City Journal

Stephen Berger
Breaking the Governmental Habit
Proposals for the Mayor
Winter 1993

New York City government no longer works because it tries to do too much. Dysfunctional work rules and a top-heavy bureaucracy paralyze the agencies that provide municipal services. Herewith some suggestions to the mayor for making the city work again.

When New Yorkers choose a mayor next November, they will be choosing someone to lead the largest and most complex municipal government in the United States. The mayor they elect will, like his predecessors, be the nation’s most visible local government official, a leading figure in the national debate about urban problems. Both in the United States and abroad, he will be one of America’s best-known elected officials outside the White House.

Yet for all of the publicity and prestige that come with the job, for the past quarter-century New York City’s mayors have been at best marginally effective in performing it. John Lindsay set laudable goals, but was rarely able to achieve them. Abe Beame was overwhelmed by the fiscal crisis. Ed Koch came on the scene with a welcome burst of energy, but eventually became a parody of himself, more TV performer than tough executive. David Dinkins is a decent man with honorable intentions, but he has reacted to events much more often than he has shaped them, and his administration is often in disarray. It is no accident that these men—the patrician reformer, the colorless bookkeeper, the feisty extrovert, and the quiet but determined defender of the poor—seem more memorable for their personalities than for their accomplishments. More than 25 years have passed since New York last had a mayor—Robert Wagner—remembered more for his record than his public persona.

Defenders of the last few residents of Gracie Mansion may well argue that such criticisms are unfair, especially in the cold light of history. Even the greatest of the city’s mayors, they point out, were effective only some of the time; and we forget too easily the mediocrity and venality that separated their tenures.

Yet it seems hard to shake the sense that things are different now, and not for the better. We expect the mayor to manage a vast municipal enterprise, but more often than not the city’s bureaucracies appear beyond his control. We expect the mayor to take the lead in responding to an endless array of social and economic problems, but the city’s efforts seem notable mostly for their high costs and meager results. We want the mayor to help bring us together, yet the city has rarely seemed so divided, or the level of popular disaffection so high.

The explanation for the dilemma is not hard to find. The mayoralty no longer works because it is the beleaguered center of a political and governmental system that no longer works. The city as it is now constituted is failing, first, because it has taken on a range of responsibilities that it has neither the resources nor the competence to discharge effectively; second, because it operates under formal and informal rules that are archaic and dysfunctional; and third, because it has allowed its citizens’ sense that they are part of a single political community to fray to the point of unraveling. Perhaps the single greatest obstacle New Yorkers face as they strive to affirm the city’s position in a rapidly integrating global economy and achieve some measure of social justice is the institutionalized ineptitude of their own government.

How are New Yorkers to overcome that obstacle? Ironically, their best hope for doing so lies in the very office that now epitomizes the failures of the existing regime. With the power to act dispersed among so many conflicting interests, only the mayor can initiate the sweeping changes in government and politics that New York needs. Only he can effectively call “time out” and demand that the rules of the game be changed—and only by doing so can he escape from a game he is now doomed to lose. If he is to establish clearly his claim to a second term, David Dinkins will have to begin during the next year to create a framework in which city government can be made to work again. He will have to deal with two fundamental questions: First, what do we want city government to be responsible for—and what should be the limits of that responsibility? Second, under what kinds of rules do we want city government to operate?

The Functions of City Government
The most important prerequisite of effective mayoral leadership would be the establishment of a new consensus about the scope of city government. Without such a consensus, the mayor will face perpetually recurring fiscal crises and deteriorating services, and will be unable to focus his attention on what is really important.

The question of municipal government’s proper scope has a different dimension in New York than in virtually any other city. New York’s elected officials, entrenched bureaucracies, organized interests, and media all share the illusion that city government wields great power to remedy all kinds of social and economic ills—much greater power than it actually has or ever could have.

In New York’s political culture, it is difficult for city leaders to treat any problem as being outside the scope of the city government. City Hall is expected to build subsidized housing for the poor and regulate rents for the middle class; provide free medical care to those who lack insurance and halt the spread of tuberculosis; provide huge subsidies to commercial real estate developers and capitalize small businesses that cannot get bank loans. City hall has its own foreign policy, concerned especially with the struggles against racism in South Africa and British oppression in Northern Ireland. The city even has its own radio and television stations, and its own chain of betting parlors.

In most of the United States, to assert that local government by nature has strictly limited functions—that not every serious problem can be solved by the local government—is simply to state the obvious. In New York, it is to risk being branded a hopeless reactionary.

