President Obama’s First 100 Days


NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR Jon Corzine, Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, and White House senior economic adviser Jason Furman were among leading public service officials, business executives, journalists and professors who took part in an original, lively, and thought-provoking NYU Wagner forum April 24 entitled “President Obama’s First 100 Days: Implications for Urban America.”

NYU Wagner Dean Ellen Schall welcomed about 100 public service and business leaders and others to the Fifth Avenue Ballroom. The daylong conference also featured the author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, NYU Wagner Professor Paul Light, an expert on the federal government, and Robert M. Shrum, the noted political strategist and a Wagner senior fellow.

Contributing to the event’s four panel conversations were New York Times chief national political correspondent Adam Nagourney, NBC News Washington bureau chief Mark Whitaker, Politico editor-in-chief John Harris, and New York 1 political reporter Dominic Carter.

The conversations and audience questions focused on the President’s unparalleled attempts  — except for, perhaps, the first 100 days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency in the grips of the Great Depression — to stabilize a reeling national economy. Commentary also dealt with Obama’s evolving leadership style, the strong public support his actions and speeches have elicited, and the immediate and long-range challenges facing cash-squeezed cities and states.

“The most important thing that he has done,” said Governor Corzine, referring to President Obama, “is he has restored respect and confidence in the office of the presidency.”
Philadelphia’s Mayor Nutter, fielding a question from Mark Whitaker, gave the new commander-in-chief a “B-plus/A-minus” — ticking off a list of the President’s accomplishments and the many initiatives in healthcare and alternative energy investment that may yet materialize — and he added that the President and his administration have been strikingly accessible and sensitive to the concerns of big-city mayors such as himself.

 ”They know where cities are,” Nutter said.

At another point, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who appeared with Shrum, talked about ways in which Obama evokes Lincoln, with national crises setting the stage for both men, and with both of them attuned to the past for lessons about how to proceed.

“He really has this sense of history,” she said of the new president, who appears willing to act boldly.

Noted Shrum, “The [president's first] budget is an architecture for a radically different future.”

Goodwin said that much about Obama’s style brings to mind her understanding and appreciation of America’s commander in chief during the Civil War. Mentioning that Obama has spoken to her about Lincoln, she said jokingly that these days the last thing she thinks about when she goes to bed at night is Abraham Lincoln.

 


NYC Planning Commissioner Amanda M. Burden Discusses Land Use and the Future of New York


NEW YORK CITY PLANNING Commissioner Amanda M. Burden delivered the annual Henry Hart Rice Urban Policy Forum address at NYU Wagner on April 22, 2009, with the breadth and meticulousness that’s made her one of New York City’s most influential planners in decades. Burden prides herself on knitting neighborhoods to civic destinations, and her 40-minute address guided listeners from spiffy new waterfronts to intensive new rules for growth in Throgs Neck, Jamaica and the South Bronx.

“If you are a planner, you have to learn implementation,” said Burden, wearing a daffodil jacket. And her presentation -  entitled “Shaping the City: A Strategic Blueprint for New York City’s Future” – focused on  how new land-use rules changed public life since she and Mayor Michael Bloomberg started revamping the city’s zoning code in 2002. Burden brought the audience back to the trepidation-filled winter of that year, telling them that her boss had gathered his team to  inform them: “We are going to accomplish a great deal.”

That meant, for starters, a new structure. “The way you change land use is to unite all agencies under one deputy mayor,” Burden told the audience at Wagner. “City planning used to report to the Deputy Mayor for Culture and Schools. I wanted to be the think tank of the administration, but [then-Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding] Dan Doctoroff said no, you’re the brains of the administration.” And she said Doctoroff requested a PowerPoint summarizing the planning department’s first two-year plan. “And we didn’t know what a PowerPoint was,” she added, in a mild bit of hamming.

She knows now. In her Wagner talk, Burden led the audience through a chain of planning principles that she said steered the dozens of rezonings that followed. They assert that New York must compete with global capitals by providing the glorious public spaces and mixed-use districts executives want. So it must refresh and protect its distinctive neighborhoods, which Burden said means on-the-ground investigation by all planning staff. “You don’t lift a pencil for your zoning until you’ve walked the neighborhood,” she said, later noting that she’d shorn community-board presentations of their jargon so that civic groups “can connect and produce a better document.” 

