Talk to Me: Why Communication Within City Hall Matters

When New Orleans recovery czar Ed Blakely resigned, he signaled a bigger problem within New Orleans’ City Hall. Other cities, notably Philadelphia, have worked on improving communication within disparate city departments. But do these efforts produce results?

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When New Orleans recovery czar Ed Blakely packed up his office earlier this summer and left the city he had come to fix, few outside the yet-to-heal region took notice. Buried under news of the current economic storm, the headline came and went like an obituary for a past-her-prime TV actress. Yet for those living here, the unexpected departure of the single official charged with making their hometown whole again came as a blow. Why? Not because he was liked — he wasn’t — but because Blakely left just a few weeks after a spokeswoman for the Mayor Ray Nagin dismissed news of the impending resignation as “chatter.”

Ed Blakely, New Orleans recovery czar

This communication glitch should not have come as a surprise. Turn on the television on any given night and expect to witness at least one spat between feuding city officials or agencies, many of them about why one taxpayer-paid party didn’t tell another something, or respond to another’s request for information. The ink had barely dried on Blakely’s resignation letter when another crossed wire erupted into scandal: Nearly all the mayor’s emails from 2008 had been destroyed. On July 22, the FBI subpoenaed the missing emails, which had been retrieved by a private technology organization hired by the city. Adding to the controversy was a report released by the tech group stating that someone with “extensive knowledge” of the city’s computer system would be able to locate and erase the data in question. That came five months after a public blowup between the city’s sanitation director and a member of the city council over an unanswered request for data on the number of addresses receiving trash pick-up services.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

New Orleans is not alone in its struggle to break down walls between city departments, agencies, and functions. In Los Angeles, two frustrated city planners, Emily Gabel Luddy and Lillian Burkenheim, took it upon themselves last spring to organize a series of design workshops that brought together 45 officials from the Community Redevelopment Agency, City Planning, the Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Engineering to strategize about creating better public spaces — and how different players could better work together to turn the visions into reality. A similar multi-department workshop series recently took place in San Francisco, says Cynthia Nikitin, vice president of Project for Public Spaces, the non-profit that facilitated both events.

“When a city is evolving and thousands of people are living in (neighborhoods) that ten years ago had no one living there, all the agencies are going to have to change what they are doing and the ways they are doing it,” she explains. “In San Francisco, you can have seven different agencies that are working on the same 10 feet of sidewalk but they aren’t working together, and they don’t know what the other agencies are doing. Cities are realizing that this way of doing things needs to change.”

It was a lack of evolution in Philadelphia that motivated its current mayor, Michael Nutter, to rethink the city’s organizational chart. When the upstart former councilman took over the reins in January of 2008, he inherited a clunky bureaucracy with a lot good ideas floating around, but no reliable system of communicating them across organizations or guaranteeing implementation. Particularly vulnerable to this problem was the mayor’s sustainability agenda. Without buy-in from all departments, the city would never be able to implement Nutter’s ambitious plan to make Philly the country’s greenest city. The mayor responded to the problem by creating new two new executive level structures meant to force bureaucrats out of departmental ghettos: the Mayor’s Office Sustainability and a system of deputy mayors.
Philadelphia at night

The new appointees oversee a cluster of related departments. For instance, Economic Development and City Planning fall under the purview of one deputy mayor, while the Office of Supportive Housing, and the Departments of Public Health, Behavioral Health, and Human Services fall to another. The hope is that by creating an institutional bridge between professionals who work in separate offices with many of the same projects and populations, information will be shared more effectively, allowing collaboration to happen more smoothly. The same concept underwrites the new sustainability office. With an office of five (a hiring freeze has put the kybosh on growth for now), the organization’s reach extends deep into the city’s sprawling bureaucracy. It does this through an interdependent structure that mandates its constant facilitation of diverse coalitions and a working group that includes 60 people across all parts of city government.

“It’s a challenge and a great opportunity,” says Katherine Gajewski, Nutter’s newly appointed Director of Sustainability. “We all touch it, everything from tree-planting to transportation planning to housing… Everyone knows who is doing what and what is needed of them or their department.”

With its mutually supporting structure and holistic approach, Gajewski’s office matches the basic profile of Nikitin’s best-case scenario for the bureaucracy of the future.

“When you are in a silo you can operate in autonomy. You don’t think you need anyone else. That is what we have to unpack if we want to build better cities,” she says.