Neither in the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s nor in that of the past few years have the city’s mayors been willing to distinguish essential functions—those to which the city must be committed even in hard times—from those that are expendable, or, while important, must be left to someone else to handle. Instead, when forced to do so by recession, mayors have usually cut spending across the board without reducing the scope of city functions. When the economy recovers, they restore what was cut and take on new responsibilities as well. Thus, between 1983 and 1989 the Koch administration added fifty thousand employees to the city’s payroll and launched major new programs to shelter the homeless, build subsidized housing, and combat AIDS. The Dinkins administration has followed the same pattern, defining its budgetary problems almost entirely in terms of employee head counts, allowable salary increases, and the need for new taxes. It has spurned any suggestions of serious reductions in the scope of city government activities.

This approach produces a government that has a remarkably wide range of functions, but performs none of them particularly well—and that will never be able to maintain a stable financial balance.

The current painful restructuring of New York’s economy only serves to sharpen the conflict between the city’s boundless ambitions and its limited resources. Since 1989 New York City has lost some 350,000 jobs. The recovery, when it arrives, is likely to be sluggish. It is unlikely that the mayor will enjoy anything like the boom that allowed the Koch administration to keep feeding the municipal spending machine anytime in the foreseeable future. This reality seems to be widely recognized by nearly everyone except city hall.

The inability to define the city government’s limits also leads to chronic confusion about what the state government should be doing, undermining the city’s ability to pressure the state to fulfill its responsibilities.

In the late 1960s, for example, city officials often criticized the State Employment Service for what they saw as unresponsiveness to the needs of the city’s low-income minority communities. But rather than working with the state to make the program more effective, the city created its own network of employment centers. This not only led to a costly duplication of services, but also, in effect, let the Employment Service off the hook. (Years later the State Labor Department did much to improve its efforts in the city, but by then the duplication of services was well ingrained.)

The same pattern prevails in other areas as well. The city’s Department of Mental Health, for example, provides only a limited range of services. But its very existence helps New York State to rationalize its chronic underinvestment in community services and overinvestment in the maintenance of large psychiatric institutions. As Heather Mac Donald writes elsewhere in this journal, the fragmentation of official responsibility, combined with other factors, makes it very difficult for the mentally ill to get effective treatment. Rather than trying to run a parallel system, the mayor should tell Albany, “Caring for the mentally disabled has been your responsibility since the nineteenth century—so do it.”

Similarly, division of responsibility between the city’s Economic Development Corporation and the state’s Urban Development Corporation sometimes seriously complicates the planning and execution of major projects. Divided responsibility also makes it more difficult to hold any single person or agency accountable for the effects of regulatory excesses in areas like rent control and the regulation of private bus lines.

In addition to blurring state responsibilities, the illusion that government can do everything blinds the city’s leaders to alternate means of achieving important public objectives. Mayor Dinkins, for example, deserves credit for his determination to reduce poor New Yorkers’ dependence on hospital emergency rooms for routine medical care. But is establishing a new network of city-operated primary care centers really the best solution? It might have made more sense for the city to work with state officials to create new incentives for private and nonprofit health-care institutions to provide these services.

The overextension of city government also tends to reinforce a long-standing pattern of inadequate investment in the city’s infrastructure. Because New York’s mayors have been unwilling to set overall priorities, they have never been able to define a coherent strategy for public investment. In good times, the city’s capital plan becomes a compilation of agency wish lists; in bad times, it’s an inviting target for budget cutters. This pattern assures that important projects will be delayed or neglected and that the cost of what does get built will be inflated.

The next mayor needs to take the lead in forging a new, more narrowly focused definition of the scope of city government. Protecting public safety, maintaining New York’s infrastructure, and educating the city’s children should remain at the heart of that definition; other goals should be open to discussion.

Given the wide range of constituencies with a vested interest in various municipal functions, it will not be easy to reach a consensus on this question, let alone enforce it. But no one other than the mayor is even in a position to try. Moreover, the mayor has at his disposal a uniquely powerful instrument—the city’s executive budget process. The budget can refashion city government in a new image: the image of a government that attempts to do fewer things, but does them well.

In 1993 New Yorkers should ask David Dinkins, as well as those who would replace him, to name the four or five things they think it most important for city government to do-and four or five major functions they would eliminate. Any candidate who cannot cogently address both sides of the question does not deserve their vote. (My own list of businesses the city should get out of would include hospitals, mental health and drug treatment services, off-track betting, operation of port facilities, most of the activities of the Department of Consumer Affairs, and subsidization of commercial real estate development.)

Changing the Rules
City officials love to talk about “restructuring” the government but rarely seem prepared to do it. Yet the city, like many other large organizations of the Industrial Age, needs to overhaul the ways in which it does business. The mayor must take the lead in initiating and directing that process.

