The Corner

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The Right Way to Clean The Streets


My buddy Erik Axelson is a longtime employee of the City of New York, now with the Department of Parks and Recreation. (Erik is in charge of, among other matters, the rehabilitation of Washington Square Park, and if, like me, you admire the new gleam of the recently cleaned and repaired Washington Square Arch, you have Erik to thank.) This past weekend, Erik read Joel Kotkin’s “The Era to Bring Back,” an essay in the Washington Post. Then Erik got to thinking. From Erik’s letter to Prof. Kotkin, some marvelous insights about life in our great cities:

In your essay, you quote Fiorello LaGuardia’s famous maxim: “There is no Republican or Democratic way to clean streets.” But my experience as a manager at two NYC agencies during the Giuliani administration tells me that there are differences — significant differences.

The Democratic way, at least in present-day New York City, means fundamentally throwing money at the problem. It means hiring more public employees who will be protected by civil service regulations from accountability. It means doing things basically the same way they’ve been done for decades. It tends to measure government inputs rather than actual outputs or results.

The Republican way, as I have experienced it here since 1994, means seeking accountability. It means measuring the performance of employees not just the dollars spent or the numbers of persons deployed. It means seeking to determine indicators of cusotmer satisfaction. It stresses innovations such as Compstat (the NYPD template that is now employed in all city agencies to measure problems and performance) and welfare-to-work programs. It means measuring public employees against counterparts in the private sector, and being willing to open up city services to outside bidders.

If the Giuliani reforms did not go far enough — the city’s workforce is still too large, the operating budget too high, taxes a powerful deterrent to business formation — they do represent a kind of marker for a pragmatic Progressivism in municipal government. Based on the Giuliani experience, implementing a Progressive approach to local or state government will require taking on the nexus of public employee unions, social service agencies and non-profit organizations that collectively see a pecuniary benefit to larger and less accountable government (see some of the recent work by the Manhattan Institute’s Steve Malanga on this). This modern version of the “malefactors of great wealth” or the Trusts that TR fought against will require equally courageous leaders who can point out where the public interest lies….