Is LA’s Online “Budget Challenge” for Real?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

In another sign that California’s city governments are finding new and creative ways to engage their residents on excruciating budget decisions, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been attempting to drum up participation in the city’s, Los Angeles Budget Challenge website. Utilizing the “Budget Challenge” software developed by Next Ten, the website is a facile survey-based platform that asks budget cut and revenue questions while it tracks the actual fiscal impact of your choices.

As Mayor Villaraigosa recently encouraged, “I believe community participation in the city’s budget process is essential." But is the “community” really participating in this process? After going through the site myself, there are definite “Good”, “Bad”, and “Ugly” aspects to the initiative.

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Local Governments’ “New Normal”

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Do my eyes deceive me? Did I just read the Los Angeles Times proclaiming not only that the era of big government is over in the City of Angels, but also that non-government organizations – from the business community to civic organizations – must take a stronger role in service delivery and public policy?

Yes, I think I did.

In a startling editorial, entitled “A lean, not mean, City Hall”, the Old Tan Lady concludes, “Even in the best of times, it makes sense to move some city services away from the restrictions of the City Hall payroll and instead tap into the city’s underutilized business and nonprofit resources.” So, where exactly were these calls for department consolidation and civil society empowerment during the “best of times”? I don’t remember, but one is left to wonder whether George Will took over the Times’ editorial board, when it recommends, “A successful Los Angeles will have to turn, increasingly, to that model for providing quality-of-life programs while focusing the budget on core functions such as public safety, street services and sanitation.”

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Of Prop 8, SB 488, and the Norm to Conform

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Did you ever have the experience of reading about two seemingly unrelated subjects, but having the one bring the other into sharper focus? Perusing Sunday’s Los Angeles Times I came across an interesting article on page A35 about Senator Fran Pavley’s latest effort to reduce our energy consumption: SB 488. Entitled, “Keeping up with the Joneses’ electric bills”, the article describes the bill, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, which will change the way our energy (and in the future, water) bills will look like in the near future.

SB 488 creates a series of pilot projects through the California Public Utilities Commission and California Energy Commission in which our gas and electric bills will not only tell us how much energy we used, but how this compares (generally) with our neighbors. Utilizing software from a company called OPOWER, the new statements will give consumers far better and clearer information, but, at the same time, based on a psychological concept called “norm to conform”, hopes that these comparisons will reduce our energy use through, essentially, peer pressure. As Alex Laskey, president and co-founder of OPOWER put it, “The utility bill we get in the mail is inscrutable. We thought there might be some opportunity to provide people with a better context for understanding their consumption and, in doing so, motivate people to take action.”

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Astro-Turf Protesters and Fake Town Halls

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

For folks like me who work with or for local government, the new NBC sitcom, “Parks and Recreation” has become a guilty pleasure. The show follows the humorous trials and tribulations of Parks & Rec Director, Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) in the mythical town of Pawnee, Indiana. But when a recent episode focused on a local “town hall meeting” about the building of park, my mind leapt to those other so-called “town halls” being staged around the country.

In this particular installment, entitled “Canvassing”, Pawnee has received Federal Stimulus monies and is looking for “shovel-ready” projects. The city sees the conversion of a dump into a park as such an opportunity, and Leslie is directed to get public support by promoting a “Town Hall Meeting”. Though cautioned by the City Planner not “to go to the public too early” – as no architectural plans or environmental assessments have been made for the site – Leslie pushes on fearlessly, believing that no one could oppose a park. Within minutes of beginning the forum, things begin to disintegrate as residents realize that they are not going to engage in an honest dialogue about the park, but were simply invited to accede to a project pre-ordained by their government. Even though they are fictional the well-intentioned officials of Pawnee offer some great advice to our Congressional leaders who are fanning out across the country:

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Governor Cameron?

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

Let me be the first one here to issue the call to the current leader of Britain’s shadow government, David Cameron, that if his current quest for prime minister fails, we have a nice little state for him to run. I can see the bumper stickers already: “Cameron for Governor: A funny accent, but we’re used to that”. The reason I am proffering the British MP to lead the Golden State, though, is less about how he speaks than what he has been saying.

In an interesting essay he wrote recently in the Guardian newspaper, entitled “A New Politics: We need a massive, radical redistribution of power”, Cameron demonstrates a grasp of two of the major policy challenges facing this state: devolving decision-making power to regions and cities, and calling on civil society to play a stronger role in governance. Of course, Cameron is responding to the current expense scandal that is racking parliamentarians from all parties, but it is not a recent epiphany – he has been pushing his “New Federalism” (to borrow a slogan from a past California governor) for years.

