• Affordability and the limited development options gave long given housing policy prominence
  • Without strong leadership from the top, innovation and systemic change is close to impossible
  • The connection between the work you do and outcomes is more direct at cities than nationally

Columbia University in New York’s Upper West Side is where to find Bill Eimicke these days. Although right at home in the lecture hall – he began his career as a professor of public administration at Indiana University – multiple years of experience in a number of senior government positions mean he is equally comfortable with life in the corridors of power.

Certainly, roles such as New York’s deputy fire commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg, housing ‘czar’ of New York State for Governor Mario Cuomo, and a stint providing housing policy and management consulting services to vice-president Al Gore’s National Performance Review offer him a wealth of inside stories to share with his students. Although these roles were varied, he says that he always strove to implement changes at pace – not for him the status quo.

“I’d like to think of myself as an innovator and someone who tried to find situations where we could make a leap, rather than just plodding along,” he explains. “Although plodding along is part of everyday life, I’ve always looked for situations that were either on the cusp of moving forward, or were in such terrible shape that people would be open to change.”

Home improvements

Like many other major cities, housing is an issue that has long resonated with New York’s policymakers and citizens alike. Affordability – or lack of – and the limited options for development have ensured its prominence for many a generation. But as Governor Cuomo’s deputy secretary for policy and programmes, Eimicke played a central role in attempts to help more New Yorkers to be able to live within the city’s five boroughs.

“In large cities the level of rent very often doesn’t cover the cost of maintenance and operations,” he says. “While there may be some need for direct government housing, a better alternative is providing incentives to the private sector, which has been our approach in New York since the early 1980s. This involves using the government’s role and power to control and own land, as well as zoning, which makes sure that a share of new construction is made affordable to people with low to moderate incomes.”

The approach continues to this day, a leading example of which is the success of New York’s High Line. Now the second most popular attraction in the city, it was previously an abandoned rail line but is now a public park beloved of New Yorkers and tourists alike. Its success in transforming what was previously a run-down area of the city into a highly desirable place to live means that housing prices have rocketed.

Fortunately, new developments along the line all have to have a proportion set aside for low-income individuals and families. “It’s not rocket science but it can have a dramatic impact,” says Eimicke. “And it’s also important to note that funds for the project came from the private sector and it is managed by a non-profit.”

This interconnection, he believes, is a sign of things to come for the future shape of government – in New York and beyond. “Increasingly, for government to do better it needs to partner with the private sector or NGOs or both, rather than trying to do it all on its own,” he says. “Public-private partnerships offer an important route forwards, and this works in sync with the growing influence of sustainability. This is a force not only for improving air and water quality and the food we eat, but also in terms of being more prudent economically. In its truest form it is doing more with less – utilising more and wasting less.”

Eimicke’s second tour of duty in New York governance was when he served as deputy fire commissioner for strategic planning and policy for Mayor Bloomberg between 2007 and 2010. In this role he sought to harness the potential of data and technology to reduce response time to fires. He also established a computerised, risk-based inspection programme and provided advanced management training for senior fire officers.

“In New York, first under Bloomberg and continuing under Mayor de Blasio, we are using reams of digital data to go far beyond what government used to do to solve problems and get ahead of future issues,” he says. “This was a priority when I was serving in the Fire Department but we realised that prevention was something that would work across the city. For example, we have made huge strides on public safety. We made the jump from police focusing on arresting people and putting them in jail to trying to prevent crime before it happened. It sounds simple but it was a major paradigm shift – and we went from being the most dangerous big city in the world to being one of the safest.”

Traits from the top

As a veteran of both the Cuomo and Bloomberg administrations, Eimicke says that the two leaders had vastly different approaches but were nonetheless effective in their own ways. Bloomberg – as befits his financial services heritage – was very much a data man, whereas Cuomo’s strength was in the power of his oratory to lift and inspire. Different traits, then, but both had a shared ability to deliver strong leadership.

“Without strong leadership from the top, innovation is close to impossible in the long run,” he points out. “And systemic change can only come from strong leadership at the top. Bloomberg is a very hands-on, nitty-gritty guy. If something wasn’t working he would look at the process, find out what was missing, and then fix it. Cuomo, by contrast was what I call an ‘inspirational leader’. His mantra was ‘we can be better’. He inspired people and inspired them to look at those who had less and try to bring them up, believing that a rising tide raises all boats.”

Eimicke is keen to stress that he enjoyed working for both men, not least because in city and state government you are able to able to rapidly turn policy into change on the ground. “If you implement affordable housing you can walk through that neighbourhood a year later and it is visibly better,” he says. “The connection between the work you do and the outcomes is much more immediate and direct than at regional or national level, where change happens over a very long period.”

Now, though, Eimicke has stepped back from government service and is deploying his insights and experiences to students studying for a Masters in Public Administration at Columbia’s Picker Center.“It completes the circle,” says Eimicke.

“Many years ago I started my career as a professor and got waylaid into public service and now I’m back in academia. Our focus is on this idea of public and private cooperation. We believe that, as we move through the 21st century, important things will largely be done through cooperation between the sectors. Government performance, together with citizen outcomes, will improve as a result.”

 

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