In NYC, 'Simple' Won't Come Easy

In his State of the City address, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a major push to streamline government operations.
by | January 20, 2011 AT 11:00 AM

New York City has been called the "ungovernable city." Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to change that.

In his State of the City address, the third-term mayor announced a major push to streamline government operations called Simplicity. Bloomberg called for a number of changes -- many of which are sure to face stiff political opposition.

Noting that the city had a "government operating system that was built for another era," Bloomberg painted a picture of a city on an unsustainable trajectory. "We face multi-billion dollar deficits for years to come," he said. "And there is no magic wand to make them disappear. There is no rabbit left to pull out of the hat. And there is no windfall coming from Albany or Washington this year. There is only us."

Bloomberg declared that he was unwilling to retrench on important public priorities, but he also was unwilling to raise taxes, which he sees as job killers. The only path left? "We will grow our way out of these tough times, by shrinking the costs of government," said Bloomberg.

City Hall described Simplicity as a "comprehensive vision that will make City government smarter and more efficient. Simplicity is founded on the belief that government should be organized around the needs of its customers -- taxpayers, businesses, and anyone who uses City services."

Part of the mayor's efforts are based on an enhanced use of crowdsourcing, a trend recently noted by New York's Deputy Mayor of Operations Stephen Goldsmith, who is playing a key role in the Simplicity initiative. Mayor Bloomberg announced his intention to use online forums to invite employees and citizens to offer money saving ideas, promising "We'll implement the best ones."

Bloomberg also announced a reform package that relies on legislative changes at the state level. This includes modernizing the contracting process, allowing the city's Department of Finance to administer the collection of city income taxes and reforming an out-of-control pension system.

The challenge, of course, is getting the state Legislature to embrace the mayor's bold reform agenda.

As Mayor Bloomberg put it: "To reduce the pain New Yorkers feel, we will need help from Albany." But Bloomberg isn't asking for a state bailout. He is pleading with lawmakers upstate to give New York City greater freedom in managing its affairs. In his speech, the mayor made a direct appeal in several areas ripe for reform.

Let us save tens of millions of dollars on our workforce by reforming the antiquated civil service laws that stifle innovation and add unnecessary costs.

Let us save money on our administrative costs by letting the city's Department of Finance administer city income tax collection instead of paying the state absurdly inflated costs to do it. That would save us tens of millions of dollars.

Let us save tens of millions of dollars on procurement costs by freeing us from overly restrictive rules that force us to buy inferior products.

Most important -- most important of all -- allow us to reform our pension system to make it fair for workers and taxpayers. This year, we will spend $7 billion on pension costs, up from $1.5 billion in 2001... And next year, we'll be paying even more... City workers deserve a safe and secure retirement, but right now, they receive retirement benefits that are far more generous than those received by most workers in the private sector -- and that provide for a much earlier retirement age.

Bloomberg called pension reform his number one legislative priority. The mayor wants to create a new tier for future employees and for pension benefits to be part of the collective bargaining process.

Given the political dynamics in both New York City and in the state Legislature in Albany, these changes won't come easily. The mayor's agenda will be an early test for the reform agenda of incoming Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has likewise committed to a change in the way government operates.

What's happening in New York is just a larger version of what's happening in cities around the country. How well -- or how poorly -- New York adjusts to the "new normal" is a drama being played out on the nation's biggest municipal stage.

Simplicity offers a test, not only of the idea that government can become better, faster and cheaper, but a test of the political leadership to embrace these approaches in the face of political pressure from vested interests.