In some circles, it may be a criticism, but for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, it’s a compliment to be described as perhaps “the current champion among American mayors when it comes to public-private partnerships.”
That description comes from Governing magazine, using Landrieu’s avid pursuit of national foundations’ money for recovery of New Orleans as a prime example of how private philanthropy and public action interact across the country.
For New Orleans, staggered by the hurricanes of 2005 and the levee breaches that flooded much of the city and many other places in the metro area, any and every bit of help was needed and appreciated. At about the same time, outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was looking at using his personal fortune to improve other cities’ management.
Bloomberg Philanthropies’ gifts of several million dollars each funded “innovation teams” of in-house consultants and programmers to use computer power to improve delivery of services. Landrieu used it to focus on the murder rate, which is now down significantly, but the Bloomberg agenda of data-driven action also is providing other dividends.
More recently, the city used data generated by its new analytics process to identify areas where free smoke detectors could best be deployed to save lives in fires. A climate change “resilience officer” is funded for the city by the Rockefeller Foundation.
With about $15 million in last year’s budget from foundations, is the city basing too much of its activity on outside donors? National foundations may or may not continue grants, although local community foundations like the Greater New Orleans Foundation or the larger Baton Rouge Area Foundation are the repositories of local donors’ investments, whether for charitable work or providing seed money for civic improvements. BRAF is by far and away the leader in Louisiana’s foundations seeking to improve delivery of public services by early stage funding or using its real estate arm in public-private partnerships such as that bringing some 800 IBM jobs to downtown Baton Rouge.
Still, neither national nor local foundations can substitute for taxpayer support of basic services, as Albert Ruesga, of GNOF, told Governing.
But what Bloomberg and other foundations seek in their grants is not funding opportunities but a way to encourage cities to run themselves better. The initial round of Bloomberg grants sports successes not only in New Orleans but in Memphis, Tennessee (property vacancies), Atlanta (homelessness) and Louisville, Kentucky (permitting red-tape).
Probably New Orleans was the most fertile field possible for Bloomberg’s approach: Landrieu inherited a mess, not only from Katrina flooding and the hapless Ray Nagin administration but from decades of do-it-the-old-way thinking in City Hall and in the larger community. Landrieu also brought in Andy Kopplin as his chief deputy, a former chief of staff for two governors and head of the Louisiana Recovery Authority with a zeal for the Bloomberg cause.
That combination of timing and personnel is not likely to be reproduced everywhere, and foundation efforts, however well-meaning, can lead to micromanagement from afar instead of innovation from inside. For the moment, Landrieu seems to have made into reality a boast that many other mayors say: “Literally everything we do here has a nonprofit component, a faith-based component, a philanthropic component and a government component.”
Keeping those components working in harmony is likely to be one of the challenges for Landrieu’s successor, as the economy will have to continue to grow to pick up the day-to-day costs in the future of today’s grant gifts.