A Real Public Advocate for New York City

During the recent New York City Mayoral campaign, Mayor Michael Bloomberg advocated eliminating the City's Public Advocate Office. Speaking to the Staten Island Advance on October 11, 2009, Bloomberg observed that: "You should get rid of the public advocate. It's a total waste of everybody's money. Nobody needs another gadfly and we have an aggressive enough press." The Mayor is about to initiate a new Charter Revision Commission to look at the government's structure and eliminating this office will probably be on the commission's agenda.

While I agree that the current version of the public advocate's office is a waste of money, I actually think we need to head in the other direction and create a stronger public advocate and ombudsperson office for New York City. The mayor is wrong when he says that the press is aggressive enough. The media may annoy him, and they may appear to be aggressive, but they largely focus on high profile scandals that attract attention and advertisers. They don't do much reporting on the operations of city government. As newsrooms lose their investigative staff capacity, this will only get worse, and the city government will continue to lack a meaningful check on its actions.

New York City is the largest local government in the United States with a budget of over $60 billion and more than 280,000 employees. The local level is where government does the heavy lifting of delivering essential services. The complexity of managing such a huge enterprise requires a strong, executive centered government structure, and under the current city charter, that is what New York's got. The mayor of New York City is the second most powerful government official in the United States -- and that is a very good thing. The problem is that we may have too much of a good thing. We need a strong executive with the power to ensure that the place functions, but we also need an independent voice to evaluate and critique government's actions. The current public advocate's office has too few resources to play this role. Its budget ranges between $2 and $3 million a year, and according to its web site it has a staff of around 30.

I would like to see a revised city charter that strengthens the office of public advocate. We should try to create an organization with the resources to monitor and evaluate all the functions of city government. We could start by having the Independent Budget Office report to the public advocate. That office has gradually developed a reputation for sound, professional policy and management analysis and is about the same size (31 staff) as the public advocate's office. The Independent Budget Office's chief problem is that its work is easy to ignore because it is too independent and is disconnected from politics. It will never be the equivalent of the federal government's Congressional Budget Office or its Government Accountability Office because it has no real role in the city's political process. Give newly elected Public Advocate Bill de Blasio a real analytic arm and the mayor and his commissioners would know they were being watched.

I wouldn't stop there. I would also move the Conflict of Interest Board and its 19 staff and nearly $2 million annual budget into the public advocate's Office as well. An outside assessment of the ethical behavior of city employees would enhance the independence of those reviews, but more importantly would convince those employees that the Public Advocate's office could not be ignored. A major problem with the current Public Advocate's office is that it has no significant charter-driven tasks. The Conflict of Interest Board has specific rules it must interpret and enforce, but having it report to the mayor is itself a sort of conflict of interest.

These are just two examples of methods that could be used to strengthen this office without adding to the city's overall budget. I'm sure that a well managed charter revision board staff could find other opportunities to build a more muscular advocate's office if they were directed to do so.

I recognize, of course, that this proposal is not politically feasible. While Mayor Bloomberg is a tough and often unforgiving internal critic of agency performance, he prefers to keep his critique internal and private. While that works well with a self-financed Mayor with impressive command of operational and financial data, it will once again be proven disastrous when the city is run by non-billionaires who must raise their own campaign cash. It is hard for me to imagine that Mayor Bloomberg will reverse course and change his position from eliminating the office to strengthening it. It's even harder for me to imagine that future mayors or city councils would support the creation of a powerful competitor.

Mayor Bloomberg is correct when he says the current office is relatively useless. The weak powers of the office and its lack of resources marginalized the first two public advocates. When Mark Green was advocate, the office was characterized by PR antics and other devices designed to position him to run for mayor (an office with real power). The outgoing advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, tried to accommodate the mayor and find small issues that could be tackled without generating controversy. Given this meager track record, it's easy to see why the office attracts such derision.

But an empowered public advocate's office could provide meaningful oversight of the city's powerful mayor's office and the government it manages. It would have real work to do and some of the resources needed to do it. One of the reasons for inadequate government performance is the absence of competition. One way to deal with that problem is to analyze and evaluate agency performance and then expose both the performance and analysis to public scrutiny. I think that a stronger advocate could and should be assigned this critical role in the city's government.