Cutting Through the Red Tape

Connecting through Service

December 30, 2013

by Lucy Liu, 2013 Fellow

Like a typical senior, the last few months prior to my graduation were spent in a frenzied job hunt. I had skimmed through a number of job descriptions and fellowship programs, but nothing really struck me…until I discovered the City Hall Fellows program. Within a few minutes of picking up the informational brochure at a UC Berkeley Career Fair, I knew that this program was the one. It was exactly what I was looking for – an opportunity to serve in local government.

I had been interested in public service and government affairs since high school, when I had my first leadership position as Commissioner of Performing Arts. Through my college years, I carried on that passion for public service and looked for opportunities to instill it in my extracurricular activities. For two years, I had the pleasure of working in the Department of Labor in San Francisco on behalf of the Secretary of Labor’s regional representative as well as the Human Resources division. While this experience helped me better understand the functions of the federal government and confirmed my deep interest in public service, I found myself reminiscent of the leadership role I had in high school, where I was able to work closely with the student community I was serving. As I searched for that first post-graduate job, I kept that intimacy in mind as a priority. I was looking to feel a strong connection between the work I was doing and its effects on the public, and I found it in the City Hall Fellows program with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

While I have only been at the SFMTA for a few months, I have found my time here to be fulfilling and rewarding every day. I have discovered that the local level of government is where that intimacy I was craving really thrives. Because it provides the most crucial services to its people, municipalities touch the public in almost every way on a daily basis. In particular, transportation is visible in just about every place one looks: on the Muni light rail vehicles, in the bus-only lanes, with the Bike Share program, even on the streets and sidewalks. All around me, I am able to see the tangible impacts and services the SFMTA provides to its people and know that I took part in that in some way. In addition, SFMTA engages with the public directly on a number of transportation projects through an active process of outreach to ensure that public feedback and suggestions are a part of the iterative policy process. Initiatives like the Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to improve Muni reliability and Polk Street Improvement to increase safety measures all include a large volume of community meetings and discussions with the agency. My role in the Government Affairs division has brought me even closer to the public. On a daily basis, I help process, document, and respond to constituent requests and concerns that are forwarded by the Mayor, Board of Supervisors, or constituents themselves. Working with SFMTA staff to answer concerns and comments about neighborhood speeding, transit improvements, and bike safety has given me the opportunity to personally connect with San Francisco residents. My love of public service has always been rooted in serving the community, and here at SFMTA, I am able to see that deeply satisfying connection day in and day out.

A Public Space & A Place for All

December 23, 2013

By Chris Norman, 2014 Fellow

Whenever I thought about local government my mind immediately conjured visuals of City Hall, downtown, and a Civic Center where numerous professionally dressed individuals work to make the city operate. I admit I was unaware that San Francisco’s public libraries fell under the City’s jurisdiction – and now that I’ve been placed in Library system I’ve grown to see how.

As a space made for and by the public, the San Francisco libraries are open to all. I believe the Libraries system is one of the most important resources the City provides; so many communities lack access to aspects of life some of us take for granted. The Main Library and the 27 library branches throughout San Francisco offer a number of programs, trainings, and tools for communities, and they help their patrons engage in a global society that is increasingly dominated by technology. The Library system also ensures that the needs of identity-specific communities are met through services like their Children’s Center, the Library for the Blind & Deaf, and the LGBT Center. They also have a program focused on literacy development to aid those who want to learn to read. If these aren’t the kinds of spaces and services a local government should be providing, then I’m not sure what else would qualify!

I work in the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL)’s Facilities and Finance divisions, two areas I didn’t know existed in the Library. I also didn’t realize just how many people the SFPL serves (the Main Library alone sees 2-3 million visitors a year)! The public library, just like any large organization, has its own communications department, IT wizzes, and its own leader, the City Librarian, who reports directly to the Mayor of San Francisco. So far during my time at the Library I’ve become involved in projects that partner with other city departments and programs like Capital Planning, the Public Utilities Commission, and the Department of Public Works. As an entity that is open to everyone, the Library definitely has its challenges, but in working with my supervisors to find solutions I’ve learned how strong organizational management limits silos & helps reach even distant goals.

I originally wondered if I would get the same exposure to the complexities and nuances of local government as the other Fellows – but working at the SFPL has showed that the Library, if anything, has one of the strongest city-wide presences of all. As a city boy who grew up in San Francisco, I never knew how intertwined the most accessible public resource was with the city government. While I was in high school voters approved a bond measure that allowed for the (re)construction of many library facilities – and because of that over 20 branches have been renovated or newly constructed. I had no idea a simple vote could change something so close to home; now I realize how important it is to be involved in local politics.