Growth in a global city can’t choke the air or ignore the rising seas — and Burden noted that all her agency’s recipes for new towers and housing “channeled growth to transit,” even raising debt for a new subway stop on the Far West Side. She said the city’s cherished neighborhoods must blend with “comprehensively planned” destinations, like Lower Manhattan, which planners should guide with a devotion to mass transit and a feel for “three-dimensional urban design.”

Burden said she has guided her agency away from being “reactive to developers,” and toward a visionary stance. That has played out in the rebirth of waterfronts in all five boroughs and a complete fealty to “excellent design, from iconic buildings to a bench in a park to materials on a building.”

Burden skimmed from Ground Zero to Downtown Brooklyn to the perhaps still-obscure Long Island City (“I told a friend I was going there, and he said: will you be back by tonight?”) to Jamaica, the South Bronx, Harlem (the site of the first-ever bonus floorplate allowances to developers who build arts centers in their towers) out to St. George, Staten Island’s only transit hub. Everywhere, the presentation showed, planners sought to bulk up commercial arteries, allow housing where it would naturally grow, and invigorate public space.

The City Planning Commission’s next forays, if Burden and her boss have another term, would spread across neighborhoods. Burden outlined a plan to encourage grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods by exempting supermarkets a building’s maximum allowable size. Maps of neighborhoods with high diabetes and obesity overlap eerily well, she said, with ones of areas lacking grocery stores. She also cited efforts to facilitate sidewalk cafes, especially small ones that enliven an area’s days and nights, and to increase bike commuting by obliging new buildings to provide bike parking.

Burden ended her talk with a look at Coney Island, a neighborhood that repels cookie-cutter zoning. “We need two things, quite different, both important,” she said. “They are a year-round entertainment district that is open and accessible, and facilitated development of new housing, including affordable housing.”

Burden demonstrated that her approach to planning fuses goals that seem distinct in a constantly changing city.


On Managing New York City’s Pension Funds, Contracts, and Reputation


CITY COUNCILMEMBER Melinda Katz pulled no punches at a Citizens Union/NYU Wagner breakfast forum held at Wagner on April 15. Campaigning to become New York City Comptroller, she offered a stream of provocative notions about the powerful city office. For anyone who might have considered the comptroller’s job to be relatively staid, Katz served notice that in her view the “national holistic meltdown” in finance obliges New York to rethink how it manages its money and its reputation.

Katz, who chairs the Land Use Committee of the New York City Council, celebrated her success in preventing runaway development in distinctive neighborhoods. “We down-zoned 6,000 blocks,” she said, and assured that the West Village, Park Slope, Forest Hills, Dyker Heights and other draw neighborhoods will sustain their appeal as “beloved communities.”  That “character and scale,” she said, keeps New York a destination for ambitious newcomers around the world. She said the same level of vigilance is needed to avoid reckless investment and the fiscal rot it can bring.  “If we don’t create jobs, we won’t inspire confidence nationwide!” she said.

In her remarks, Katz promised she would convert her fiduciary power of the comptroller’s office into a blaze of advocacy. “At a time of bad corporate behavior,” she said, “we need to make sure every dollar that comes down from the federal government creates jobs and housing here.” To that end, Katz proposed to grill fund managers on how companies would use equity and debt to train local workers. She raised the idea of helping bailed-out companies restructure, which she said would draw upon her training as a corporate lawyer. And she pressed for a new ethic in city procurement.

“It’s disturbing when contractors tell me they didn’t have the low bid for a city contract and the vendor who did had change orders that ended up costing the city more money,” she said. “Shouldn’t there be a way to say: this bid doesn’t make sense?”

After assailing rules that she said blind the City Council to Department of Education procurement (“that is outrageous!”) and calling for brighter exposure on all city contracts and rating agencies’ work, Katz sat down with Citizens Union president Dick Dadey to take questions from the audience of students and policy makers. She didn’t dodge.

On the community-based planning process, she called the lack of coordination between local efforts and Council action “unfortunate” and cited her push for a law that would empower the city to move low-income families into complete but unoccupied luxury towers. And she verbally pushed back after an audience member suggested that municipal unions would have to absorb pay cuts to help the city weather the financial crisis.

“I don’t believe it should be an easy fix,” the Councilmember said of the city’s civil service payroll. “And I don’t think that if you cut people who are making 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars a year, it’s going to make the difference.” Knowing her policy-maven audience, she then fired off another proposal: “I would like to figure out as Comptroller, for every job we cut, how much more it costs us in welfare.”

