Cutting Through the Red Tape

A Reflection on Public Goods and Political Platforms

July 23, 2015

By Elliot Karl, 2015 SF City Hall Fellow
On November 4, 2014, San Francisco voters approved the Transportation and Road Improvement Bond. This bond, commonly referred to as Proposition A, enabled the City to borrow $500 million to meet a small portion of the $10 billion in critical SFMTA infrastructure needs through 2030. Only twenty-four days later on November 28, 2014, 14 #BlackLivesMatter protestors were arrested for disrupting transbay BART service in an act of political speech to protest the excessive use of police force against Black communities and other communities of color. This event occurred days after a grand jury failed to indict Darren Wilson for shooting 18-year old Michael Brown. The #BlackLivesMatter demonstrators now face criminal and restitution charges of up to $70,000.

Although these events involve separate regional transit systems and may seem unrelated to some, they inspired many questions which have followed me through my year as a City Hall Fellow.

After almost a year working in the capital finance arm of San Francisco’s multi-modal transportation agency, I have grown very passionate about the great fiscal challenges American cities face in meeting the increasing transit demands on built infrastructure, which has a long history of neglectful public investment. In my day-to-day work, I observe the great collaborative efforts undertaken to address the current need in San Francisco. Project managers, transportation planners, and financial analysts strive to maximize the quality and extent of renovation and expansion projects with limited resources. Thousands of people operate, maintain, and build the system. Public information officers work to effectively communicate these efforts to funders and the public to ensure renewed investment. Furthermore, as someone who has lived without a driver’s license for some time, I am also intimately aware of the value of and public reliance on these systems; most mornings, I have to push myself onto BART at West Oakland Station and watch as Muni Metro LRVs arrive at Civic Center, also bursting at the seams.

Considering the clear reliance on urban transit systems as a public good and their history of underinvestment, I suppose I am neither surprised at the strategic interruption of service to make political statements, nor at the criticisms of how this further burdens essential system operation and affects hundreds of thousands of commuters and transit employees. Any simple review of America’s civic and human rights history shows that our buses, roads, and trains have never been apolitical and, in fact, are often ground zero for some of the greatest civil rights demonstrations–and abuses–in industrialized history. The use of a transit system as a vehicle for political speech will command the attention of a region and is incredibly strategic for those whose voices may be shut out or dismissed in other forums. Yet, as an employee of the SFMTA, I can also respect how these actions can have serious financial and service impacts on stressed transportation networks.

As a City Hall Fellow, I came to the program under the premise that I could “change [my] city, change [my] future,” which seemed like an exciting opportunity to leverage public processes to effect social change. When I look back on my year, I realize that I’m instead leaving with a much more nuanced understanding of the role that government can play in effecting social change, without feeling that I was, personally, empowered to make the impact which I had imagined. I don’t ever foresee public agencies attempting to galvanize public attention to demand social change in the way that #BlackLivesMatter does. However, I deeply appreciate the commitment I’ve observed in my placement to maintaining and expanding public resources, which can be major tools for reparative redistribution. During a time when many of our public services have to compete with less-accessible alternatives from the contracting economy (ex. Uber, Lyft, Leap), committing public dollars to services is an essential step towards achieving more social equity. It has been while I’ve observed conflicts between these commitments and activism that calls attention to social inequity by targeting publicly owned infrastructure that I’ve been forced to interrogate both my convictions about local governments’ transformative potential and our obligations, as a community, to avoid the interruption of public services. I am finishing my City Hall Fellows year with more questions than I have answers and am deeply appreciative of the experience for this challenge. I don’t feel that I’ve learned enough to articulate a firm opinion on the matter, but am excited to explore this tension in my future work in local government and long-term career.

Transportation Matters

June 17, 2015

road signage

By Eli Longnecker, 2015 SF City Hall Fellow

Before I started my placement at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency in August, I didn’t have any more interest in transportation than the average suburb-dweller (which is to say: minimal). I never rode the bus growing up in sprawling Chapel Hill, North Carolina, even though there was no fare. When I traveled to new cities, I mostly feared taking public transit because inevitably I would have to navigate foreign payment systems, confusing maps, and lots of strangers all together in a sealed container.

It wasn’t until studying in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that I regularly relied on public transit to get me from point A to point B, and mastering the art of colectivos (buses) and the Subte (subway system) became one of my proudest accomplishments. During my time in Buenos Aires, the Subte operators went on strike for ten days. The city was immobilized for this time: no classes, no work, no errands. Readers from the Bay Area will remember the BART strike from summer 2013 and its equally pervasive effects on the entire region. Those two experiences made tangible to me the degree to which a public transit system is the lifeblood of our urban ecosystem. As they say, you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.