Building Bridges Between Sectors

November 11, 2013

by Ben Kowalczyk, SF2014

Three months into my fellowship with the City and County of San Francisco it has become abundantly clear how important collaborative cross-sector partnerships are for effective governance and policy making. I come from a background in community-based policy advocacy, working for three years on various economic justice campaigns. In our work we were constantly attempting to penetrate City Council and City Hall either because we were advocating for more equitable investment of public dollars or because we were lobbying legislation with the purpose of building an economy that worked better for working people.  In all of my experiences we relied heavily on allies in elected office and those positioned in bureaucratic agencies, however, our approach very much emphasized mobilizing pressure from the outside. It was due to significant political mobilization both amongst stakeholders and the community at large that we were able to garner champions in city government. In fact, our end goal was always to move “inside” decision makers even though at times it was very difficult or impossible to do so. To achieve our goals we would constantly hold strategy sessions and conduct power analyses of organizational decision making so that we could reach the right folks on the inside.

With those experiences as my backdrop, my transition into city government working in government affairs for a large public agency has felt at times surreal. Now I find myself much closer to “inside” decision makers and much further removed from the community mobilization that impacts our agency’s decision making. It has been an incredible learning experience thus far to experience such a significant shift in my perspective of local political issues and to better understand the obstacles that are present in the realm of city government.  In many instances the obstacles are completely inverted from those that I experienced in the private nonprofit realm. For example, working for community-based organizations you are always searching for funding sources, and now my agency searches for community organizations of capacity to give money to. When advocating for policies in the community we were always in search of elected officials and bureaucrats to be our allies, now at my agency we are looking for stakeholders to push our agenda from the outside.

This drastic perspective shift from community work to government work and the corresponding change in challenges and opportunities highlights the ever-present need for cross-sector partnerships in order to effectively develop and implement policy. There are many things I have already learned working for the City that I wish I knew when I was a community organizer.  Likewise, there are certain challenges that face bureaucratic agencies that call for outside allies to provide support and mobilization (sometimes support means being challenged on decisions that you were compelled to make but didn’t want to). In recognizing these contrasting opportunities and strengths, it is important to work towards deconstructing the barriers that prevent collaboration between those on the inside of government and those working on the same issues out in our communities. Working in isolated silos will never be effective, whether you are trying to implement a policy as a bureaucrat that never received community input, or if you are a community organizer that is without a friend in city hall to champion your initiative. I think that my organizations both current (public sector) and past (private nonprofit) have been more successful building cross-sector working relationships than most, however, working on both sides I am reminded every day how much each sector needs the other and how much more effective we could be.

Discovering the City…

November 11, 2013

by Celeste Berg, SF2014

I was sold on City Hall Fellows after I learned that the program gives its participants an opportunity to make a “real impact” right out of college. The past few months have proven that this claim—a year to enact tangible change—is indeed true: during my afternoon bike rides, I crest the hill on El Camino del Mar and am greeted by a billboard proclaiming a Capital Planning Program “OneSF” road improvement project, and this simple sign, along with countless other visual and physical cues, continuously remind me of the deep and growing connection I have with “the City.” The overlap between my everyday personal actions and the content of our work amazes me; while riding Muni or flying by the iconic San Francisco Recreation and Parks lamppost banners as I ride home from work, I’ve become aware that I am a unique San Franciscan. A distinct collection of us know the number trends of Muni ridership or the percentage of grade school students that participate in Rec and Park-operated after school programs, and I—this sounds corny, but it’s true—feel proud and honored to be a small part of the local government that keeps our beautiful, majestic city running.

September ushered in the beginning of our placements and marks the period during which I fell deeply in love with San Francisco, both inside and outside of my work. I’m placed in the Controller’s Office in the Performance Unit, and I must that admit that going into my first day of the job, I knew little about the role of the “City Services Auditor,” and I couldn’t get over that someone held the title of “Controller” (go Ben Rosenfield!). The first few hours of my time on the 3rd floor of City Hall cleared up much incidental confusion: I quickly learned that the aptly titled Performance Unit tracks and reports departmental performance metrics, and works jointly with client departments (or singularly on citywide projects) on a diverse range of projects that entail external (but still City-centric) expertise. My projects have immersed me in the language of the City, familiarizing me with how departments interact with each other and exemplifying the internal structure and operations of each individual department. Looking out across Civic Center and seeing the Public Library’s main branch building while analyzing the intricacies of SFPL internal operations is an unassuming yet significant experience that illuminates what it means to have a local impact.

My weekday immersion in local government has manifested itself in my weekend activities, as well. I’ve always been one to take full advantage of my surroundings, and working for the City has motivated an even deeper exploration, underscoring my desire to visit every neighborhood and partake in events that embody San Francisco’s rich culture. Biking around the City has played a major role in my San Francisco education, teaching me the flavor of each neighborhood and how the distinct districts fit together. As I reflect on the past few months, I’m struck by how my work brings context to my personal life, and vice versa. One of my major professional objectives is to find work that is meaningful to me, and these initial months of our immersive fellowship year affirm that working in local government in a city that I love is a deeply fulfilling experience.

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