Ash Center: Balancing the Diverse Goals of Public Service

March 1, 2013
Ash Center: Balancing the Diverse Goals of Public Service
“As an Ash Fellow at the New York City Business Integrity Commission, I learned how a city agency regulates private industry, the motivations for regulation, and the dynamic relationship between the social goals of government and the needs of the business community.” ~Iain Watt, MPP 2013

HKS Student Works with NYC’s Business Integrity Commission

By Iain Watt

As an Ash Fellow at the New York City Business Integrity Commission (BIC), I spent nine weeks learning how a city agency regulates private industry, the motivations for regulation, and the dynamic relationship between the social goals of government and the needs of the business community. BIC’s mission is to regulate industries in New York that are traditionally impacted by organized crime: commercial waste hauling, the city’s public wholesale markets, and shipboard gambling.

Much of my work was focused on internal agency functions and aiding in improvements to the manner in which the agency enforces its regulation of trade waste haulers (those that serve commercial businesses throughout the five boroughs of New York City). My projects included an agency communications plan, an outreach plan for the regulation of scrap metal, and contributions to an ongoing assessment of the city’s rate cap for trade waste haulers. BIC underwent a leadership change six months before I started, and the organization is evolving and innovating under its new leadership. It was a great environment to see how change in government happens.

Regarding the regulation of trade waste haulers, BIC is responsible for the rate cap, with which all of the city’s putrescible waste haulers must comply. Industry feedback and Mayor Bloomberg’s environmental goals led the agency to evaluate the rate cap and assess various potential changes to it. The process, which began before my time at BIC, involved focus groups with market players, analysis to understand industry composition and performance, best practice research, and other targeted evaluations. I was tasked with assisting on a number of aspects of this comprehensive evaluation.

The process was very illuminating. While the issue was straightforward—maintain the cap or change it—balancing the needs of the diverse range of constituents made the process extremely complex and challenging for me and for the agency. The end goals for BIC included: nurturing market viability and protecting local businesses, making quality services available to commercial businesses, and having the industry contribute to the city’s environmental aspirations. I learned that while innovation in government is desirable, it is certainly not easy, and achieving all of the desired goals simultaneously is simply not an option in many policy cases.

In working through the process, I learned that several important factors inform how—and if—a government entity is able to innovate. Among the most important are institutional credibility and stakeholder buy-in. Before coming to the Kennedy School, I had consulted with city governments around the country but had not actually worked in government. Through my experience as an Ash Fellow, I gained a greater understanding of the dynamics, strengths, and limitations of trying to innovate in the public sector.

First, there are the constituencies that any government must try to please. Beyond the obvious goal of serving citizens, public officials strive to make markets competitive, efficient, and profitable for businesses (really, they do!), while also keeping an eye on important goals such as the environment and consumer rights. Second, government must align with the political goals of the administration and promises that have been made through campaigning and other declarations. While every official would like to accomplish all of their goals—and please every citizen—the reality is that existing legislation and other institutions may impact the ability to achieve these goals. Navigating through various constituencies, engaging stakeholders, and finding solutions that provide benefit to all parties is a noble goal, but one that must be achieved in the framework of what has come before and what information is available to drive what will come afterwards. Through my work with BIC, I learned how public officials manage these dynamics, weigh real problems, and develop solutions that are in the best interests of the public.

My experience as an Ash Fellow helped me improve my understanding of how public officials balance the diverse goals of public service. Through the focus on data-driven decision making and sensitivity to the needs of constituents, city governments around the country can continue to innovate and improve outcomes for their citizens.

Iain Watt is a MPP 2013 at Harvard Kennedy School and an Ash Summer Fellow in Innovation.