City Journal

Edward N. Costikyan
Cutting City Government Down to Size
Decentralization: Its Time Has Come
Winter 1994

Twenty-five years ago, Edward N. Costikyan, then a leader of the Democratic Party in Manhattan, recognized that New York’s highly centralized municipal government was inadequately serving the city’s residents. His solution, outlined in an important magazine article, was decentralization. Today, with Staten Island moving toward secession and New Yorkers in all five boroughs dissatisfied with their city government, the ideas Costikyan set forth a quarter-century ago seem just as fresh. The facing page shows how Costikyan’s article was originally presented in the October 20, 1969 issue of New York magazine. We reprint the article here, with an afterword by Costikyan bringing his proposals up to date.

To get action on a leaky roof or a littered street, we have to slog through an administrative swamp. But there’s a way out.

If New York City is to be capable of running itself, it needs a new city charter. It cannot be governed under its present charter, which is the product of outmoded concepts and unworkable theory, no longer capable of providing adequate government. In fact, because the city is ungovernable under the present division of functions and allocations of powers mandated by the charter, it makes relatively little difference who is elected mayor this year.

The Lindsay administration has not markedly changed the course of city government set in Mayor Wagner’s last year-and-a-half. The long-range trends—deteriorating safety, sanitation, education, and hospital establishments; growing welfare rolls and costs; a deteriorating supply of housing; an ever-increasing budget (at the rate of 13 to 15 percent per year both before and after the advent of Lindsay); an ever-increasing bureaucracy (sixty thousand jobs in the last three years)—continued without perceptible change. And so they will under the next mayor, whoever he is. For all of these aspects of city government are the result of our charter, which commands the city to be governed from the pinnacle of a centralized mayor’s office by a mayor who lacks political power over the growing massive bureaucracies into whose hands management of all governmental functions has been delivered. Governing the city from the eminence of the mayor’s office is like trying to swat a fly with a twenty-foot swatter.

The new charter which can make the city governable must do the following:

(1) Reallocate the functions of the present bureaucracies and governmental agencies to new and different bureaucracies and governmental agencies.

(2) Decentralize those functions of government suitable for decentralization to the smallest governmental unit capable of efficient administrative control.

(3) Retain only those functions for citywide administration which are best administered centrally and divest the central administration of the remaining functions.

(4) Create a governmental mechanism—as distinguished from the quasi-governmental aspect of the old machine—to give citizens access to government services and a voice in the decisions which affect them, enabling them to forgo the demonstration or small riot that is apparently the only way citizens can be heard on such government decisions today.

The conditions which have created the need for a new charter have become increasingly clear over the past four years. Today the suggestion that the administration of city services be decentralized is old hat. But so far, decentralization has been no more than a political slogan, a theory, a panacea. It has at times been accorded a mystical, a moral, quality. Decisions, we are told will have more “legitimacy” when made on a decentralized basis. This is nonsense. The reasons for decentralization are pragmatic, not philosophical.

The need to decentralize is the result of the destruction of the political machine and the need to fill the vacuum created by that destruction. Three generations ago New Yorkers had an intimate relationship with city government and substantial power in dealings with it. On each citizen’s block there was a Democratic captain—a long-term resident, known and accessible to all. The captain was the agent of the machine, and the machine had substantial resources. It functioned as a welfare agency—coal in cold weather, food in hunger, money in emergencies, lawyers in trouble, were the machine’s stock in trade. But equally important was the machine’s access to government—what I have called its power of lateral invasion into the bureaucracy.

Was there a hole in your ceiling? You saw your neighbor the captain, who took you to the leader, who called the Housing Department and spoke to one of “his” people about getting an inspector up there pronto.

Was there a problem about a license? You saw your neighbor the captain and then the leader, who spoke to the man or woman he had placed in licenses.

Was there a problem about a dirty street? You called your neighbor the captain and then the leader, who brought the problem to one of his people in sanitation.

“Who do we know in the department?” was a familiar question, regularly posed as the problem moved up the party’s hierarchy. If the captain knew no one, perhaps the district leader did. If the district leader didn’t, surely the county leader did.

The theorist sees in this quasi-governmental structure tremendous potential for graft and corruption. Undoubtedly the potential was there. Undoubtedly the potential was, in many cases—too many cases—realized. The theorists, seeing the potential realized, set out to demolish the structure, and they did. Its destruction, however, also destroyed an important arm of government and left a governmental vacuum.

