Anthony Williams served as the mayor of Washington, D.C. from 1999 until 2007. He’s currently the Chief Executive Officer of the Federal City Council, a nonprofit that promotes D.C. advancement.
In an age of growing alienation from civic institutions, the technocrats running many American cities don’t understand what old-style political machines once delivered.
We live in an age of pervasive alienation from public institutions—and subsequent decline of political authority. The public wants simple answers to complex problems. Take the loss of America’s manufacturing jobs. The culprit is not easy to apprehend and there is no one neat and tidy explanation. But the perception remains that jobs are hemorrhaging while a technocratic global elite remains clueless to the carnage. This alienation is also at work in our cities. Governing technocrats need to recalibrate and embrace an agenda more squarely focused on helping communities left behind by gentrification.
For decades, cities have been busy conducting and presenting themselves more professionally. The old ways of machine-run cities, which we can call Local Authority 1.0, have been cast aside for Technocracy 2.0. Exit patronage-based hiring, enter LinkedIn searches; exit neighborhood-based earmarks, enter performance-based budgeting. Mayors such as New York City’s Michael Bloomberg, Indianapolis’ Stephen Goldsmith, and yours truly are all early examples of mayoralties that emphasized open data and a dispassionate leadership style. At the national level, Barack Obama embodied this cool, unemotional, no-drama style. Many major American cities have embraced and entrenched these values, and have even created a C-suite position—Chief Data Officers (CDOs). The aim here? Better management—of organizations, people, technology, and process—will lead to better outcomes for residents.
In many ways, Technocracy 2.0 has delivered. Most visibly in transportation: Open data standards make it easier to access transit information and lead smart city initiatives to reduce traffic congestion through demand-pricing for parking in San Francisco or D.C. or timed street lights in Pittsburgh. Certainly, there’s more financial responsibility. And lest we forget, more cost-effective service delivery helps people who need it most, in education, human services, and public safety.
But the technocrats have failed to erase the widespread belief in our communities that city leaders are indifferent to social inequality. Indeed, this style of data-driven governance is seen as driving gentrification as it seeks to make cities more appealing to Millennials. It’s their commutes that are getting easier, and their communities becoming more livable.
Of course, those new young residents pay the taxes that add up to better services for poor and working-class communities. But that’s not how it’s observed. Go to a church or community meeting and you will hear complaints about how much worse inequality has gotten in this era of data-driven government. The residents left behind, who were there from the beginning, are seeing their rents or property taxes going up and their incomes stagnate. Where, they ask, are the data-driven solutions for jobs and affordable housing? Means and data be damned. They want results. Ask old-timers why they resent bike lanes and you begin to see the picture.
Consider now the golden age of city political machines a century ago. There was plenty not to like under these regimes, from buying votes and self-enrichment to punishing political heretics. But voter turnout in mayoral elections was higher, and people believed real and tangible benefits were forthcoming. The machines gave poor people jobs and delivered some of the first welfare supports before the New Deal. They engaged poor ethnic residents in politics. The Irish faced brutal treatment and oppression in New York City in the late 19th Century. Seen through these eyes, Tammany Hall stood up for them and took care of them. Husband died in a tragic factory accident? Go visit the local alderman and he’ll make sure you won’t be left homeless (provided you vote for him).
The belief on the street today? Take a fall and you’re on your own.
Many residents find more modern systems of patronage a no less effective way of doing business. Say what you want about Marion Barry, but he was a brilliant man who built a massive patronage system and following in Washington, D.C. He gave African Americans hope when the majority black city was fighting the city’s white overlords in Congress. And he could deliver major economic projects, and most importantly, a fairer share of jobs. Despite fiscal mismanagement and abysmal service delivery, he remains to this day extremely popular among poor and working-class African Americans. These communities feel alienated, lost, and overwhelmed in modern D.C.
To many neighborhood activists, modern city governments seem OK with another form of corruption—pandering to business. Cities and states are happy to dole out tax or regulatory breaks as an economic strategy, even when businesses are under no obligation to make any jobs available. Critics cite studies that show that these deals do nothing more than give local pols a nice photo op. Corporate handouts are good, but handouts to needy folks are forbidden. Is this fair, they ask?
Citizens are more disillusioned than ever with their local leaders. Fed up, they want leaders who will do what it takes to bring back jobs—the old-school, 1.0 definition of livability.
Cities will not throw away all that they’ve gained through this technocracy; we can’t return to the machine era of unfettered discretion in hiring and contracts exercised behind closed doors. That said, we technocrats have to reframe our message and rethink our priorities. We have to talk about more than clean and efficient government. Higher atop the agenda should be an economically sustainable minimum wage, cost-effective ways to maintain and expand affordable housing, and better job training and placement. Let’s deploy our analytical horsepower in the service of long-time residents, connecting the data dots to jobs and improving the lot of still-struggling people. We need a Political Authority 3.0 at the local level—with the brain of the technocrat and the heart of the old ward heeler.