Mayor Eric Adams has long been a proponent of high tech public safety solutions that aren't always effective. Credit: NYC Mayor's Office

Rather than talk today about one specific issue or policy that’s been on my radar, I want to touch on a question that floats above the individual mechanisms and outcomes of government:  the idea of institutional execution and procedural efficiency. Put more simply, it’s the ability of the government to carry out the tasks policymakers have set out and constituents expect.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because every week seems to bring some new breakdown of capacity that chips away at the credibility of government. From my perch at the Daily News editorial board, for example, I’ve had a chance to talk to various parties involved in the rollout of the state recreational cannabis market- from industry groups to state regulators to Gov. Kathy Hochul herself. The nearly three years since recreational growth and sale was legalized in the state have been, in the estimation of practically everyone who’s followed the issue, an unmitigated disaster.

The licensing of retail shops has proceeded glacially and with almost constant confusion over standards, processes, and timelines, muddied further by lawsuits. By contrast, we’ve seen the growth of unregulated shops, which skated on an initial lack of clarity over the legality of selling cannabis outside of the state’s regulatory framework.

Licenses to legally sell marijuana in retail shops have stagnated, while unlicensed shops are widely accepted. Credit: Budding

Even as that’s been clarified that this is not kosher, the stores have plowed ahead, now numbering in the thousands and often prominently displaying their unlawful wares, defying multiple limp stabs at enforcement by several city and state entities. To some extent, the unlicensed shops won and won easily, now too numerous and well-established to be meaningfully enforced against as lawmakers and state agencies flailed and shrugged.

The NYCHA has been in a state of slow collapse for decades; the city has had a hard time  keeping up with benefits applications, mental health resources are drying up, school literacy has been abysmal for years, and on and on. The big policy debates are often how to tweak these systems or enact new laws or rules, though too rarely about whether anyone’s bothering to really implement all this policy. The de Blasio administration was infamous for this lack of follow-through, to the point that one of the most-remembered takeaways from his time at the helm was his tendency to announce big-ticket initiatives and then let them fall by the wayside.

Rikers Island, as I’ve written about on multiple occasions, finds itself teetering on the verge of being put under court-ordered receivership. The Department of Correction, now under almost a decade of federal monitorship over conditions found to be unconstitutional, has been unable and to some extent unwilling to address the conditions of violence, impunity, disorder, and disrepair that have been identified. The issues themselves aren’t particularly complex or obscure when boiled down; Federal Monitor Steve Martin has identified them over and over in dozens of reports with examples and actionable suggestions. In response, prior DOC Commissioner Louis Molina tried to freeze Martin and other oversight bodies out before he left the department (he wasn’t fired, by the way, but promoted to assistant deputy mayor for public safety, a reassignment many read as an effort to appease the judge).

In lieu of the delicate, technical, and continuous task of making policies a functional reality, we often get the aesthetics of government instead. I wrote a piece for Hell Gate recently about how the supposed gun-and-knife-detection scanners that Adams touted in a recent press conference announcing their coming placement in the subways had been piloted in the city before, at Jacobi Medical Center, where they had huge volumes of false positives and generally seemed to be mainly decorative. Adams has long had a fascination with this type of techno-utopianism, particularly around public safety (I’ve written before about his affinity for police surveillance tech and robots, including the so-called “crime roomba” that was retired from the Times Square station after a brief and useless stint).

Meanwhile, top NYPD brass has spent several days now attacking my Daily News colleague Harry Siegel in churlish and personal terms over some relatively anodyne criticism about their response to people in mental health crisis on the subways (a somewhat chaotic set of teams and policies that was the focus of last week’s newsletter), with Adams’ full-throated backing. The department’s top brass, particularly Chief of Patrol John Chell, has been going on a media tour defending the cops’ schoolyard bullying routine on the grounds that they’re essentially pushing back on misinformation and defending the department’s image, a dubious point for sure. I think it’s really about the tough-guy image that they believe will act as a proxy to actually doing anything. Notably, little of the pushback has dealt with whether Harry might have actually had a point on the effectiveness of the strategy to deal with people with mental health issues on the subways. It’s about projecting an image.

Now, I’m by no means sitting at my desk here trying to argue that running a government, especially in New York City or New York State, is straightforward and can be done easily. My point is that there’s something about our social media-driven civic engagement –in an age of information bubbles and what some have called “post-truth politics” –that rewards posturing and ribbon-cutting much more than execution. I know that this has to some extent always been true of politics, but I think we’re inhabiting a new period here where neither operational failures nor operational successes drive electoral outcomes all that much, and so some civic leaders have basically stopped trying as much.

NYCHA has been collapsing for decades. Credit: Kidfly182 CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There are plenty of examples of contemporary public management successes that don’t seem to have moved the needle. In one notable example, the historically under-resourced and outmaneuvered IRS is set to collect hundreds of billions more dollars in revenue over the next several years from primarily very wealthy tax cheats as a result of targeted funding and ramping up of operations, a priority of President Biden and the Democratic Congress. How many voters are even aware of that, let alone making it part of their electoral decision-making?

It’s very possible that the genie is fundamentally out of the bottle here, but I think it’s worth stepping back and trying to retrain ourselves to expect not just flashy rollouts but a level of less headline-worthy (and I want to be very clear that the media ecosystem of which I’m part has some of the blame) competence on day-to-day execution. We should, as civic participants, delve as much as is practicable into the nuts and bolts of agency efforts and outcomes, and hold elected officials accountable for that, as much or more than their high-minded policy ideas.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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