Entries for the 'Public Private' Category

The Ballroom Speaks

October 29th, 2006

I’m not sure why I keep attending UNOP events. I guess I just feel compelled to see what they’re going to pull next – it’s certainly not from a sense that I’m “participating;” there’s only so much use that can come of asking people to rank their nebulous Needs and Goals (or Hopes and Concerns as was the case yesterday), and only so many times it’s worth asking. For the record, UNOP, I think crime is bad, flood protection is good, and some affordable housing, schools and hospitals would be rather nice too, if I’m allowed to have that many preferences. So I attended yesterday morning’s Community Congress #1 at the Convention Center’s La Nouvelle Orleans Ballroom, where I was treated to presentations on some of the citywide data that’s been collected and analysed to date, and to the first instance of AmericaSpeaks’ involvement in feedback collection.

Hearing some infrastructure, housing, health care, etc statistics was of some interest – not least because it’s the first substantive product made public from the citywide component of the plan. As someone mentioned at the last CSO meeting, it would have been nice if they’d posted all or some of it for citizens to view and digest before being asked to provide feedback on it, but they promise it will go on The Website (for posterity, apparently). Wait and see…

The debut of AmericaSpeaks, the organization “brought in to support the New Orleans planning effort because of concerns that many displaced New Orleanians, especially low-income African-Americans, have no voice in recovery decisions” and to collect data and citizen feedback, was of some interest as well. I hope they have some fancier tricks up their 21st century sleeves for putting the $3 million they expect their endeavor to cost ($2.3 million already committed by mysterious private foundations they decline to identify) to use in future meetings – one of the first things they demonstrated to the ballroom using their wireless, real-time polling gizmos was that we were decidedly not consistent with the pre-Katrina demographics in race, income, geography or age (curiously, they made a specialpoint of emphasizing that the 15-19 year old age group was dramatically underrepresented, and we should take care to consider their interests – under-14 year olds apparently need not worry). What they intend to do to address the imbalance isn’t quite clear to me. They did note that the Congress would be broadcast on cable access channels in the “diaspora cities” and that viewers there would be able to provide their feedback via the UNOP’s toll-free number, but the staffer who answered when I called hadn’t heard anything about that yet.

Maybe the real outreach component of AmericaSpeaks’ program hasn’t begun in earnest – most of the press surrounding AmericaSpeaks’ involvement revolves around the ultimate December 2 Community Congress, so it’s not impossible. I think it would be of enormous benefit to New Orleans to work with an organization that’s capable of locating enough respondents, both here in town and elsewhere, to make up something approaching a representative statistical sampling of pre-Katrina residents and to gather their feelings on how our recovery should go. Unfortunately, not only is it unclear how displaced residents will be reached, the UNOP is losing the audience it’s already had. Among the ways in which an AmericaSpeaks 21st Century Town Meeting (registered trademark) is supposed to be superior to the old-fashioned public hearing is that the public hearing “primarily engages the ‘usual suspects’ – citizens already civically active on specific issues,” and yet there we were, the usual self-selected suspects, diligently reporting to be put through our paces. And that group is rapidly de-selecting – I see fewer and fewer of the faces I know to still be active in their own neighborhoods and in general recovery-related activities. I guess even morbid curiosity wears out after a while.

How to accurately sample a population of which more than half is displaced may be one of the many stretches of uncharted territory New Orleans is faced with right now, but how to compose survey questions to elicit worthwhile, unambiguous answers isn’t. Polling is a pretty well-developed industry. The Usual Suspects may provide an incomplete data set, but they’re by and large an earnest bunch, who give recovery matters a lot of thought, and their responses as individuals count as much as anyone else’s. So what was made of their sacrifice of three hours of a beautiful Saturday morning? Not much, as far as I could tell. I’m not sure how the questions were crafted – I’m sure UNOP told the AmericaSpeaks people what they wanted to ask, but my impression of how AmericaSpeaks conducted the polling suggested that they were more involved than mere readers and tabulators, and anyway, I’d expect an organization that purports to specialize in citizen-led contribution to decision-making to have some expertise how best to craft that opportunity to contribute. A lot of the questions were of the no-brainer variety: it won’t come as much surprise that I’m not the only New Orleanian who thinks hospitals are important. And when issues aren’t so trivial, it isn’t so trivial to design a statement so it can be rated on a 1 to 5 scale – but it isn’t rocket science either. Anyone who’s ever had to answer “on a scale of 1 to 5…” (which is just about everyone) has run across the dilemma conditional situations. It may not be possible to eliminate that entirely, but you can go a long way with a little common sense. I wish I’d saved the 5 page paper questionnaire we were asked to complete, or better yet, just not turned mine in for all the good it’ll do, so I could quote some of the howlers verbatim – one example off the top of my head:

On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 equalling “reason to return to New Orleans” and 5 equalling “reason not to return,” rate the following: adequate levee protection.

