Public Service Spotlight
MPA-Health - 2003
Assistant Commissioner Bureau of Intergovernmental Affairs, NYC Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene
As an undergraduate, Chris Manning studied public health. After finishing college he worked at the American Heart Association as a health educator and over time, he began to get more involved in the organization’s advocacy work. In doing so, it soon occurred to him that he “could impact far more people by working on one good public policy” than by conducting the countless community presentations that he did for his job. During that time he also made two key observations that have shaped his career ever since. Manning first noticed that there seemed to be two different groups of people in his field: public health professionals to whom the political process is mostly foreign, and policy experts and lobbyists who understand a good deal about political processes but much less about public health.
The field was lacking people who had "equal experience in both areas and a solid reputation on each side," Manning explains. He also noticed that while large nonprofits like the American Heart Association have the money and resources to commit towards influencing policy, these groups make up only a small part of the nonprofit health sector. For smaller groups, Manning observed that “no one has really been able to identify a role for them in the government process,” helping them to “become policy makers, not policy takers.” Manning decided he wanted to be someone who understood both politics and public health and hoped that after gaining a good deal of balanced experience he could later consult on how to make space for nonprofits in the policy arena.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree in public health and several years experience in the nonprofit health sector, it was clear to Manning that the next step was to get a master’s degree with a policy focus. He came to Wagner and created his own specialization in public affairs by taking “the best of the management classes as well as the best of the policy classes.” He appreciated that “Wagner didn’t pigeon-hole you in one area.” A multidisciplinary approach “really allowed me to be well rounded,” he says. While in school Manning worked at Wagner’s Center for Health and Public Service Research and after graduating he joined Mayor Bloomberg’s Office of City Legislative Affairs where he worked for two and a half years on health, environmental, and housing issues. In 2006 he moved to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) where he currently serves as Assistant Commissioner for the department’s Bureau of Intergovernmental Affairs.
The DOHMH is a place that definitely provides Manning a chance to build a comprehensive set of skills. “The vantage point I have from which to see how government operates is pretty hard to beat,” he says. His office operates in six major areas: he and his staff of six manage all of the department’s relationships with elected officials on the city, state, and federal levels; they develop, manage and promote the department’s legislative agenda – from initial concept and bill drafting, to lobbying and advocacy; they track and respond to legislation on all levels of government (and there are currently more than 1,800 pieces of relevant legislation on the state level); they coordinate the department’s presence at legislative hearings, selecting appropriate delegates and helping to frame the message; they provide strategic guidance to programs around the agency to ensure nothing will become a political issue that shouldn’t; and they oversee community affairs for the agency, representing DOHMH at community board meetings and collecting information on the local level.
Manning works closely with DOHMH’s commissioner and admits that with so much responsibility the environment can be very high pressure at times. “The decisions I weigh in on are often all or nothing,” he says, which makes the job stressful. He notes that there is rarely an obvious right answer and the best choice sometimes doesn’t become apparent until after the fact. Nevertheless, Manning appreciates having the opportunity to have a voice in decision making. “It’s fascinating to be a part of the conversations that happen,” he says. With health issues changing all the time, he explains that “the world dictates what I do each day.” And Manning knows that whatever decisions are made will be transparent and open to criticism. “The things you read on Tuesday in the newspaper are the things I was working on on Monday,” he points out. And while he concedes that “no one comes into this job knowing exactly what they’re supposed to do,” there is plenty of opportunity for growth. “I’ve become more comfortable over time with taking information in, thinking critically, and making a recommendation,” he says. Manning has gained a good deal of experience at DOHMH, but he is in no hurry to leave. “I’ll stay until I stop experiencing new things and facing new challenges,” he says. For as long as he does, DOHMH will be lucky to have him, with his solid understanding of both the world of public health and the politics of government.