For those keeping score, Katz’s City Council colleague and comptroller-race competitor, David Yassky, will visit NYU Wagner on May 6 for another policy breakfast sponsored by the graduate school of public service and the civic organization.

 


Mayor Bloomberg Announces Help for Nonprofits at NYU Wagner Forum


SPEAKING in front of 300 public service leaders at an event
sponsored by NYU Wagner on April 6, 2009, New York City Mayor Michael
Bloomberg unveiled a series of initiatives to help the more than 40,000
nonprofit cultural, health and social service organizations of the city
weather the economic downturn. New York University President John
Sexton introduced the mayor, and NYU Wagner Dean Ellen Schall framed
the critical discussion, citing the economic challenges the nonprofit
sector confronts, and the central role the graduate school has in
training students to become leaders in public service.

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Is the War in Iraq a ‘War of Ideas’?


TO GRASP the appeal that becoming an al-Qaeda suicide bomber has for a young person in the Islamic world, Visiting NYU Wagner Professor Michael Doran recommends considering the story of the early 1990s Seattle grunge band Nirvana. Or more specifically, Nirvana’s tragic lead singer Kurt Cobain, whose suicide in April, 1994, at the height of the band’s popularity propelled him from rock star to mythic legend.

“They catch these guys at their Kurt Cobain moment,” Doran, speaking April 2, 2009, at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said, referring to  the most vulnerable targets of recruitment efforts. “They fill their head with a lot of promises, and they’re ready to just go and do it.”

Doran is an expert on US foreign policy and the Middle East. Prior to joining NYU Wagner, he served in the U.S. State Department as Senior Adviser to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He has also served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense for Support of Public Diplomacy and as the Senior Director for the Middle East at the National Security Council. He has taught at Princeton University and the University of Central Florida.

While it has been well-publicized that al-Qaeda recruits are promised 72 virgins when they reach heaven, Doran said, what many don’t realize is that al-Qaeda recruits are also told they can choose to bring family members to paradise with them. “They’re not just a hero of the community, but a cosmic hero.”

Doran first gained the notice of the Bush administration for an article he wrote in the January/February 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “Somebody Else’s Civil War.” In it, Doran asserted that Osama Bin Laden had “no intention of defeating America” by staging the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks but planned the attacks  as a method “to help his brand of extremist Islam survive and flourish among the believers.” Al-Qaeda wanted U.S. to send troops into Islamic countries so Muslims would turn on governments in the region allied with America and bring about their collapse. In essence, he argued (in the article, presumably?), “Americans, in short, have been drawn into somebody else’s civil war.”

More so than any other war America has fought, the war in Iraq is a “war of ideas,” or a “media war,” Doran told the audience at NYU Wagner.

Illustrating this, he displayed a letter that was intercepted from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of one of the deadliest militant organizations in Iraq. In the letter, al-Zawahiri pleaded with al-Zarqawi, who was attacking Shia shrines and market places after declaring “all out war” on the Shia, to show restraint.
“Does this conflict with the Shia lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedeen to the Shia, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar? And if the attacks on Shia leaders were necessary to put a stop to their plans, then why were there attacks on ordinary Shia? Won’t this lead to reinforcing false ideas in their minds, even as it is incumbent on us to preach the call of Islam to them and explain and communicate to guide them to the truth? And can the mujahedeen kill all of the Shia in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that? And why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance?”

Al-Zawahiri ends the letter with a reminder to his gung-ho comrade. “I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma (nation).”
For awhile, Doran said the United States’ military strategy in Iraq played perfectly into al-Qaeda’s hands, as insurgents lashed back at this perceived invading army of foreigners.”For a couple of years it looked it was building and building and building and al-Qaeda was getting stronger. Then it was gone,” he said snapping, “just like that.”

He credited what he called General David Patraeus’ “genius” in initiating counter-insurgency measures that took into account local politics and public opinion for turning the tide.  He said the military has been able to secure hot spot areas and gain the trust of locals who are now providing information on the “bad guys.” Also, through captured insurgents, the military learned that the overwhelming reason insurgents were fighting the United States wasn’t because of ideological beliefs but money.

“They were paid to do it,” Doran said.

To counter this, the United States military has provided jobs for the would-be insurgents or in some cases are simply paying them not to fight.

