ve accomplished things that provide us more information about clusters — a cluster registry — which we referred to in the paper.And we’ve put together the Taskforce for Regional Innovation Clusters — an initiative to drive interagency process around clusters and one for which I credit Ginger Lew.Q: Can you describe your experience in leading the TARIC initiative?Ginger Lew: The challenge I faced was how to operationalize a policy into practice, which really requires breaking down silos in agencies and programs — not easy. Getting a “coalition of the willing” to move forward on our focus on innovation development as a key to stronger regional economies was one key step.Our first multi-agency initiative was the Energy Efficiency Regional Innovation Cluster program. Our largest initiative in 2010 was led by Department of Energy with Department of Commerce, SBA, Department of Labor and Department of Energy.Following EERIC, we launched several other initiatives including the i6 Challenge from the EDA, the USDA’s Great Regions, the Department of Energy’s Innovation Ecosystem initiative and the SBA’s Regional Clusters program. Each time we’ve developed a clusters initiative, we’ve learned, iterated and improved our process.Our most recent initiatives include the EDA’s $12 million i6 Green and its $33 million Jobs and Innovation Acceleration Challenge, with 16 agencies participating, of which three are funding and 13 supporting.Q: What are some of the challenges that lie ahead in the realm of clusters?KM: What we need now is to make sure that we have a sustainable structure for implementing and funding cluster activity. Until now, funding has been done in traditional program categories or programs that have historical activity.We need to find ways — and there aren’t many — to do interagency funding.Clusters give a very good bang for the taxpayer buck. A small amount of money galvanizing a bottoms-up activity in clusters tends to lead to very vibrant regional economic development activity.Q: What are some of the challenges and opportunities you see in your work in aligning agencies for cluster development?GL: The more we can institutionalize this new behavior pattern of collaboration, the less “siloed” our activities and the greater the efficiency and effectiveness of government in supporting regional innovation-based economic development.This initiative has strong bipartisan support. Congress passed America Competes Act in January 2011 during a time of tremendous political contention. COMPETES prioritizes regional innovation cluster development and enables any agency to hold competitions to spur innovation.Michael Gurau, president of Maine-based Clear Innovation Partners, can be reached at