Does that mean I’ve returned because I think the levee protection is adequate, or does that mean I would return if it were? After presentations that included current and projected levee status, which is allegedly back up to its pre-Katrina level and undergoing further improvements, I really don’t know which to assume. It didn’t get any better on the rest of the pages.

Also eyebrow raising were a couple instances when AmericaSpeaks president Carolyn Lukensmeyer prefaced questions with admonitions of what to consider while voting. In one case involving funding for parks and recreation areas, she told us to remember the presentation we just heard, and how important it was For The Children (who were probably out enjoying parks and recreation areas rather than sitting in a dark ballroom pretending to be a market-research focus group). If you’d like to capture the true Voice of the People, AmericaSpeaks, you’ll do well to let us remember what to consider on our own. In another case, regarding whether it’s important or not for New Orleans to be the most populous city in the state, Ms. Lukensmeyer brought up Galveston and Houston, raising the specter of becoming a tiny, boutique tourist town while all the real industry moves upriver. Although that happens to be a concern of mine, I don’t think it was AmericaSpeaks’ position to frame the issue in a way that steered attention to an all-or-nothing sort of view while there’s still legitimate room for debate about a smaller, but still vital city. It really isn’t their position to remind us of anything.

So I’m left with the bitter feeling that this is just another UNOP photo-op – the citizenry raptly attentive to the big screen with their very own thoughts and feelings reflected back to them: how democratic (at one point the Founding Fathers were even invoked). And this time they’ve literally outsourced it.

The Ballroom has spoken.

Shaking Foundations

September 6th, 2006

Katrina made New Orleans one enormous laboratory, which didn’t end with dumping the science projects growing in the fridge. We’re about to be one of the biggest things to ever happen to Urban Planning (and all the social theory that goes with it), we are, as far as I know, the first city in the U.S. to switch to a primarily charter public school system, the flood gates and levee repairs are the biggest nail-biter to date in the 21st century, and then there’s the over-arching test of whether and how we’ll survive at all (which plenty of latter-day Know Nothings are anxiously waiting for us to fail).

And then there’s the nonprofits. Last November, Pablo Eisenberg wrote about the future of the nonprofit world in International Center for Nonprofit Law‘s journal, which Karen at NorthwestCarrollton.com brought to my attention. There seems no better place or time to examine the ramifications of his questions “in the field,” than here in New Orleans, where every org worth its charter is involved one way or another, and when private money with a public mission is so critical at every level.

Eisenberg’s first matter of cocern for the future of nonprofits is hardly a new one. It seems there can’t be too much policing against fraud — something we do well to remember in these parts, where some people can’t seem to keep their hands off of donated Durangos. He goes on to detail other threats to the integrity of the sector, like conflicts of interest and increasing commercialization, but less obvious and more interesting to me is his call for all nonprofits in general, but foundations in particular, to promote democratic institutions and practices. By this he doesn’t seem to mean that cancer foundations or Save the Chinchilla drives, say, should quit funding medical research or chinchilla rescue and launch voter registration drives instead, but he claims that:

from its earliest days, a primary mission of the nonprofit sector has been the preservation and strengthening of American democracy. This role has taken many forms: protecting civil liberties and individual rights; leveling the playing field for all citizens; building strong democratic institutions; providing a social safety net for the neediest members of society; and assuring a competitive free-enterprise system.

An interesting assertion because, while I guess I’ve always assumed that nonprofithood should entail some self-sacrificial greater good, I’ve never seen it taken to that level of abstraction and articulated that way. I don’t know if I would have concluded myself that there’s a democratic obligation on the part of foundations and charities, but now I have a hard time saying why that shouldn’t be the case. Between tax-exemption and a stated mission to pursue, a fund or funder yields a certain control to the issue itself, whatever it may be — even if it’s Save the Chinchillas, just what constitutes the Good of Chinchillas is not entirely up to you to decide once you get 501(c)(3) status for it.

Eisenberg goes on to point out that the combination of our eroding social safety nets and the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor have simultaneously made philanthropy more necessary and more concentrated in fewer hands:

The enormous expansion of foundation assets in recent years has added to the inequities in American life. As public support for social programs, job training, affordable housing, and projects to feed the poor and temporarily house the homeless have been reduced, the burden for such responsibilities has increasingly fallen on private individual and institutional philanthropy. Public responsibilities are becoming a matter of private charity. An elite, growing, and unrepresentative group of private foundations are now making decisions about the allocation of funds for social welfare. In a sense, “noblesse oblige” is slowly taking over what should be public decision-making.

Far from leveling the playing field, civil society appears to have acquiesced or, at worst, abetted a national policy that has slowly made it more difficult for many citizens to enjoy equal opportunities and, at the same time, made it easier for wealthy citizens to assert greater control over society.