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When The Vending Machine Breaks

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

The highly respected City Manager of Ventura, Rick Cole, employs the “vending machine/customer” metaphor in describing what has become the de facto relationship between citizens and their governing institutions. As Cole tells it, “the unspoken mindset of many of our customers is that local government is a like a vending machine. You put your money in the slot and expect to receive the goods and services you desire.”

This shift from citizen to “customer” is fairly recent, originating in the 1980s and early 90s, when governments from cities to the Feds, incorporated the new customer service ideology then used by the private sector. Instead of viewing government as something one participates in, this change produced a scenario where it was just another service provider and taxes became the cost for those services.

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The “Moderate Republican” Myth

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

As we enter a supposed “post partisan” age in Washington, politicians and pundits have begun yearning for and writing about that “pre-partisan” age – usually set during the New Deal period and following – when our political parties (Republicans particularly) were populated by “moderates,” working together for the common good. Forgotten are these words from moderate icon Harry Truman: “I don’t like bipartisans. Whenever a fellow tells me he’s bipartisan, I know he’s going to vote against me.” But this revisionist effort is not only historically inaccurate; at a time when our politics have become so complex, the linear “liberal/moderate/conservative” nomenclature has proven insufficient, further dividing us.

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New Nationwide Study Reveals Low Civic Participation in California despite High Election Turnout

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

The British journalist, Harold Evans, once commented, “For America to work, Americans have to participate. If they don’t pay attention, they’re going to get screwed.” This is, albeit crudely, true of America, but it is even more applicable to the Golden State, where Californians appear to sit in stunned silence as we witness (from a distance) the slow motion train wreck that is the state budget process. This alienation from the gears of government – both in Sacramento and locally – has been decried from many quarters, but, for the first time, a statewide report has just been released quantifying disappointingly low levels of civic participation among Californians.

Co-sponsored by the organization I lead, Common Sense California (CSC), and produced by the Congressionally chartered, National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), the “2008 California Civic Health Index,” measures citizen engagement in several ways. NCoC had published a national version of this study last fall, but the California study, which involved a representative sample of over 400 Californians has just come off the press. The main results reveal that even with the higher levels of participation in the 2008 elections, Californians vastly underperform the rest of the country in habits like volunteering and participating in local problem solving.

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The Changing Face of Local Governance

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

In a typically humorous aside, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “citizen participation is a device whereby public officials induce non-public individuals to act in a way the public officials desire.” Of course, there are many examples of municipalities and school districts “marketing” their pre-determined positions under the guise of civic involvement, but current events and several recent conversations with local leaders in California reveal that we are moving into a unique period in municipal governance – one in which officials at the city and school district levels around the state are proactively engaging their residents in policy-making. Most of the reasons offered for this change fit into three main themes.

The first is technological. The growth of the internet as both a communications and research tool has completely altered the relationship between our political leaders and citizens. In his best-selling book, Here Comes Everybody, author, Clay Shirky, declares, “We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past.” Through blogs, every citizen has a bullhorn and can broadcast her issues with the local government or school system. Through social network sites like Facebook, MySpace, and others, citizens are organizing more easily than ever before. Through email campaigns, citizens can barrage local officials with hundreds (even thousands) of messages.

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The Pink Elephant

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

It was a shocking phone call. I had just finished speaking with a mortgage specialist at my credit union just over a year ago, and couldn’t believe what I was being told. My wife and I were looking at the possibility of buying our first home in West Los Angeles, and the dream that seemed so far out of reach suddenly looked realistic. “Are you sure we qualify for that much?” I asked the agent. “Yes, absolutely,” was her confident reply, “with your credit rating it should be no problem.” I had to go over the numbers several times to make sure she realized the mortgage she was offering would take nearly half of our combined salaries. The agent understood, but I still don’t.

As many know the current financial crisis finds most of its origins in the mortgage crash of the last couple years. Of course, those “Wall Street Fat Cats” share some of the blame, operating within a system that rewards risky investments (like packaged mortgages) when they pay off, but never penalize for a loss. In a recent radio interview, financial “talking head” Larry Kudlow put it this way: “A guy can make $20 million one year for making much more than that for his company, but nothing happens to him when he loses $50 million the next year.” He proposed a salary structure that would be computed over multiple year periods as a way of solving this perverse incentive scheme. This risk/reward scenario is obviously absent for most homeowners who are suffering under the weight of depressed housing prices and imminent foreclosure.

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