How to Build a Better Bureaucracy: An Honest Conversation

To kick off our program “Better Bureaucracies: Three NY institutions, three collaborative approaches,” social impact designer April De Simone asked audience members to raise their hands if they had positive associations with the word “bureaucracy.”

If any hands went up, they didn’t go very high.

“This afternoon, we’ll try to shed some light on what’s going on in a few New York City bureaucracies,” she said. “So if we ask that question again at the end, maybe we’ll get a few more hands.”

April is co-founder of designing the WE, and moderated our April 14 discussion and community gathering at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Panelists Melissa Appleton, Project Manager at the Participatory Budgeting Project; Vlada Kenniff, Director of Sustainability Programs at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA); and Sabina Saragoussi, Director of Partnerships for Parks, all took time out from the first sunny Saturday of the spring season to discuss how their organizations are empowering resident leaders to create the changes they want to see in their neighborhoods.

The speakers set the stage by offering some revealing statistics and insights about where they work:

  • Vlada, NYCHA’s first-ever sustainability director, said that 1 in 14 New Yorkers lives in public housing; that NYCHA employs 11,000 people; and that the agency is currently facing a $20 billion capital gap. They also have their communications work cut out for them. For example, many NYCHA properties host public playgrounds and green spaces, but non-residents often don’t know they are also allowed to use them.
  • Sabina explained that Partnerships for Parks is a public-private venture that spends a lot of its time convening park users so they can discuss their divergent priorities, concerns, and aggravations, and get tangible support from the city and community groups. She said the organization strives to hold multiple public meetings about each project they’re involved with, at different times of day and with as many language interpreters as necessary. They also try to hire from different communities to reflect the diversity of the residents using neighborhood green spaces.
  • Melissa announced that NYC’s participatory budgeting (PB) vote week was currently underway (April 7 – 15), and she encouraged everyone to vote who hadn’t already. She said Toronto was the first North American city to implement PB: they did so about 15 years ago, through their public housing authority. However, the idea of PB first came to our neck of the woods from Brazil, where it has been practiced for over 30 years!

The panel shared real-life examples of how their organizations are partnering with local leaders around NYC to help them build equity in their neighborhoods.

Sabina clarified that “equity” doesn’t just mean “giving the same amount to everyone”—not when historical inequalities come into play. “Some NYC parks haven’t been touched in 20 years,” she said, “so NYC Parks is now prioritizing their renovation. We’re also seeing residents themselves stepping up to reclaim these spaces.”

One example Sabina gave of such initiative took place through People Make Parks, a collaboration between Partnerships and Hester Street Collaborative to help New Yorkers participate in the design of their parks—or, as Sabina put it, to “crack open the capital process.” One of their projects was to collect community ideas and incorporate them into the redesign of the playground in Manhattan’s Sara D. Roosevelt Park. “Neighbors wanted their culture reflected in the new playground,” Sabina said, “so Hester Street led local schoolchildren in creating the mosaic installation for the playground’s walls. The kids actually drew what they wanted to see on the tiles that were used in the construction.”

Vlada worked at NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for over 10 years prior to joining NYCHA. She said the $2 billion green infrastructure plan the agency released in 2010 was a direct result of community advocacy by groups like WE ACT. She related the story of a NYCHA resident in Brownsville, Brooklyn who—after campaigning for eight years to improve recycling in her building—was awarded $20,000 through the NYCx Co-Lab Challenge to implement her idea. “We both had tears in our eyes when she won,” she said.

“There used to be more government funding, resident green committees, more support for building out gardens—but that’s been gone for some years,” Vlada said. “That loss is felt. We hear it from residents. It’s a void.” But, she said, the Fund for Public Housing recently committed to creating more opportunities for residents to work with NYCHA to make their ideas happen. The first of these projects, led by the Rockaway Youth Task Force, raised almost $30,000 (on ioby!) to construct two community gardens for use by residents of NYCHA’s Ocean Bay apartments.

Melissa said the staff of the Participatory Budgeting Project thinks a lot about how to use PB as a tool for equity. “We ask ourselves: ‘How do we ensure that well-resourced groups don’t take over the whole thing?’ ‘How can we support people who have not historically seen themselves as being involved with the government?’ When we’re evaluating projects for the ballot, we think, ‘Would this build connections in the neighborhood that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise?’” One of the Project’s recent responses, decided via a city-wide steering committee, was to lower the PB voting age to 11! In addition, there are no restrictions with regard to immigration status: every resident can vote.

“I spoke with a woman outside a voting site who had lived here for 30 years and this was the first thing she had ever voted on,” Melissa said. “We’re seeing the community get directly involved, and we’re seeing PB expand.” In his February State of the City address, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced PB will be implemented in all NYC public high schools starting in the next school year. Melissa encouraged audience members to check whether their city council representative participates in PB. “If they don’t, call them and ask them to!”

Before taking questions from the audience and offering ways to stay connected, the panel shared some parting thoughts about the importance of resident engagement.

“In this political climate, we’ve seen more people getting involved locally,” Melissa said. “We might not be able to change what’s going on in Washington, but we can change what our new park looks like. We’ve seen that knowledge leading to more resident collaboration with government agencies.”

“I’ve been working in bureaucracies for 15 years,” Vlada said. “I’ve seen people hiding in their cubicles. I’ve seen people sit in their own silos and do their own thing. Now that we have more people coming out—like you—to their community boards and to these events, that’s changing. We have the Parks Without Borders initiative; we have the Ideas Marketplace. Large bureaucracies like DEP and NYCHA need advocacy from the bottom up, as well as strong leadership at the top. We really need both.”

“I work for a city agency, and even I don’t know who to call sometimes!” Sabina said. “Sometimes I don’t understand where the money for something comes from, or where it goes! It’s a constant struggle; I want to admit that. That’s why it’s so important that we take the time to make these human connections. If we’re building these strong networks with our feet on the ground, that will help us craft the future of what this city is. We can direct it rather than coming up against it and having to fight it.”

April thanked the panel for giving of their time and expertise, and noted that “sometimes we see the results, but we don’t see the hard work that went into them.” After hearing about some of “these innovative approaches that are removing silos to help us take back the land and make government by the people and for the people,” she hoped the crowd would leave with at least a few more positive associations with the B-word.


Additional resources:

Undesign the Redline: This interactive exhibit, workshop series, and curriculum explores how our country’s history of structural racism has shaped geography, place, and class in the United States—and how we can come together now to un-design racist systems. See the exhibition at Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx and Conservatory Mansion in Trenton, New Jersey.

The ioby guide to Getting Good Done in Cleveland: We know the best community initiatives involve collaboration, coordination, and teambuilding—and that working with city government for the first time can be daunting! That’s why we developed a guide to make it easier to connect and work with city officials on neighborhood projects. (While we polled two outstanding Cleveland city employees to write it, their advice is broadly applicable.)

One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams: April shared a cautionary quote from this book, co-written by former Navy SEAL Chris Fussell: “In any bureaucracy, there’s a natural tendency to let the system become an excuse for inaction.”