Or, as a City Hall Fellow might tell you, you don’t know what you got ‘til you can spend a year within its walls. My placement in the Office of the Chief of Staff means I get to engage with the SF public transportation system from a human standpoint. The plurality of the SFMTA workforce (around 2,000 of 6,000 total) operates the buses and light rail vehicles. Another large group of staff is devoted to maintaining the vehicles, the tracks, and the cable infrastructure that enable the Muni buses and trains to move.

Meanwhile, dozens of engineers design the layout of streets, the timing of traffic signals, and who knows what else (!!). Beyond that, there are the folks who work to secure the funding and balance the budget to keep the system running, the folks who enforce fare payment, and other folks who make sure that all the aforementioned people receive a paycheck. The list goes on. And there is the incredible part, to me: it takes thousands of people to keep the transportation network running. Not to mention keeping it safe, affordable, accessible, and adaptable to inevitable disruptions on the city streets. All of these demands, on top of decades of underfunding, mean it’s an exciting time to be working in transportation.

I will never be a normal public transit rider, or pedestrian, again after this experience. The newfound lens I’ve gained from my work so far with the SFMTA means that I step onto a bus or walk down a street much more conscientiously than I did before. While I’m not an expert on any of these things, I have much more insight into how and why they work than I ever did before. When I look at a street, I might observe the placement and type of bicycle lane, where the transit stops are (and what agencies operate them), and whether there’s parking. When I look at a bus, I think about the driver and her schedule, what kind of traffic there is today, what pleasant or angry passengers have been aboard. The most random of all, perhaps, is suddenly noticing the big yellow dots painted onto pavement at intersections. They’re filled in or empty and with a line intersecting or not, to signal to operators what kind of turn or stop is ahead. I can’t tell you what each one means, but I can assure you that they’re alerting operators all over the city without you even noticing. See above.

This altered perception of the urban environment is not something I carry alone; there are thousands of other SFMTA employees who share some part of this experience. When I first started, I’d talk to other staff about it and they assured me that it’s normal (we make interesting traveling companions)! Beyond that, I am able to better appreciate the immense amount of work that goes into moving people around the City and the challenges to be confronted both now and in the future. The SFMTA has more money now than any time in the last fifty years or so; we’re in a period of immense transition and growth. I am inspired by the people around me who work to leverage these resources equitably and sustainably, and hope to continue learning about the Agency and opportunities to keep public transportation on a just course.


Implementation, and the Road Ahead

May 29, 2015

By Kyra Sikora, 2015 City Hall Fellow

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in the passage of laws and the political structures that catalyze their passage. When I was little, my parents would take me down to the main intersection in our town, and we would spend Saturday afternoons registering voters for the next election. While many families steered clear of politics at the dinner table, politics was the bread and butter of our dinner conversation. After spending a lot of time thinking about my past experiences and the wealth of knowledge I have gained in my time as a Fellow, I have discovered something pretty significant (and perhaps obvious): the passage of a law is just the beginning of good governance.

One memory in particular has provided me with a telling example of how this program has shifted my perspective on government. During the summer after my junior year of college, I interned at the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. On the day that the Affordable Care Act passed, our intern class crowded around the televisions projecting the results of the decision like we were watching the Super Bowl. When the Supreme Court finally handed down the decision, our entire office celebrated the legislative victory as if it was our own. And while I did consider the passage of the Affordable Care Act to be a historic victory in and of itself, I gave little thought to the massive task that lay ahead. Implementing a complicated, detailed law that touches so many different sectors, doctors, and patients would not be easy.

Almost three years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, I learned that the City of San Francisco is still working to incorporate ACA provisions in its complex healthcare system through a variety of projects. In thinking back to my experience at the DNC, I am struck by how limited my view of government was, and how broad it has become since starting the City Hall Fellows program. Through my placement as a Fellow in the Controller’s Office, I have assisted with numerous projects and studies, including the chance to study the complicated process behind property appraisal at the Assessor-Recorder’s office; I have discussed performance measurement with a diverse range of city departments, and I have even had the chance to immerse myself in the planning process that occurs when the city wants to construct a new government building.

Each of these projects has taught me the value and importance of implementation in the governing process. Local governance is a constantly evolving progression, and I have so much more to learn.

Insights into the City Hall Fellows Program

March 08, 2015

By Jessica Huey.

I can still remember the phone call.

It was late March 2008 and I was in my last year at Brown University. Startled by the vibration of my phone, I looked down and saw an unrecognized number. At about this time before graduation, any college senior knows that an unrecognized number is usually one of three things: 1) a job; 2) no job; or 3) irrelevant.

