A Quasi-Governmental Recipe for Efficiency

There are many lessons for public leaders in how a New York City park was brought back from chaos.
by | March 19, 2014
 

Governments have more responsibilities than ever, and more areas of concern to dilute and distract public managers' time and attention. The onslaught of responsibilities has outpaced changes in the available processes as public officials face hurdles in hiring, procurement and partnering that increase the time and effort necessary to produce positive change.

In response, many public officials, with the support of civic groups, are looking to new models for delivering results more efficiently. One such model involves quasi-governmental entities that are accountable to the public but rely more heavily on private-sector management approaches. These organizations operate with smaller scale and scope, and typically with reduced politics and red tape. This model can be seen in economic development corporations, convention and visitor bureaus, and more. It can also work for the management of other areas of interest, such as public spaces.

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We recently had a chance to talk with Daniel Biederman, the champion and pioneer of business improvement districts (BIDs) who is president of New York City's Bryant Park Corporation (BPC) as well as the 34th Street Partnership, a Manhattan BID. The Bryant Park story shows how "owning" an area (such as a park) and not a function (such as trash pick-up) with metric-driven management and employees focused on customer service can produce huge improvements.

In the 1970s, Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan had fallen to pieces and become a haven for drugs and crime. With the city as a whole in disarray at the time, getting the park back in order wasn't a priority. Once the park's management fell under Biederman's group in the late 1980s, he redesigned it, tapping sociological expertise to set the stage for a comeback in the early 1990s. Ever since, the park has remained one of the city's best managed and most used public spaces.

Biederman's leadership and managerial acuity certainly contributed to the park's remarkable turnaround, but he also sees many advantages in the capacity of working outside of the rigid controls that limit public-sector responsiveness: employing pay structures to procure the right talent along with simpler, more efficient contracting processes.

Flexibility is the key. When the city needs to contract out, its requests for proposals might end up being 700 pages long. Nevertheless, in Biederman's words, "everything is in there except what should be." Instead of focusing on elaborate point systems, BPC uses short RFPs that simply ask for a result. The idea is to focus on what is actually important in procurement -- past performance, approach, price and maybe a good new idea or two -- and nothing else.

One of the reasons Bryant Park remains so successful is because of steady, data-driven changes to its operations. The examples are many, and delve into every area of the park's management. When crimes such as public intoxication began to spike, for example, the police department's CompStat data on times and locations of incidents were used to adjust officers' tours and posts. The greater visibility of homeless people in the mornings tended to make the park less attractive to other users, so more morning activities were added to attract other park visitors and keep the park from being overwhelmed. Aerial video is used to map heavily used paths and then adjust furniture to improve the flow. And the BPC realized through budget analysis that it would be cheaper to buy its own news racks for publishers to use rather than deal with the graffiti and trash that individual news boxes tend to attract.

Many of these changes are small ones, but they add up. And in great part they are a reflection of the workers and talent BPC is able to hire. Dealing with a relatively small staff allows for better training, including enhancing workers' ability to estimate and work on the fly. And while Bryant Park's operations are heavily data-driven, there's also an appreciation for low-tech know-how: understanding which numbers matter, which you can guess, and which are not useful.

Operating as a quasi-governmental entity provides the space for creativity to happen and for small observations to make big differences in the quality of the services that are delivered. Bryant Park continues to be a great resource for New Yorkers, and it's all because of good management that has been given the flexibility to operate outside of the typical constraints of the public sector.

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