New York City’s government is in many respects the public-sector equivalent of General Motors: a large, highly bureaucratized, top-down organization that long enjoyed a reputation for being the biggest and one of the best at what it did, but which paid only passing attention to its customers, let its own institutional needs rather than customers’ drive the design and delivery of services, treated even its most professional employees like cogs in an industrial machine, and didn’t worry very much about its costs. just as GM has lagged behind many other large companies in rethinking the way it works, so New York City is no longer a leader in the art of municipal government. It is still by far the nation’s biggest local government, but there are few areas in which it can plausibly claim to be the best.

Though the aspects of city government needing an overhaul are too numerous to describe here in detail, two broad topics urgently require the mayor’s attention: labor management relations and the concentration of decision-making power in city hall.

In many large private-sector companies, labor-management relations have changed significantly in recent years. Managers have come to value the intelligence and experience of front-line workers, give them greater responsibility, and encourage them to initiate change. Labor leaders have recognized the need to cooperate with management, satisfy customers, and stay competitive. In city government, however, the prevailing view of labor-management relations—perhaps not rhetorically, but in reality—is still stuck in the first two decades of this century.

The Civil Service system long ago sacrificed both managerial efficiency and employee equity in the name of protecting us from political party machines that have been dead for at least a generation. Civil Service not only accepts mediocrity but virtually enforces it as a standard. It tolerates incompetence and discourages those who want to strive for excellence. In such a mind-numbing environment, it is not surprising that the goals of municipal employee unions are so similar to those of the industrial unions of a generation ago: Make sure our people are well paid, make sure they are not treated unfairly, and tie management down with as many work-rule restrictions as possible. The system does not care about the quality of the product, union leaders reason, so why should we?

In the long run, the success of reform will depend greatly on the city’s ability to reward both managers and front-line workers who perform effectively—and, to a lesser extent, on its ability to penalize those whose performance is unacceptable. As long as the system is driven by standardized pay scales and test scores, compensating and promoting people based on performance will be difficult.

The concept of “school-based management,” for example, has been widely hailed as offering real potential for improving public education. But truly allowing principals to manage, and holding them accountable for their performance, would require both that principals be given more authority and that they be made more accountable. Principals need greater control over hiring, which would require the elimination of teachers’ system-wide seniority rights. Principals, rather than custodians, should have control of school buildings. But at the same time, if principals are truly to manage their schools they must be judged solely on the basis of individual performance, and that requires eliminating both collective bargaining and tenure (though principals could maintain tenure as teachers).

There are islands of excellence throughout New York-the Board of Education’s alternative high schools program, for example—that show how innovative and effective city employees can be when given both the freedom and the responsibility to find better ways to deliver services. But in all too many areas, archaic Civil Service rules, inflexible contract provisions, and adversarial labor relations almost guarantee that the city will not be able to fully use the talents of its workers.

Mayor Dinkins has taken some steps toward eliminating archaic work rules in a number of city departments. But painfully negotiating individual work-rule changes within the existing collective bargaining framework is not enough. The mayor has to take the lead and work with top leaders of the municipal employee unions to change the culture of labor-management relations. Many people throughout city government—from commissioners to those who deliver service at street level—will have to be involved in the process. It will not happen at all, however, without the mayor’s leadership.

A related problem is the excessive centralization of authority. Recent mayors have sought to solve all kinds of managerial and political problems by concentrating power in the executive office. Top-level managers throughout city government are consequently forced to clear all kinds of decisions, both momentous and mundane, through city hall.

Since the Koch era, the concentration of authority has been accompanied by a proliferation of mayoral staff offices. Mayor Dinkins’s creation of the new position of deputy mayor for health and human services, for example, added another layer to a mayoral oversight bureaucracy that already includes an Office of Operations and an Office of Children and Families, as well as the Office of Management and Budget. An earlier generation of American reformers believed that the best cure for the problems of democracy was more democracy. Today, New York’s mayors seem to believe that the best cure for the problems of bureaucracy is more bureaucracy.

Large, complex enterprises cannot be managed effectively in this top-down, hierarchical fashion—a lesson that companies like General Electric and IBM have learned, but one that seems to have escaped city hall so far. The mayor has to stop seeing himself as a one-man band, and more like the conductor of a symphony orchestra. His job is not to play all the instruments, but to bring out the best in the professionals he has assembled and to make sure they play in harmony.

In a government of strong commissioners and well-managed agencies, the mayor would not need the army of apparatchiks or the posse of deputy mayors that now surround him. To end the crippling overcentralization of city government, he should sharply reduce his own staff in and around city hall, appoint commissioners in whom he has confidence, give them the authority they need to do their jobs, and hold them accountable for their performance. He should also make clear that he expects them to run their agencies the same way.

