311

I like Michael Bloomberg. Conservatives in New York and across the country tend not to like Bloomberg because he is, despite his brief stint as a Republican, a liberal. But he is also a liberal who created a large and successful business, and that’s framed the way he approaches local government. Phil Koesterer very kindly emailed me a link to a New York Times article by Steve Lohr on a recent meeting that focused on local government innovation. Under Bloomberg, New York city has been a leader.

In 2002, the city began its “311” telephone number for answering questions about government services and to report problems down to missing manhole covers. The service receives 50,000 calls a day, and earlier this year began operating on the Web as well. Complaints, response times and resolved problems are tracked and measured to improve performance.

In 2006, the city began an online service, NYC Business Express, to make it easier and faster to start a business. The average time to obtain a building permit, for example, has been cut to 7 days from 40. Such seemingly mundane improvements can add up to big gains in the efficiency of government service systems, experts say, nurturing productivity and growth in local economies. The process, they say, is similar to “lean manufacturing,” a system first mastered by Toyota in which step-by-step changes on the factory floor, made repeatedly, translate into major advances in quality and productivity.

It actually gets even better: New York is starting to use sophisticated data analysis to improve firefighting efforts, among many other things. And innovations that have taken off in New York city are spreading throughout the country.

I’m a great believer in federalism, which is one reason why I’m comfortable with local governments embracing policies that I’d fight tooth and nail were they to be embraced by the federal government. One big problem in America’s biggest cities is that partisan elections give Democrats an effective political monopoly. Because voters rely on partisan affiliation to determine their votes, they tend to vote for Democrats in both national and local elections, despite the fact that the mix of issues at the local level is very different by definition. That’s a shame. Cities like New York and Los Angeles would be far better off if you had a coalition of public-sector unions and liberal activists competing against a coalition of led by small business owners and homeowners, with both coalitions consisting primarily of voters who backed Barack Obama in 2008. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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