Only a year and a half into his administration, it’s too soon to know what kind of impact the Nutter administration’s new deputy mayors and office of sustainability will have. But observers say that while the economic crisis has derailed many of Nutter’s reform plans, the few steps he has taken appear to be working.

“It’s hard to judge progress because the on-going fiscal crisis has hindered investment that may have created more integration, but there does appear to be more collaboration between different players, particularly in the development and physical infrastructure side,” says Steven Wray, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia.

One hopeful sign came last winter when a looming $170 million budget shortfall forced the mayor to begin making the difficult cuts dreaded by all elected officials. After a few initial missteps, Nutter realized that if he wanted to pass a budget without sacrificing his political future, he had to bring his advisors and his constituents into the process. His strategy? Breaking out of his own executive lair to negotiate with the council, his new cabinet, and the public through a series of public meetings and briefings that provided opportunity for residents to talk with deputy mayors and other officials about their budget priorities. In May, the Philadelphia City Council approved the mayor’s $3.8 billion spending plan for fiscal 2010, which began July 1. While an impasse at the state capital has stopped the governor from approving the one cent raise to Philadelphia’s sales tax and changes to the city’s pension fund mandated by the city’s approved budget, the consensus the mayor brokered in May, observers say, represents a step in the right direction.

“He stumbled at the beginning when he announced he would cut branch libraries and pools,” says Zack Stalberg, president and chief executive officer of the Committee of Seventy, a good-government group in the city. “After that, he did a good job at communicating complex ideas that had a negative impact on people.”

Compare that to New Orleans. This past budget cycle, the City Council voted to plug a $24 million hole in its $1.16 billion 2009 budget with federal Community Disaster Loans given after Katrina. What’s the problem with that? Two things: First off, the money will be needed even more next year when other recovery grants expire. Recent revenue projections from the city economist predict a $100 million shortfall in the city’s $500 million 2010 general operating fund. The projected deficit is based on the fact that last year, the city government spent nearly $100 million more than it received in taxes and other recurring revenue sources – and as the recession blunders on, property, hotel and sales tax revenues are only expected to shrink further, Jerome Lomba, the city economist told the council in April. Second, the decision reflects the inability of City Hall to work together to find feasible solutions to the deep woes facing the city. The council voted to fill the deficit with money from the emergency pot after the mayor presented a budget that closed the deficit with property tax increases, which the council had previously said it would vote down. In essence, the executive and legislative branches, instead of working together to make the difficult cuts needed, chose to dig the city deeper into a financial hole.

A house in New Orleans

“We are heading into a situation that is four times more desperate than last year, and it’s a situation that likely could have been prevented had the council and the mayor worked together,” says Seung Hong, chief of staff to Councilmember Shelley Midura.

Lucky for Blakely, he will be far from New Orleans when the city begins to make the cuts demanded by its precarious finances. His departure, though unexpected, was no accident. The planner from California never really jibed with the city. Last year he told The New York Times that the city’s racial factions operated “a bit like the Shiites and Sunnis,” and called the civic elite “insular.”

“I’m like the doctor, going into surgery,” he told the Times. “I’m putting my best thing there. The patient, I hope, lives, but post-surgery, the patient, if they start eating hog maws again and not exercising, what can I do…” The day before flying out, in an interview with a local business publication, he blamed the slow pace of recovery on the mayor’s decision to reject his suggestion that he assume the role of a deputy mayor.

“The mayor believes much more in a flat organization without too many people with agglomerate power,” Blakely told New Orleans City Business.

That horizontal organization required Blakely to answer to various department heads and secure sign-off from the mayor on every contract for all 600-odd projects overseen by the recovery office. “I’m bewildered that the mayor has to sign every contract,” Blakely said. “How can the mayor know about every bid on every project?”

Jeff Thomas was a top aid to Blakely before the planner’s exit. He stayed on at the recovery office after his boss left. Thomas views his office as a good example of how to bust traditional government silos. “Placing the departments of housing, blight reduction and economic development under a single management structure enabled the city to begin developing recovery-based programs with much greater efficiency than if those departments were isolated,” he says. Yet he admits much more must hange before the city can rebuild effectively.

“Recovery is not simply about repairing broken buildings,” says Thomas. “But also restructuring government to make it work better for all of us.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated from its original version.

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Ariella Cohen is Next City’s editor-in-chief.

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Tags: philadelphiasan franciscogovernancenew orleans

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