The party’s most important contribution to the governmental process was the access to government services which it gave to every citizen. The rich, who did not need such access, because they did not need the government services, tended to regard this access as evidence of corruption of the governmental process. But the poor who needed the government services saw the help of the neighborhood captain—and the lateral invasion of the government which he could command—as a blessing.

With the destruction of the machine, the citizen’s personal access to government has been destroyed. Suppose, for example, the plaster in a tenant’s bathroom has a gaping hole. The tenant tells the super (five times). Each time, the super promises to advise the landlord. Perhaps he does. The landlord does nothing. So, finally, the tenant calls city hall, which (hopefully) gives him another number to call. The functionary answering the second call takes down the data. It goes on a form. The form goes to another functionary. Perhaps it is fed into a computer. It comes out. The information is passed on from desk to desk, up the hierarchy of telephone answerers, down the hierarchy of inspectors. To try to locate it on this or that desk during the process is impossible.

Ultimately, if the complaint is in fact correctly recorded and passed along at maximum speed, four, five, six, or more weeks later an inspector is assigned to take a look. There is, indeed, a gaping hole in the ceiling. A form is filled out. Back it goes to the downtown headquarters from which the inspector was dispatched. The form is read, approved, noted, translated into a violation, moved from desk to desk, back up the hierarchy over to another hierarchy, down that hierarchy, and ultimately the landlord is notified that there is, officially, a gaping hole in the ceiling, and it is a violation of the building code. More time passes. There is a reinspection. Still a hole. Back up the hierarchy. Back down another hierarchy, and a criminal proceeding is instituted. Now over to a new hierarchy—the corporation counsel’s office—and into court.

If, after the devotion of thousands of manhours of government time, the landlord does not fix the gaping hole, he is fined $10.00, or maybe even $50.00. And by the time the central housing enforcement unit of city government has acted, at the tremendous cost which such vertical duplication inevitably involves in time and money, there are two more gaping holes in other ceilings to be dealt with.

Of course, things could be worse. One of the many people who process one complaint might be corruptible. The complaint is lost, or buried at the bottom of the pile, or falsely reported to be nonexistent. In these circumstances, the administrative maw is sufficiently complex so that usually no one can be held responsible. The assembly line method of government, with each functionary assigned his particular task, immunizes the participants in the process from accountability. And the citizen’s recourse is to start the process over again, to make a nuisance of himself, to organize a march on city hall, to break the routine by some startling act.

The rigidity, remoteness, insensitivity, and insulation of the bureaucracy must be eliminated if the city is to deal with its problems effectively. To do this, some method of lateral invasion of the bureaucracy is essential. Fragmenting the bureaucracies into smaller units, wherever there is reason to believe such fragmentation will produce more effective administrative units, is what decentralization is all about.

Why, for example, should the 55,000 teachers in New York City’s schools be directed from one headquarters in Brooklyn? Whoever suggested that the best way to clean the streets was to have ten thousand sanitation men operating out of a central headquarters? Certainly no New York City resident who ever tried to get his street cleaned would have made the suggestion.

Similarly, is there any justification for assigning street-sweeping duties from some central office? That office will never know whether the street was swept, or whether the sweeper spent the afternoon in a friendly bar (where Mayor Lindsay, on an impromptu inspection trip, once found a few sweepers).

What of the police? There are more than six policemen to every election district in New York City—one to every two to five city blocks. Tell this to a New Yorker and he’ll laugh at you: to get one of those six policemen he must call a number in downtown Manhattan, even if the precinct house is next door. Why?

Because, I suspect, the myth that bigness produces efficiency—a myth which permeated the business world for many years until it learned decentralization of administration was essential—still controls the thinking about government.

The trouble is that no one ever asks, “What is the most efficient administrative unit for this governmental function?” So far as the structure of government reveals, no one has ever asked that question before creating the present structure. All administrative units—schools, hospitals, police, fire, sanitation, welfare, air pollution, mental health, veterans’ affairs, etc—are citywide. As the size of a department increases, the number of administrators necessary, one above the other and all passing responsibility from one to another, increases in geometric proportion.