As I ran to the hallway to take the call, I got the news. I had just been selected for the first class of City Hall Fellows. I’d be moving back to California and starting my career in San Francisco city government. I was beyond ecstatic. However, after the excitement settled, the questions started coming. What exactly would I be doing? Was a fellowship the best way for me to start my career? Did city government really have that much to offer?

I’ll spare you the suspense; my time as a City Hall Fellow was the beginning of a five-year relationship with San Francisco city government and a long-lasting passion for the important role cities play in all aspects of our lives. City Hall Fellows gave me the platform and the tools to not only begin a career in city government but to understand the complexity of cities – something useful in any career. So, if you’re interested in City Hall Fellows, here’s what you should know:

  • City governments are where the action is.

Think city governments are boring? Retrace the steps of your day so far. From the public works crew that cleaned the streets you used on the way to school/work to the public utilities that maintained the infrastructure to keep the lights on to the biofuel coordinator who made sure your favorite restaurant isn’t clogging water pipes with grease, city governments are directly involved in almost every aspect of our daily lives.

  • City government services are more complex than you think.

City services are far from one-dimensional. If you think public libraries and their paper books are a thing of the past in this digital age, think again. Cody Zeger, CHF’15 or Christopher Norman, CHF’14 will tell you that libraries are far from being just about books. Rather, they play a vital role as a community resource for all types of individuals – from students or job seekers who need the space and computers to study or apply for jobs to those without a home who for a few hours each day have a welcome place off the streets. Similarly, it’s an educational community space for families, book clubs, and cultural organizations who utilize the public space for a wide variety of events like Youth Speaks.

  • City Hall Fellows is more than just a placement.

So, what about City Hall Fellows? More than helping you get a foot in the city government door, City Hall Fellows provides you with an accelerated civic learning environment on steroids. With the weekly Civic Leadership Development Program with different topics/presenters throughout the year, full-time work on a specific project with a city department, exposure to the role cities play in state and federal government through trips to the state and national capitols, and group consulting projects for city officials or agencies, you’ll be getting a comprehensive look at the roles cities play in just about everything. Additionally, the cohort structure allows you to learn from your other Fellows who bring a richness and diversity of experiences; I was completely humbled by the individuals who I was able to call my peers.

  • City Hall Fellows is about stepping up.

Perhaps most importantly, City Hall Fellows is about empowering the next generation of civic leaders to take action now. For my placement, I worked with the Workforce Development Division with the Department of Human Resources. I had absolutely no background nor – to be frank – much prior interest in this area. In fact, before I started I had this flash of panic that my experience would end up being glorified, yet predictively bureaucratic, paper pushing. Instead, I was immediately thrown into meetings with top policy officials, union organizers, and engaged citizens working to advance forward-looking policies for the City – and people were asking me to roll up my sleeves and be a part of the conversation.

For my projects, I worked on a citywide Civil Service Reform project aimed at modernizing outdated rules and procedures while at the same time digging deep into workforce statistics to help produce a Workforce and Succession Planning report and conference. Through these projects, I saw how important it was to maintain strong labor relationships – and how closely connected labor relations was to budget and policy planning. After my fellowship, I had the opportunity to join the City’s Labor Negotiations Team as they worked to help solve a historic $500 million budget deficit. I would never have known about this opportunity nor had the skills to perform the role had it not been for City Hall Fellows throwing me into the ring and helping me to develop my skillset.

  • Understanding city governments isn’t just for those interested in careers in the public sector.

Finally, to put it simply – city governments are hot places right now. People are increasingly seeing city governments as platforms for innovation and realizing just how influential they are on the local economy. In December 2014, Bloomberg Philanthropies invested $45 million to expand its Innovation Team program aimed at improving the capacity of City Halls to improve citizens’ lives through new approaches using data, open innovation, and strong project and performance management. The value proposition being that if cities can better innovate, then the benefits will extend out to the community and citizens. Similarly, the explosion of the sharing economy and civic startups has refocused the spotlight on cities’ role in regulating or bolstering new economies. Understanding how cities work is becoming of greater importance to more than just individuals in the public sector.

If you decide to apply, best of luck to you! City Hall Fellows is an incredible platform to not only start a career in public service but also to better understand just what it takes to keep our cities running.

“Fortunately, cities and metros—and the networks of leaders who govern them—mayors for sure but also business, civic, community, business, labor and environmental leaders—are responding with pragmatism, energy and ambition to, as we say in America, ‘get stuff done.’” – Bruce Katz, Metropolitan Revolution

Jessica Huey is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Prior to graduate school, she spent five years working in San Francisco city government on labor negotiations and workforce development initiatives.  Jessica was a member of the inaugural class of City Hall Fellows (2008-09) and later Co-Chair of the City Hall Fellows National Advisory Board (2012-13).

Copyright 2007-2012. City Hall Fellows. All rights reserved.