Doran said that the U.S. is just now starting to get the hang of this new type of nuanced warfare. Historically the United States military was geared toward fighting a potential super power like Russia or China and was not prepared for fighting a “war of ideas.”

“I think the way the military thought of war was either you are taking territory or you were destroying capabilities..You never asked yourself what was the nature of the populace,” he said.


Healthcare Organizational Change You Can Measure, and Believe


THE QUESTION before the capacity audience at NYU Wagner’s annual Kovner/Berhman Health Forum lecture on March 31, 2009, concerned measurable ways of changing the culture — what people expect from each other and from themselves — in large healthcare institutions and other kinds of complex organizations. As one panelist said, it’s not unlike guiding a malfunctioning aircraft safely down into river.

Denise Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie-Mellon, told the audience that change measurably spreads through large institutions when workers trust the people pushing it forward, and when it also alters the things people do rather than asking people simply to adjust their attitude. Rousseau invoked Sully Sullenberger, the USAirways pilot who saved all his passengers after a bird struck his plane late last year. Sullenberger, said Roussau, works as a “risk-based practitioner” and had learned something beyond,” procedures and checklists” for a flight out of control; he knew to maintain “a mindful attitude” toward the people whose fate he had to try to steer after losing control. 

The question of how to pace organizational changes in huge organizations with many layers of habit and turf is unavoidable and especially critical as the world confronts auto-industry bankruptcy and global financial reform.

Bernard Birnbaum, New York University professor of radiology and Senior Vice President,
Vice Dean and Chief of Hospital Operations, NYU Langone Medical Center, is working to transform the medical center all its operations, took the audience of more than 200  healthcare executivesother organizational leaders and students and faculty through the intricate work of measuring work flow in order to unequivocally make it better.

“Change is coming up the wazoo,” he said at the start of his remarks. NYU-Langone Medical Center aims to prevent infighting between academic and medical interests, make patient care open and efficient, establish itself as one of the world’s most trusted hospitals, and revamp its digital and physical layout to lock in these goals. This requires, Birnbaum said, a full investment of “the people in the trenches” — the doctors, nurses and staff — as experts who can analyze the ways they work and eliminate steps that add no value to patient care.

Naming these steps and goals involves careful efforts, Birnbaum said.

The event at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University was moderated by Anthony Kovner, Wagner Professor of Public and Health Management.
Birnbaum’s presentation guided the audience through a variety of change processes, such as the medical school’s crafting a new vision statement in the summer 2007,, distribution of that draft statement in March 2008), and the current work of embracing Toyota’s lean manufacturing principles and the six-sigma metric that CEO Jack Welch propagated at General Electric. Lean (as it’s called) and six-sigma are the vehicles Birnbaum uses to steer.

The best paths emerge through rapid-improvement events. As Birnbaum described them, those events consist of evidence-seeking brainstorming sessions in which employees identify their work flow and hold it up to critique. “These can break and repair processes that nobody as the guts to attack,”  he noted. “We started it with 30 employees and now as people start hearing about these, it’s Welcome Back Kotter- ooh, ooh, ooh, when are you going to get to me?”

By starting with leaders – six “black belts” who would assess conditions throughout the center and 24 “green belts” leading their own work areas — Birnbaum said he hoped would “scale the change to the vision.” Some changes would show up as cost savings in future budgets. Others would qualitatively enhance work at the center- a radiologist, for instance, would have the equivalent of an extra day a week when bureaucratic snags vanish from the workflow. And all would make staff feel invested and appreciated. 

To ensure a soft landing, Rousseau reminded the crowd, means constantly soliciting feedback and redesigning anything that the entire organization doesn’t affirm. “Is this an improvement that we should institutionalize, or is it a deviation?” she recommends asking. This means the tough work of spreading information and opinion across facilities and work groups, so that everyone feels entrusted — and ready– to take the helm when things go out of control.

And Birnbaum agreed: “You can never communicate enough.”

Pilot Sullenberger had that down, too.

 


Service or Advocacy: What Can Foundations Do and What’s Their Responsibility Given this Economy?


WITH the U.S. in the throes of a devastating economic crisis and donation dollars more scarce than ever, should foundations divert their funding efforts to direct-service programs which assist casualties of this devastating recession — or should they instead continue to funnel their funds into advocacy efforts aimed at alleviating social inequality?