Noblesse oblige is not what I want to rebuild New Orleans on. As luck would have it, shortly before reading this article, I was talking to my brother, Ben, whose reading list is always worth checking out. It turns out Ben is in the middle of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, about Robert Moses an “idealistic advocate for Progressive reform” who went on to become more powerful than mayors and governors of New York, largely via sitting (unelected) on boards and committees. I haven’t received the copy I ordered yet, but from what I understand, Moses’ noblesse oblige was not much appreciated by the end (even around here: as an advocate for cars and freeways over public transportation, he happens to be the guy who proposed the Vieux Carre Riverfront Expressway, giving us the Second Battle of New Orleans).

One of the most interesting responses to Eisenberg is H. Peter Karoff’s. He ethusiastically takes up the call for greater transparency and public accountibility in nonprofit workings, lambasting paternalistic attitudes among some foundation trustees:

Major foundations more often than not have viewed themselves as the source of innovation, “the manufacturer,” with little if any input from recipient organizations and communities, “the users.” Strategic and Venture Philanthropists likewise often view themselves as crucial to innovation. It is assumed that the nonprofit organization recipients and programs will not, cannot, perform without them. Nonprofit organizations, which are often intermediaries between funders and communities being served, are sometimes guilty of the same patronizing assumptions about constituencies and clients.

Karoff points to the Internet and Open Source software development as the torchbearers of the new Democracy, and the exemplars for future nonprofit management. It’s an admirable and popular sentiment, praising the organization of the Internet and proposing it as a model, but I’m not sure it always means very much without a closer examination of what sorts of collaboration take off and why, and whether the problem being proposed for solution Internet-style lends itself to such a strategy and how. What does it get the chinchillas? And what does it mean for the GNOF, the NOCSF, the LRA Fund, etc.?

I don’t really know, but I think a large part of the answer comes from the zealous nut phenomenon (thanks to Karen again). To add a little to what Karen has already excerpted on her site from the Project for Public Spaces article on the passionate amateurs who are deeply engaged in the upkeep and development of their own communities:

More and more developers, designers and leaders are now realizing that the success of a public project depends on the participation of the public itself. That seems obvious, but it took a long time for many decision makers to figure that out.

The article goes on to note that foundations in some places (like the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint, Michigan) are starting to shift their focus toward the crazy neighborhood ladies (and gentlemen) when it comes to civic improvement.

Whatever happens, it should be interesting to watch the numerous funds and organizations at work here, local, national and international, and their degrees of responsiveness to the public they aim to serve. This debate takes on so much more urgency when actual public policy is being determined by foundations (no offence to the chinchillas). I see some interest in “public input” on the part of the UNOP and its funders, but it’s not quite the same as the kind of democratic responsiveness and public involvement I see in the Eisenberg PPS articles, not yet anyway. How the planning teams themselves relate to their assigned districts will be the test, I suppose.

Reading Karen’s Who Elected the LRA? post and following its links today, I was surprised to find out (where have I been?) that just as the UNOP is supposed to be administered by the CSO, which is overseen by the NOCSF, which was in turn established by the GNOF to manage $4.5 million in grants to create a planning process (acronym and abbreviation help); the information-gathering and planning of LRA‘s long-term recovery planning initiative, “Louisiana Speaks,” is being funded significantly by the LRA Fund, which was established by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation (BRAF), and will be administered by the LRA Support Foundation (created separately from the LRA Fund) once it gets its IRS qualification as a charity. (Gasp. I wish I had a flowchart) For now, as far as I can tell, the LRA Fund Committee is holding the purse-strings.

I shouldn’t be surprised, really. A plan is required to release federal relief funding, but little or no funding is given to the creation of a detailed and comprehensive plan. The city/state/parish is left with no alternative but to look to private donors.

What really surprises me (and maybe this shouldn’t either) is that at the bottom of its home page, the LRASF site declares: “The LRA Fund Committee has voluntarily decided to act in a manner consistent with the spirit of Louisiana Open Meetings Laws.” Kudos to the LRAFC for choosing to be open. I mean that. What concerns me though, is that a private organization that holds the linchpin to the disbursement of billions in public funds (and we’ve been seeing how much the planning of the plan can matter with the UNOP) could chose not to. To be fair, Blanco’s executive order establishing the LRA requires “a mechanism for public input and modifications based on such input,” but the UNOP’s “mechanisms for public input” to date have shown how little and dry a bone the public can be thrown.

I don’t want to suggest at all that private foundations with influence on public spending are all necessarily nefarious evil-doers intent on selling the public lock, stock and barrel to their cronies. But they’re not necessarily saints either, any more than politicians are. Our democracy doesn’t survive by the vote alone; it’s founded on checks and balances and public accountability because it’s just plain bad policy to expect people, even good people, to deny their personal interests for the sake of public interest. Whether it’s willful corruption or the slippery slope of “I have a buddy whose company can do that,” it’s just too easy to drift away from the job you’re entrusted to do when no one is watching how you do it.

It’s an awful lot of responsibility without much obligation I can see that’s not self-imposed. We can hope that personal integrity and/or PR help keep things relatively open (or at least “consistent with the spirit of openness”), but I’m a bit shocked that it would be legal not to.