Ironically, David Dinkins may by temperament be better suited to the role of chief-executive-as-orchestra-leader than any mayor since Robert Wagner. Dinkins is not by nature a politician who needs to monopolize the spotlight. Yet he has, to a great extent, remained the prisoner of executive institutions created by predecessors who defined the mayoralty as a solo act. Dinkins would be better served by a set of institutions built more in his own image.

The mayor must act as a consensus- builder in relations with other parts of the government as well. For example, as a result of changes in the City Charter as well as the effective leadership of Speaker Peter Vallone, the City Council is becoming a more effective legislative body, one with which the mayor will have to share both the responsibilities of leadership and the political spotlight. The contrast between the conflict-ridden 1991 city budget process and the much more smoothly managed 1992 edition suggests that Mayor Dinkins has already learned this lesson well.

Mayors also need to learn that they cannot be effective as solo performers in making the city’s case to Albany. Despite the publicity that surrounds mayoral pilgrimages to the state capital, the harsh truth is that for the past three decades no mayor has been an effective advocate for the city’s interests there. And the mayor will continue to be ineffective until he begins to organize and orchestrate much broader coalitions of those who share the city’s interests—including local leaders from other parts of the state.

There are sometimes real differences, of course, between the interests of New York City and those of the suburbs and upstate areas. But localities throughout the state also have many common interests: reducing and ultimately eliminating local contributions to the state’s Medicaid program; relaxing state mandates in areas like special education; and increasing state support for community colleges, for example. That little progress has been made in these areas reflects the chronic paralysis of Albany’s divided government. But it also reflects New York City’s failure to build the political alliances needed to overcome that paralysis.

Of course, working sessions with upstate mayors or county executives lack the glamour of photo opportunities with chiefs of state; “Excuse me—I have a call from Nelson Mandela” sounds a lot more impressive than “Excuse me, but I have a call from Andy O’Rourke.” But mayors are not elected to be junior secretaries of state. They need to pay more attention to Buffalo and Binghamton than to Belfast.

Decentralization is also necessary to make the city government more directly responsive to its people. Dissatisfaction with, if not downright hostility toward, New York’s government is widespread. This dissatisfaction is most acute on Staten Island, where a recent poll found that 75 percent of residents would favor secession even if it required a 25 percent increase in their property taxes.

Staten Island’s longstanding sense of alienation from the rest of the city makes it an extreme case, but the anger behind the demand for secession is by no means unique to Staten Island. It is manifested as well in neighborhood resistance to waste disposal facilities, shelters for the homeless, and other projects perceived as being imposed from outside the community. One advantage of old-style political machines was that they provided links between city hall and the neighborhoods, a means to develop a citywide consensus, and the discipline to enforce it. In a word, they helped endow city decisions with legitimacy—a quality that many New Yorkers no longer recognize in city hall.

Since no institution has filled the void created by the demise of the old party machines, the next mayor should pursue another route to reestablishing legitimacy: a redistribution of functions between city hall and local communities. Faced with a seemingly insoluble stalemate on the issue of solid-waste disposal, for example, the mayor might try requiring every community district to come up with its own plan for managing its garbage. Bringing a wider range of neighborhood interests into the process, within the confines of a much smaller area, should eventually lead to more realistic judgments about the need to pursue all three methods of disposal—recycling, incineration, and continued use of landfills—simultaneously.

Once this need was recognized, districts could begin negotiating deals among themselves. One Bronx district, for example, might build an incinerator that serves three others, each of which builds a recycling center. Under this scenario, the Sanitation Department would be converted from a hierarchically driven public bureaucracy into a provider of planning support to the districts, as well as a vendor that contracts with individual districts to carry out their plans—and perhaps even competes with private vendors for such contracts.

As long as it remains a highly centralized, highly bureaucratized city-state, New York City will have great difficulty winning back the confidence of its citizens. Redefining the city as a federation of communities may actually be the most effective way to keep it together. In the absence of such a move, New Yorkers will choose to secede—if not legally, then psychologically. And in the long run, the latter form of withdrawal may prove the greater threat.

Conclusion
None of this is to suggest that there is no role for an activist city government. New York City needs a great commitment of energy and resources to narrow the divisions between blacks and whites, rich and poor, old and new immigrants. This may seem inconsistent with the goal of a city government limited in scope. But it is not, for those most in need would be far better served by a government able to decide what is really important than by a government that pretends it can do everything. The city’s pressing problems demand that the mayor present a clear vision of the city, define priorities that reflect it, and make hard budgetary and political choices accordingly.

That may sound like an elementary definition of the mayor’s job, but it is one that no recent incumbent has been willing to embrace. In 1993, New Yorkers should measure both Mayor Dinkins and his challengers by their readiness to take on this task.

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