The administrators insulate the “line” from popular control or complaint. No small wonder the average citizen is frustrated when he seeks action. Moreover, the cost of government skyrockets as supervisor is added to supervisor, as superdepartments are created and as departments are combined, as purchasing is centralized (what you save in price, you lose in administration, transportation, storage, and loss), as government is reorganized into yet larger and even more remote administrative units.

There are many government problems which are best dealt with locally. There are some—air pollution and certain aspects of traffic, for example—which are best dealt with centrally. But today all are administered centrally and inefficiently, thus strangling a good part of the city.

Decentralization is essentially, then, a device to personalize government—to give the voter some control over the bureaucracy which governs him and to overcome bureaucratic inefficiency. Decentralization is probably the only remaining alternative to the present inadequate city government.

But the cure to the depersonalization created by bureaucratic government is not the creation of another bureaucracy. What is needed is another method of organizing the distribution of government services, and new and different agents to distribute them. None of this is possible under our present city charter. The new charter must make basic allocations of functions so that small, decentralized units are created and brought under the effective control of a single elected local administrator responsible to the voters. This would mean decentralizing most police, sanitation, local housing enforcement, welfare, highway, and traffic functions and giving those functions to the local administrators. (Potholes can be filled faster under local control than under remote centralized control, as the experience since 1962, when pothole-filling was finally centralized, conclusively establishes. Double-parking is offensive in a neighborhood, but a matter of unconcern to police and traffic commissioners downtown. Patrolling the streets is a function so rarely performed by the central police that obviously someone else must be assigned the task.)

Some aspects of city government will end up centralized and some will end up decentralized and some will end up both. Most must be financed on one level and administered on another. For example, welfare is a national problem which must be financed nationally and ultimately administered locally. Education must be financed in part nationally, in part by the state, and in part by the city, but administered locally. Clearly, whatever the service, the wedding of administration to finance on a citywide basis makes no sense.

A centralized Police Department of four thousand or five thousand men would be needed to deal with organized crime, disposing of bombs, homicide investigations and the like (it would probably have a substantial tactical force to take over protection, when needed, in a district), but the balance of police functions would probably be run by local administrators.

The Fire Department would probably remain centralized, in large part because it is one of the few departments that work well and there is no apparent reason for changing it.

The Hospital Department would probably be divided into many parts. A centralized department would retain budgetary and supervisory responsibilities for a host of decentralized hospitals, each with its own local board. The size of the area from which membership on local boards would be drawn would depend upon the area served by the hospital.

The central Sanitation Department would consist of a group in charge of garbage disposal. Street-cleaning and garbage-collecting responsibilities would undoubtedly be locally administered.

The foregoing are illustrative. No one can at this point write with confidence a thorough description of the functions which should be centralized and those which should be decentralized.

In drawing a new charter, it is necessary to decide upon the proper decentralized unit of government. While there is no rule for the appropriate size of a local administration unit, I believe that the best unit is the Assembly district. (Each Assembly district in New York City elects one assemblyman to the State Assembly. Every district consists of approximately 120,000 people; each is broken down into approximately eighty election districts, each having between five hundred and one thousand voters and normally covering one or two or three city blocks.)

The reasons for making the Assembly district a basic administrative unit are many. First, it does not require the creation of additional governmental subdivisions. Second, the number of people to be served is manageable and seems to be in accord with some British experience in local government. Third, the number of Assembly districts in the city (68) is not excessive, so that each district could be the legislative as well as the administrative unit of government. Fourth, the Assembly district is already the basic political and state legislative unit of government, and the necessity for separate city councilmen and separate councilmanic districts would be eliminated.

In addition, either the local administrator or the assemblyman (a state legislator who could easily double in brass as a city legislator, too) should constitute the new City Council. The present ineffective $15,000-a-year councilman would be eliminated and replaced by an effective, elected, full-time $30,000-a-year or more local administrator.

The Assembly district administrator in each district would have local administrative responsibility for at least the following government services: local crime control, particularly patrolling streets; cleaning the streets and sidewalks; collecting garbage; parking law enforcement; housing code enforcement; local health code enforcement; and local air pollution enforcement. He would ultimately have a role in the decentralized education system and hospital districts (which will probably consist of more than one Assembly district).

Welfare administration must similarly be decentralized under an Assembly district administrator, but until a rational welfare system is devised it would be wasteful and dangerous to rest substantial administrative responsibility for the present system upon a new government official busy enough with other responsibilities.

