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The Mismanagement of New York City’s Government, and the Repeated Delay of Food Recycling

By Dr. Steven Cohen, Senior Vice Dean, School of Professional Studies; Professor in the Practice of Public Affairs, School of International and Public Affairs

Mayor Adams has joined his predecessor, Bill de Blasio, in once again delaying the implementation of the city’s residential food recycling program. The city’s budget is about $111 billion, and the mayor is blaming the need for cuts on the migrant crisis and the end of COVID-19 aid. Like many mayors, he tries to make cuts in highly visible services, and, in this case, he is reducing the number of police, cutting Sunday library service, and reducing the education department’s $38 billion budget by half a billion dollars. This makes him look like a tough fiscal manager and a realist. It is the typical politico’s response to declining revenues. It’s a response as predictable as it is unimaginative.

Nowhere is there a discussion of making government’s work processes more efficient to save money without cutting services or figuring out ways of generating additional revenue. New York City’s government takes many months and many approvals to hire people, let a contract, pay a vendor, buy equipment, and implement a new way of performing an old task. The city’s operations are delayed by an incredible array of rules and approvals, including union agreements that limit management’s ability to innovate and political interference in the most routine operations imaginable. If resources must be saved, why do mayors always look to cut services instead of maintaining services with more creative approaches to problem-solving? Nearly everyone involved in managing and working on city operations is discouraged from innovation and instead ends up focused on maintaining their perquisites and privileges. Management is top-down, and the workers and mid-level managers who actually do the work are never engaged in discussions about how they might do a better job with fewer resources. Moreover, there are no incentives for better performance, so why bother to work harder or smarter? It seems as if it’s better to check your brain at the door and do what you are told.

The mayor is trying to get the federal government to help pay the costs of the migrant crisis, and I suppose he figures visible cuts might bring pressure on Washington. I know that he sees the same dysfunctional congress in DC that I do, so he knows this is futile, but a politician’s first and last thoughts are about politics rather than management. In many organizations, when one source of revenue dries up, management tries to think of additional sources of revenue. It starts with an assessment of organizational capacity, opportunities, and threats. New York City’s government’s response is to simply off-load the issue to the state or the feds or look tough and make some cuts.

Let’s take the very difficult crisis created by the increase in migrants who have no place to live and are not allowed to work. Migrants are not simply a problem but a resource. New York City has many businesses and institutions that need to hire people. What type of effort has the city really made to engage the business community to lobby for migrant work authorization and to put migrants to work? Instead of simply paying the costs of migrant shelter, why not create a city government jobs program and put migrants to work for a paycheck while augmenting rather than cutting city services? Most people prefer the dignity of work and a paycheck to a government handout or temporary housing. If some migrants are not allowed to work, perhaps they’d be willing to volunteer their time helping the city in return for a better place to live. Yes, a morass of federal, state, and local rules makes this difficult to do, but the same old routine of cuts and negotiation just makes the city dirtier, less safe, and less livable.

A great deal of the city’s tax dollars is spent on contracts. Many social services are delivered by non-profit contractors. Contractors are used in part because they are more efficient in delivering services than the city government itself, although that is a pretty low standard to measure performance by. The city government’s management of contractors focuses on contractor outputs and ensuring that contractor reimbursement is timely enough that they don’t go bankrupt. There is little effort to incentivize contractors to do more with less or apply new techniques and technologies when performing tasks. Many of these contractors are mission-driven, but after a few years of fighting with the city’s bureaucracy, some seem to abandon their sense of mission and simply try to survive.

And then there is the issue that most media focus on: corruption. There is plenty of that in city government, from rewarding wealthy real estate developers with quick turn-around decisions and relaxation of rules to inspectors who fail to inspect. While disgusting and unethical, corruption is not my focus here. I am drawing attention to a management system mired in the mid-twentieth-century industrial age, failing to utilize the production technologies and work processes of the information age. It’s a failure of imagination and creativity and a management system that can’t get out of its own way.

The city’s revenue picture is always subject to the vagaries of the business cycle and large-scale economic trends well beyond the city’s control. Still, if people and businesses are leaving, what can we do to retain them or attract new customers? If tax revenues are falling, other than raising property taxes (the only local tax not requiring state approval), how can the city do a better job of attracting residents and businesses and generating revenues? Even though the crime rate is going down, people’s perception of safety does not reflect those data. Visibly cutting the police force will only reinforce fears of crime.

Which brings me back to food waste recycling and the mayor’s decision to delay it yet again. New York City’s residents throw out an enormous amount of food. That food waste can be processed in an anaerobic digester and generate fertilizer and natural gas. Both the fertilizer and gas have economic value. At the city’s scale of waste generation, it might create enough volume to attract a private partner to process the city’s waste for free or at a low cost in return for the opportunity to sell the gas and fertilizer produced by the waste. Most of the garbage the city generates is transported many miles from the city, and the combination of “tipping fees” for dumping waste and the costs of transporting waste add up to a big waste “management” bill. Even if we had to pay some of the costs of recycling food waste, every ton of waste kept out of landfills could save the city a pile of cash. In fact, I wonder if the folks who proposed cutting food waste recycling factored in the cash saved by diverting waste from landfills that a well-managed recycling program could bring.

Instead of seeing food waste and landfill diversion as a potential resource, Adams, like de Blasio before him, sees food waste collection as an expense that is easy to cut, so he makes the cut. What is needed here is a more profound effort at identifying and mobilizing the city’s resources. One of those resources is the energy and creativity of New Yorkers. Another is the power and management expertise in New York City’s businesses and nonprofit institutions like universities, hospitals, and museums. Yet another resource is the expertise, street smarts, and sheer knowledge of the city’s unions and community-based organizations. There needs to be an effort to mobilize those businesses and institutions to help the city deliver services. The old way of working is not working. Too many stores are vacant, and homeless people are sleeping in front of those vacant stores, sharing the streets with too much litter and too many rats. I do not intend to give the impression that the city is falling apart and does not offer amazing opportunities along with incredible diversity and energy. But we could do better. And that starts with enhancing rather than cutting city services. It starts with a focus on management rather than politics. It requires leadership that needs to come from City Hall. Leadership that focuses on substance and outcomes rather than image, politics, and public relations.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Columbia School of Professional Studies or Columbia University.