WASHINGTON -- "I'm from the federal government, and I'm here to help you."
The line regularly generates laughs. And when the agency making the offer is the beleaguered, bureaucratized, historically scandal-prone Department of Housing and Urban Development, you have to wonder: Who'll listen?
Well, 900 governments to start with. For the heady sum of $125, HUD is offering the cities, counties and states it does business with a software and CD-ROM package that produces an extraordinarily sophisticated, detailed, geographic database, keyed to highly localized Census data.
In place of dozens of applications for various HUD programs, forms that mean thousands of pages each year, each jurisdiction is being invited to develop one comprehensive plan, key in its project locations and descriptions, and submit the software file as its combined yearly funding application -- and later as an updated report on spending.
For the nation's dozen empowerment zone (EZ) communities, the database is now incorporating not only HUD activities but also projects assisted by some other federal departments.
The man at the center of all this is Andrew Cuomo, the son of former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a veteran of building homeless-shelters in New York City, and now assistant secretary for community planning and development under Henry Cisneros, HUD secretary.
Virtually unnoticed by the national press, Mr. Cuomo's office pioneered the computer mapping system after consulting with local governments, low-income groups, builders, architects, planners and federal and state agencies.
For about a year now, HUD grantees have been getting system training. And the department has decided to go further -- to offer the software and database to anyone who requests them, beginning with universities, libraries, nonprofits and neighborhood groups across the country.
For years, says Mr. Cuomo, the federal government has required citizen participation. But how many citizens get to the dreary meetings? How many can penetrate the volumes of applications and data technically open to inspection?
"The citizens took a walk on us a long while ago. We want them back," says Mr. Cuomo. Thus HUD decided that the $125 consolidated software package, with data for any locality, will be there for all takers. All one needs to view it is a model 286 PC, or if you'd like to manipulate the data, a 486 or more advanced PC with a color monitor, a modem, Windows and basic communications software.
Or to sample the system, just access the Internet at http://www.hud.gov, or get information and technical assistance by calling (800) 998-9999.
A good chunk of the system is still a work in progress. Not all of HUD's 900 grantees have their comprehensive plans on computer yet. Only selected city data are on the Internet so far. And only the empowerment zones show all federal department projects in addition to HUD's.
A 'national database'
But the basic platform HUD has built -- Mr. Cuomo likes to call it "a national database of community development" -- can only grow in breadth and versatility.
Already, the mapping permits one to zoom in on specific blocks or neighborhoods, or expand the screen to view an entire metro region. The user picks his or her own colored overlays to show varieties of 1990 Census track information, ethnic concentrations, levels of employment, city points of interest and landmarks, and the specific street addresses of government-assisted projects (each with a full back-up description a click away).
So anyone can see in City X, here's where most poor people live, here are the biggest pockets of blacks or Hispanics, here's high joblessness, here's subsidized or public housing. And then logical questions can be posed -- "How is it community development money is going heavily into middle-class areas and missing certain very low-income ones that may need it more? Why aren't duplicate government-backed clinics or job centers, all within a few blocks, merged to save money or reach more people?"
Also, the user can add on private, foundation-supported projects, clinics, libraries, community college branches -- indeed any information a user finds useful.
The new software required an initial learning curve, says Steve James of Baltimore's Housing and Community Development Department. But once the staff got used to it, "they thought it was pretty cool."
Now nonprofits such as Baltimore's Housing Roundtable are utilizing the data, and private banks want to know about it.
Yet some congressional Republicans have their long knives out for the department. The ultimate irony is that HUD may be a model of 21st-century thinking -- even as others plan its burial.
Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist.