• How is #NYC tackling poverty and inequality? @mattklein_ explains that the team under @NYCMayor are using data to target impact at scale
  • Evidence, innovation and equality: the triple priorities for the team at @NYCOpportunity as they seek city-wide poverty reduction
  • After coming late to #government, @mattklein_ has been busy making up for lost time by helping reduce #NYC poverty via @NYCOpportunity

30-second summary

  • As executive director of New York’s Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunities, Matt Klein is leading the city’s efforts to use evidence and innovation to reduce poverty and promote equality.
  • Human-centred design, rigorous evaluation, randomised control trials, data analytics and data integration are just a few of the tools and approaches being deployed.
  • Building on the data-centric foundations of the previous administration, Klein and his team are combining the use of evidence to launch a full-scale assault on poverty – and they’re making good progress.

Matt Klein’s got a big job on his hands – not that he’s complaining. As executive director of New York’s Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity – NYC Opportunity – he and his team have been tasked with using evidence and innovation to reduce poverty and promote equity. If that sounds daunting, Klein doesn’t show it. On the contrary, he wishes he’d joined government earlier in his career.

“If I could give advice to my younger self, it would probably be to engage with government earlier,” he says.  “This is my first stint in government and so, having seen first-hand its potential and capacity, I think folks like me who are interested in social change ought to make sure that government is part of their approach from the very beginning; not necessarily working in government but engaging with government.”

The good news is he’s been busy making up for lost time.

A tale of two cities?

Klein joined Mayor de Blasio’s administration in 2014, a few months after the first mayoral term began. Previously, he had been the executive director of Blue Ridge Foundation New York, one of the country’s first incubators of non-profit organisations. While there, he helped create and build 30 new social ventures that collectively grew to provide services to several hundred thousand clients each year, with a combined budget of over $250 million.

This experience left him ideally suited to help tackle some of New York’s deepest and most systemic issues – many of which are not always apparent to visitors from out of town. After all, what comes to mind when you think of New York? The array of skyscrapers jostling for position in Manhattan? The calm oasis of Central Park? The retail nirvana of Fifth Avenue? The pulsing tidal wave of humanity that sweeps from the Bronx to Battery Park?

But while their city’s global status is assured, New Yorkers themselves have their fair share of problems. Although crime has plunged, rents remain high, and the metro system – while under control of the state government – is buckling under the demands of an ever-increasing city population.

Poverty, too, has remained in the spotlight. Here, we know that some improvements are underway: NYC Opportunity’s own 2017 annual report found that the city-wide poverty rate fell from 20.6% in 2014 to 19.9% in 2016. Progress, then, but much still to do – a point not lost on Klein.

Opportunity knocks?

From analysing existing anti-poverty approaches to developing new interventions and facilitating the sharing of data across city agencies, NYC Opportunity is seeking to help city government bring the poverty rate down further and faster. “We have a focus on research, data, design, and applying methodologies and framework to the city’s programmes, policies, service delivery, and ideally, budget decisions,” explains Klein.

And they do this in many ways, it transpires. “We do our best to integrate a number of different things: human-centred design, rigorous evaluation, randomised control trials, data analytics and data integration,” he continues. Klein’s team has also evolved to focus not only on new programmes that might originate out of its own office, but also to apply its lens of evidence and effectiveness across the broad range of the city’s social services.

“The tools that were previously pointed at start-up projects are now being used on broader city-wide initiatives,” he says. “These include evaluation of the city’s new universal pre-kindergarten programme or managing particular elements of a city-wide mental health initiative or applying tools of human-centred design to the way that the city is grappling with homelessness. These are examples of exporting the tools of evidence and innovation to city-wide practice.”

The revolution is happening in New York

Much like his predecessor, Mike Bloomberg, Mayor de Blasio is an advocate for a data-driven approach to governing – something that Klein says threads through the administration as a whole. “For us, the founding principles were rooted in using data and evidence to make decisions, and to be rigorous about assessing and determining whether programmes work or don’t work,” he says.

But it’s not just about data – bearing down on inequality is front and centre of the new approach. “I think we have benefited from the data-centric culture established under Bloomberg, but I think the legitimacy of the office now is also rooted in the fact that the city administration as a whole is focused on the issue of poverty at scale,” says Klein.

“For example, Mayor de Blasio established the first concrete poverty reduction goal with an aim to move 800,000 people out of poverty or near poverty over 10 years. I think that gives important legitimacy in the sense that it’s broadly understood that we’re not just using data on very small programmes. We’re thinking about broad scale impact. So it’s not only measuring it, but it’s having meaningful and bold goals as well.”

The ambition to lift so many New Yorkers out of poverty is on track, helped in large part by projects like the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Accelerated Study in Associate Programs) – an attempt to help more students complete their degrees by not only helping with the financial barriers but also offering guidance around coursework and peer support.

Initially, the programme had 1,000 students before growing under Mayor Bloomberg to 4,000 students. As a result of the evidence of its success, Mayor de Blasio increased investment in order to attract 25,000 students. “With that investment, given the number of participants we are seeing meaningful growth in the overall graduation rates for CUNY’s two year degree programmes,” says Klein. “This is a prime example of something that started out as a pilot but then, because of the evidence, got meaningful investment; enough to achieve impact at scale.”

Impact at scale

That last point – impact at scale – is what drove Klein to work for government in the first place. “In my prior work, I was focused on social innovation start-ups, which are critical, and I loved it,” he says. “But any work affecting issues of poverty and opportunity at the larger scale involve government as well. For me personally, the thing that I’m most motivated by is this American ideal that where you start out in life shouldn’t dictate where you end up. And so reducing poverty, ensuring people have genuine opportunity and economic mobility; that’s the area of impact I’m concerned with.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that government should not seek to improve the way it approaches impact. “Government needs to define the result that it wants; how it will be measured: just the intentionality of the goal is important,” Klerin says. “I think sometimes we identify problems that are compelling but to make progress, it’s critical to identify how we’ll measure progress, because then we can hold ourselves accountable and we can make adjustments if needed.”

Having this ability to adjust is vital – and shouldn’t be taken for granted. “Delivery and execution are hard,” he points out. “It’s not just about drawing up a plan that looks good on paper, so I think the most important thing is to develop the capacity to learn and iterate.”

When this happens, government does what it is supposed to do – reflect the public’s priorities and values. “Ideally, the impact that we’re trying to have is on behalf of the people we serve,” he concludes. “We’re serving the mission that the people have given us.”

And while there will no doubt be many twists and turns to come, it’s this mission – freeing New York City from the twin scars of inequality and poverty – that will fuel the journey ahead.

 

FURTHER READING

  • Leadership lessons from New York. New York’s schools continue to feel the impact of Joel Klein’s eight years as chancellor of the city’s Department of Education. Here, he reflects on his experiences
  • The new New York: chronicling the city’s comeback post-9/11. Few understand the complexities of New York City better than its former deputy mayor, Dan Doctoroff. He talks resurgence, renaissance and renewal
  • New York, new impact, new citizen outcomes. New Yorker Bill Eimicke has devoted much of his career to strengthening the governance of his home town. He tells us about working for Mike Bloomberg and Mario Cuomo, and why ‘delivery’ is easier in cities than on a larger stage
  • Making yourself at home – New York style. As chairman of the New York City Housing Authority, John Rhea was the largest landlord in the country. He talks impact, change and affordability
  • New York, new impact, new citizen outcomes. New Yorker Bill Eimicke has devoted much of his career to strengthening the governance of his home town. He tells us about working for Mike Bloomberg and Mario Cuomo, and why ‘delivery’ is easier in cities than on a larger stage
  • Passionate about public sector performance. Mark Aesch led the turnaround of a New York State transport authority from deficits to surpluses – all without increasing fares. He talks performance and outcomes
  • Podcast: In conversation with… Sherry Glied, Dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service
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