If the Assembly district administrator is to be held accountable by the voters of his district for the way in which the government services are administered, he must have substantial power over the bureaucracies which he will both inherit and create. For unless he has the power to discipline his charges—by firing them, if necessary—decentralization would create nothing more than frustration for the person locally responsible for the problems.

Today, civil servants cannot be fired. The procedures are too complex, and unless an employee can be convicted of a crime or frightened into resigning by the threat of indictment, he cannot be removed from office. If the city is to break the stranglehold which its bureaucracy has upon it, civil service regulations must be drastically revised to eliminate the absolute protection of job security which a jobholder now enjoys. This does not mean a return to the spoils system, for the standards of government hiring would remain subject to citywide regulation, and given the tremendous number of civil servants, no political party could replace as many as 5 percent of them, even if it tried. Finally, public accountability of public officials would require justification for wholesale discharges.

Assembly district administrators would not solve the problem of the citizen’s access to and control over government, but the district offers an existing governmental structure conducive to achieving that objective. Each Assembly district is already divided into election districts. While the size of the election district depends upon the number of voters, not residents, the number of residents represented in each election district is roughly the same. In any event, any unfair disparities could easily be eliminated.

Since each Assembly district has an average of eighty election districts, if each election district elected a resident to serve as the block’s part-time committeeman—who would be paid a modest salary of, say, $100 a month—the administrator would have a district committee of eighty committeemen. The committee would meet with, advise, prod, and seek action from the local administrator. The citizen would have a neighbor—elected by the residents of the election district and accountable to them—through whom he would have direct access to the man in charge of the people who patrol and clean his streets.

Therefore, on every block or two or three in the city, there would be a city official—part-time, it is true—who shares the problems of urban living with his neighbors.

This scheme of local administration would still leave a citywide government to deal with clearly citywide functions, but it would require an almost total revision of our present organization of city government.

First, the City Council would be abolished. Few will mourn its passing, for despite the efforts of a few councilmen to make it a meaningful legislative body, it has by and large been an ineffectual rubber stamp. In its place a new and larger council should be created, consisting of the elected Assembly district administrators (or possibly the assemblymen).

The budgetary responsibility for the expense budget, and possibly for the capital budget, now exercised by the council should be turned over to the Board of Estimate. The new council should in turn be vested with some powers now vested in the Board of Estimate—such as the power to review decisions of the City Planning Commission—concerning zoning, in particular. It should, however, or at least its members should, be involved in the capital budget procedure.

The Board of Estimate should become a citywide referee, allocating funds to the Assembly districts. It should also be mandated to decentralize the administration of government services, to oversee the districts and the centralized city functions as well, and to authorize the superseding of a local administrator if incompetence or corruption demands supersedure.

Ultimately, other arms of government, not controlled by the city charter, must follow the pattern established by the charter. The criminal courts, for example, centralized for the convenience of the court personnel and the lawyers, must be returned to the neighborhoods. If they were, a man arrested, say, on 168th Street might be arraigned at 181st Street instead of 100 Centre Street. The suspect could be arraigned and the policeman released for further patrolling in less than two hours instead of close to twenty, which is what is involved today.

Ultimately, education—another non-charter governmental function—must follow the decentralization route.

There will be, I am sure, resistance to these suggestions. The cries of “balkanization,” “politics,” “clubhouse hacks,” “spoils system,” and the like will be raised. The banner of the “merit system” which has produced such atrocious government will be hoisted. The hobgoblin of legally armed Black Panthers marauding the city will be paraded.

But to me the objections are not persuasive. Is there really more corruption or potential for corruption locally than, say, in the unreachable military-industrial relationship which is more and more being exposed in Washington? Is balkanization causing the breakdown in government or the remoteness and immovability of massive centralized bureaucracies? And, if the Black Panthers want to maraud the city with force and arms, they can undoubtedly get all the arms they want illegally today.

I am convinced that in the end resistance to decentralization will not prevail. The tide is running against centralized government because it has been unable to govern the city. More centralization under Mayor Lindsay has made the government worse. I think it is a matter of time as to when a new charter along the lines I have suggested will be proposed and enacted. I hope it will come within the next four years so that the administration elected in 1973 may start the city in a new, positive direction. A new departure and a new direction will be essential after the debacle which we can confidently expect between now and then, no matter who is elected.

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