Leaders of several foundations and non-profit luminaries grappled with the topic during a lively, 90-minute discussion entitled “Philanthropy and the Economic Crisis” on Thursday, March 26, at  the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. The well-attended event even included a scoop courtesy of Wagner Professor Rogan Kersh, who is the school’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs — but more on that later.

Gara LaMarche, Chief Executive Officer of The Atlantic Philanthropies, one of the largest and most socially progressive foundations in the country, was moderator of the discussion about the fallout from the economic crisis for nonprofits as well as the perhaps unprecedented opportunities the crisis presents for catalyzing social change. In addition to LaMarche, who is a Wagner adjunct, and Kersh, the panel included Ann Beeson, a human rights advocate and litigator who has twice argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and is director of U.S. Programs for the Open Society Institute; David Jones, president and Chief Executive Officer of the Community Service Society of New York; and Oona Chatterjee, co-executive director of the grassroots organization Make the Road.

Chatterjee, whose organization works to improve health care, education, housing and job opportunities in some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, said that while private funding has “held stable,” the economic crisis has caused some of its foundations to hold back on funding. So instead of concentrating on the work at hand, Chaterjee said, “We’re thinking about how to make the next payroll.”

Even before the economic crisis hit with full force, the task of raising $6 million to meet the organization’s budget was arduous, she said, since most of their donations are in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. What advocacy organizations like hers really need, she said, is help from the major national foundations. But she said she heard that the large national foundations “have a lot of pressure to fund regional and national work,” instead of locally focused, grassroots efforts.

For foundations, striking the right balance between funding organizations with a large national profile and those with a grassroots orientation is also difficult in light of the major contraction in the amount of dollars that foundations are able to provide these days. According to David Jones of the Community Service Society, a 160-year-old poverty-fighting institution in New York City, it’s more critical than ever that foundations’ funds are used responsibly. Unfortunately, Jones contended, too many boards on too many foundations are packed with lawyers and power brokers who are “out of touch” with poor communities. Rather than funding programs that could make a real difference, too often foundations are supporting what he termed “amenity charities…An amenity charity is one in which you give to Harvard because your kid  gets in.”

Ann Beeson of the Open Society Institute asserted that despite the failing economy there is an unprecedented opportunity to set a new political and social agenda, though she acknowledged that the Open Society Institute and The Atlantic Philanthropies are in a unique position to take such stances. “I think this is absolutely not the time to be timid around our policy agenda. This is the time to be transformational,” she said at one point.

The Open Society Institute and The Atlantic Philanthropies are two of the country’s largest foundations, and are not therefore under the same economic pressures faced by many other  foundations at this time. Beeson and LaMarche defended their continued advocacy funding as cost effective inthe long run, saying that if they invest now in advocacy, they will affect policies and reduce social needs over time.

Even if foundations could increase funding for direct service, LaMarche said it would be a “drop in the bucket” compared to the actual need created by the economic crisis that has washed over the entire country. With the sentiment at the White House and on Capitol Hill running high for meaningful, progressive change, The Atlantic Philanthropies felt it was a favorable time to right long-standing “systematic injustices” and put dollars to work to fund advocacy aimed at issues such as overhauling a tax code that favors the rich or instituting affordable health care.”We have a window of time now when that can work,” LaMarche said.

Meanwhile, Professor Kersh said that President Obama is expected to announce the creation of a new Office of Social Innovation. The anticipated White House “clearinghouse for the philanthropic community and agencies” will be a source of creative solutions to pressing social problems. Kersh also said the Obama administration is pushing for a reduction in the tax breaks for charitable deductions that individuals or couples making more than $250,000 a year. The proposal would cut, to 28 percent, the current rate of 39.6 percent on deductions.

One study Kersh cited from Indiana University suggests that such a policy could reduce charitable giving by 4.8 percent, which he said translates to nearly $4 billion drop in charitable giving a year nationwide. (Professor LaMarche, however, said the money raised by erasing that tax break is earmarked by the Obama administration for the type of “human needs” that foundations should be funding.)

Legislation has been proposed that would create a standard 1.32 percent excise tax on foundations, instead of the current system, which increases the tax to 2 percent. This legislation should encourage foundations to “give more money away,” Kersh said.

Lastly, the NYU Wagner associate dean and professor reported that the reputable non-profit Finance Fund conducted a survey that found that 52 percent of the nonprofit leaders polled believe that despite the federal stimulus package and other anti-recessionary efforts by the Obama Administration and Congress, their organizations will suffer some type of long term or permanent damage from the economic crisis.