Making NYC's Machinery Work

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Photo by: Modifiedclod97, Laslovarga, Jarrett Murphy

Earlier this month, I watched with intense curiosity as Mayor Bill De Blasio announced the appointment of Mindy Tarlow as his new Director of the Mayor’s Office of Operations. The announcement received little notice in the media; it was duly mentioned along with the list of other appointees the mayor made that day and the reports mostly echoed the bios put forth by the City Hall press corps.

As a former policy advisor of the Operations team during Michael Bloomberg’s second and third terms, I am more aware than most of how important Tarlow’s position is, or at least how much potential it has.

On the most basic level, the Mayor’s Office of Operations exists because the City Charter requires an office with that name to produce the annual Mayor’s Management Report. But under Mayor Bloomberg, and some of his predecessors, the office functioned as an in-house project management team to accomplish goals beyond the scope of any single city agency. And in a city where each agency is a vast entity, each with its own culture and budgetary, technological and bureaucratic constraints, having a group of hard-working analysts and project managers with the will, ability and political backing to bring together different stakeholders and get past organizational barriers is a powerful tool. And given the ambitious agenda de Blasio has set for himself—and the high expectations that New Yorkers have for him—it is not a tool that he can afford to misuse.

And so, while the mayor’s operations staff contemplates the tasks ahead and the rest of the city remains largely ignorant of their magnitude, I would respectfully offer a few pieces of advice based on observation and experience.

1. Get thematic

When I began working at Operations in mid-2008, the office was involved in an array of projects involving everything from building-code violations to stormwater management to 311 calls. Each project had merits but there was no discernible methodology as to how they were chosen. This changed as the recession made itself felt and the budget surpluses of past years fell away. At that point, Operations focused on a series of shared services initiatives to achieve cost savings.

One working group looked at consolidating fleet operations, working with the city’s biggest vehicle users (including NYPD, FDNY and the Department of Sanitation) to find cheaper ways to procure, fuel and maintain the city’s vehicles. Another group looked at real estate costs, conducting a massive survey of all the office space in the city’s portfolio, finding opportunities to reduce office space, end leases and, in some cases, sell buildings. A third group looked to save money by consolidating IT functions, including servers and help desks.

Just as Operations worked on a diverse range of projects united under the banner of cost savings, Tarlow, along with the mayor and Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris, would be wise to do something similar to advance the mayor’s progressive agenda. I could envision an initial set of working groups to address such vital topics as affordable housing, public health and community development. Each of these important areas must entail multiple policies and programs and none can be undertaken by any single agency.

2. Follow the money

During the Bloomberg administration, Operations did not weigh in on the city’s budget. However, during my time in Operations, it became apparent to me that there are areas where Operations could make an incredible impact and improve the management of the entire city.

The first thing is for Operations to stay on top of the city’s most expensive projects. The city’s capital commitment plan for the current fiscal year exceeds $20 billion. While the staff at the Office of Management and Budget work hard to understand the justification for new projects and ensure that there is sufficient funding from year to year, there is not the same level of scrutiny given to the fundamentals of a project’s management structure. Oversight from a management perspective can help identify issues before an agency goes back to OMB for increased funding levels.

The good news is that Operations has positioned itself well to provide this level of oversight. On the last day of the Bloomberg administration, the Mayor’s Office publicly released the Capital Projects dashboard, an interactive report providing insight into all city projects budgeted at $25 million or higher (there are nearly 200 such projects).

Tarlow should not listen to those agencies arguing that updating this information is an administrative burden. On the contrary, she should use the dashboard as a platform for greater discussion about the capital budget and project management of capital projects.

3. Don’t specialize

The Mayor’s Office of Operations was the first place that I ever heard someone refer to herself as a generalist. It is an apt description. In a world of ever increasing specialization and shrinking professional focus, a team that can analyze a problem, identify a solution and manage the varying aspects of its implementation is a valuable asset. While it might be tempting to divide the Operations staff to focus each working group on a few specific initiatives, the temptation should be resisted. Operations cannot afford to be boxed in or perceived of as too narrowly focused to deal with new issues as they emerge. Furthermore, in city government, it is impossible to change anything without addressing multiple elements including budget, IT, legal, procurement, communications and a host of other concerns. In this environment, it is important for each staff member to gain as much exposure to as many issues, agencies, processes and personalities in order to be truly successful.

4. Don’t forget the MMR

Under Jeff Tryens, the former director of the performance management group, the MMR was updated. The way information is indexed was changed to focus on areas of governance, rather than only by agency. The way the city measures progress from year to year was updated to acknowledge progress in meeting goals. And the availability of MMR data online was greatly increased. One of Tarlow’s most crucial first decisions will be to find a replacement for Tryens. She should make sure to find someone as committed to improving and innovating the MMR so that it continues to become more user-friendly and informative for citizens, public officials and researchers.

The Mayor’s Management Report is the Office of Operation’s raison d’etre as far as the charter is concerned. Ostensibly, Operation’s role in project management arose out of the theory that the office that compiled the city’s performance metrics would be well suited to identify and address problem areas. And yet, I cannot recall a single project ever emerging from the data compiled in the MMR. The performance management group that prepares the MMR and the agency services group that manages projects did not collaborate directly. Tarlow should work to blur the boundaries of the units working in the Office of Operations.When the MMR is released, the whole office should review it to spot trends in the data and devise new projects.

5. Staff development

During my time at Operations, the project management team was comprised of people at the beginning of their careers who were hard-working and curious but often lacking knowledge in certain crucial areas of city governance. We were expected to learn as we went and to pick up the things we needed to know. There is definitely room for improvement in this area. Tarlow should consider introducing a more rigorous orientation and training program for new additions to the Operations team, including an overview of the city government, the budget process and the different sources of information available to help inform projects (the city collects data on almost everything but finding out where a data set is kept can be a huge challenge). She should also look at continuing professional development for her staff. Areas like statistics, data modeling and project management methodology (e.g. Six Sigma, Lean or PMP) and presentation skills are all skill sets that can help improve an already high-performing staff.

Lastly, Tarlow should maintain the practice of her predecessors in the position, Liz Weinstein and Carole Post, by taking advantage of New York City and scheduling occasional field trips. It is important to remind staff of the beauty, scope and diversity of the city they are serving. I fondly recall outings to Fresh Kills Park, Governors Island and the spire atop the Woolworth Building. The trips recharged our batteries and reinforced our sense of purpose.

I remember that when I was managing projects, I would sometime feel a sense of doubt and wonder whether Operations was really helping or whether we were just an extra layer of bureaucracy. One of the moments that helped dispel this for me was when a longtime civil servant recalled that during the Giuliani administration, when Operations was reduced to a small staff dutifully publishing the MMR, whenever agencies had to work collaboratively, the absence of neutral project management was palpable and officials would say to one another, “Where’s Operations?” I hope that with Mayor De Blasio’s vision and leadership, the Mayor’s Office of Operations will not be reduced or diminished in this new administration but will, under the management of Tarlow, continue to help solve the city’s most complicated problems with innovative solutions.

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