Leading a Los Angeles Renaissance


Surprisingly, despite the real challenges Los Angeles faces today, the city is out in front of many of its urban competitors in transforming its capacity to provide a safe place to raise and properly educate children, exactly the criteria Millennials use in deciding where to settle down and start a family. It is the kind of challenge that cities around the country must meet if they wish to thrive in the coming decade.

LA’s biggest win in this respect derives from the political courage of former Mayor James Hahn. It was Hahn who appointed Bill Bratton as police chief, who then deployed his COMPSTAT process for continuously reducing crime. During his tenure as the city’s Police Commissioner under both Mayor Hahn and his successor, Antonio Villaraigosa, Bratton achieved the same improvement in LA as he did previously in New York,– in a city with many of the same societal problems but about one-fourth the police resources and a much larger area to patrol. Even as unemployment soared in 2009 during the Great Recession to 12.3 percent in Los Angeles County, the city saw a 17 percent drop in homicides, an 8 percent reduction in property crime and a 10 percent drop in violent crime. This is a first great step in restoring Los Angeles, once the destination for families, back to its historic promise. Today, Angelinos feel safer than they have in decades.

COMPSTAT is above all a vehicle for changing bureaucratic cultures. In his initial dialogue with the brass of the New York Police Department (NYPD) Bratton told his management team that he planned on holding them accountable for the crime reductions he had promised Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Citing the FBI’s national crime reports, they responded by telling Bratton that since crime “is largely a societal problem which is beyond the control of the police,” it was completely unfair to hold them accountable for reducing it. Since the police department was not responsible for the city’s economic vitality, its housing stock, its school system, and certainly not its racial and ethnic tensions, all of which were the root causes of crime, the managers felt it was unreasonable to expect them to actually reduce crime.

When Bratton asked them what they could be held accountable for, the leadership replied that they were prepared to accept responsibility for the “perception of crime in New York City” and that their existing tactics of high profile drug busts, neighborhood sweeps, and the like were effective ways to manage that perception. Bratton adamantly refused to accept this definition of accountability from his team and went about creating a system that placed accountability for crime reduction on the NYPD’s leadership, something that also worked its way down through the ranks of every precinct in the city and into the fabric of the department’s culture.

This fully captures the type of cultural change that every part of any city’s bureaucracy must undergo to become a Millennial city.

During Mayor Hahn’s tenure in Los Angeles, for example, he expanded the COMPSTAT process to all departments in order to hold General Managers accountable for their performance under a program called “CITISTATS.” Some departments, such as Street Services, Sanitation, and Street Lighting, are still using the lessons learned in that experience to continuously improve the cost and quality of their services.

But Los Angeles’s recovery has often been blocked by the City Council which has proven reluctant to cede its traditional right to intervene in department operations and to direct resources to specific projects or programs in their Councilmanic districts regardless of the overall city’s needs. When Villaraigosa ascended to the Mayor’s office he removed the potential irritant to his relationship with the Council by disbanding CITISTATS. That decision has deprived Los Angeles of key insights that could have been used to help deal with its current budget challenges.

It also removed one of the more promising vehicles for Neighborhood Councils to hold city bureaucrats accountable for the services they deliver. The Councils, although far from perfect, remain one of the city’s best hopes for fulfilling Millennials’ desire for direct, locally-oriented involvement.

In contrast, Mayor Villaraigosa’s determination to hold the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) accountable for the performance of its students has begun to pay dividends. Recently the board voted 6-1 to adopt a policy mandating competitive bids eventually be issued for the management of all 250 “demonstrably failing schools” as defined by federal education law. The parent revolution that spurred this new approach would not have been successful without the support of LAUSD board members that the Mayor had helped to elect.

Including parents armed with new information on student performance in the process of reforming LAUSD’s schools promises to produce schools that deliver superior results at lower costs and to create a new, decentralized, parent-controlled, educational decision-making system that will be especially attractive to Millennials and their parents.

Now that the Great Recession has brought single family housing back to affordable levels in many parts of Los Angeles, the building blocks of safer streets and better schools give the metropolitan area an opportunity to establish an environment that can attract large numbers of Millennials just as they enter young adulthood. To take advantage of this opportunity, however, all members of the city’s leadership will need to learn one more Millennial lesson.

Unlike the Baby Boomers running the Los Angeles City Hall today, Millennials aren’t interested in confrontation and debilitating debates focused on making sure one side wins and the other loses. They want what business people term “win-win” solutions that take into account everyone’s needs and produce outcomes that benefit the group or community as a whole. Los Angeles, a city built on the expectations of the last civic GI Generation that came to LA in the 1940s, must realign itself to the tastes of the emerging next civic generation, the Millennials.

Finding such solutions, given the many challenges LA faces, will not be easy. LA continues to be run by Boomer politicians, like those in Congress, who know how to play up divisive issues, but haven’t demonstrated an ability to get results.

But if today’s leaders in cities like Los Angeles aren’t up to the task, it won’t be long before a new generation of leaders who have grown up believing in such an approach will emerge to take their place. As Ryan Munoz, a politically active high school senior put it, “With all the technology at our disposal, our approach is different. We can be less partisan, less confrontational and work better together.”

Rachel Lester, who at 15 years old just won election as the youngest member of any Los Angeles Neighborhood Council by campaigning with her Facebook friends, captured the potential power of the generation. “When a few teenagers do something, a lot of teenagers do something.” When cities develop leaders as great as America’s newest civic generation, the Millennials, those cities will once again take their rightful place in the pantheon of America’s most desired places to live. Los Angeles would be an ideal place to start that movement.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of the New Democrat Network and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics (Rutgers University Press: 2008), named one of the 10 favorite books by the New York Times in 2008. Morley Winograd served as a consultant to Mayor Hahn on the implementation of the CITISTAT process.

Photo by Lucas Janin