Wall Street Journal City Chided for Setting Bar Too Low by Josh Dawsey

Wall Street Journal
Wall Street Journal
City Chided for Setting Bar Too Low
Josh Dawsey
12/11/2015

Some on the New York City Council are pushing the de Blasio administration to set higher goals for city-government performance and plan to ask officials Monday why City Hall doesn’t set targets for some agencies or sets them lower than what the agencies now achieve.

On more than 900 of more than 1,500 indicators of city performance in 2015, City Hall set no specific targets moving forward.

“If the agencies realize they aren’t going to be challenged, why would they put up a more stringent goal or do more work?” said Harvey Robins, director of operations in the David Dinkins administration. “Bureaucrats often respond to the lowest common denominator.”

Previous administrations also sometimes didn’t set targets and sometimes set targets that were lower than the current performance, according to publicly available reports.

But as city agencies spend more money and hire more people in the de Blasio era, Ben Kallos, a Manhattan councilman holding an oversight hearing on the city Monday, said questions should be asked when tougher targets aren’t set from year to year.

The city’s goals are outlined in an annual document called the Mayor’s Management Report. The compendium details the city’s performance in everything from trash pickup to murders to snow removal to emergency response. The latest edition was issued in September.

In the new edition, about 200 future targets are lower than current performance, leaving council members and others confused.

City Hall officials say many of the targets are based on a mix of national, unchanging standards, such as wait times for people who call the 311 information line, and an analysis of historical data. They also say some targets represent the lowest—or the highest—mark that would satisfy the city.

“Mayor de Blasio has taken on some of the toughest issues imaginable—such as tackling homelessness, curbing pedestrian deaths, and improving mental health services,” said a de Blasio spokeswoman. “To suggest this administration is setting easy goals or low standards is quite frankly ludicrous.”

And, said officials of past administrations, it is sometimes difficult to improve on the statistical performance of a given municipal agency.

In 2013, the Bloomberg administration issued some targets that were lower than the then-current year’s performance and sometimes didn’t list targets, including some for the New York Police Department and the Department of Education.

“It’s not the most aspirational way of looking at it, but it’s not entirely uncommon,” Liz Squadron, director of operations in the final years of the Bloomberg administration, said of targets higher than current performance. Ms. Squadron said agencies should always look to improve and that she pushed agency heads to set higher goals.

City agencies are judged on whether performance improves or declines, including on whether they meet targets published in the report. The Bloomberg administration defined targets on what it expected for the following year, according to reports that officials published. Mr. Robins and others say the city report loses value when the goals aren’t stringent.

In the new edition of the report, the city sets a target for the number of homeless people on the street (3,350) that is higher than the current estimated number (3,200).

A City Hall spokeswoman said the city had made the 3,350 goal for next year based on the “internal expertise and research” at the city’s homeless department.”

The city’s goal for infant mortality is 4.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with the 4.2 deaths that was recorded this year. A spokeswoman for City Hall said the report had a typographical error and the goal should have been published as 4.2 deaths per 1,000.

The city also sets out a target that would have it take longer to address noise complaints than it did this year. A City Hall spokeswoman said the goal reflected city research on what the “expected service level” should be for noise complaints, but that the administration wanted to exceed it.

Issue: 
Good Government