New York's Urban Academy priming city employees for efficiency
New York — President Reagan's budget cuts likely will leave the nation's cities more dependent on their own resources. But the widespread reductions in city employees the President's cost-cutting may require don't have to mean corresponding declines in the effective delivery of municipal services.
At least this is the opinion at New York's Urban Academy, which teaches city employees -- from top managers to sanitation workers -- how to run New York better.
With the surge of interest in getting the most out of every tax dollar spent and out of every employee on the public payroll, the federal government is showing a lot of interest in the Urban Academy. Hardly a week goes by without representatives of a federal agency visiting the school, notes George McGurn, president of the nonprofit academy.
The academy is not hard to find; it occupies several floors at 1 Times Square , "the crossroads of the world."
On a typical day, 70 sanitation supervisors are taking a course in advanced management skills. They are divided into competing "teams," trying to determine the best way to use their men and trucks. Down the hall, a group of city housing project superintendents are seated in a semicircle as two of them reenact a typical problem they encounter on the job. The group then hears tips on how to resolve the situation.
In a critique of such sessions, one housing superintendent wrote, "I plan to become a better communicator by effectively listening to my subordinates." Another commented that he now plans to "talk less, listen more, and invite suggestions and ideas from my entire staff."
In a workshop on landlord-tenant relations, an Urban Academy specialist warns a housing project manager:
"If the tenant is irate about something and refuses to pay the rent, and then you become irate, too, the problem will never be solved and everybody is going to be unhappy. The organization is going to be unhappy because, in this case, the rent won't be paid and the city will lose money."
Since its founding seven years ago, the Urban Academy has trained more than 10,000 blue-collar workers, clerks, supervisors, and managers in courses lasting from a few days to once a week over a period of many weeks. In addition, the academy has helped move the city away from antiquated filing systems and into the realm of 20th-century computer programming and analysis.
Says John Simon, general manager of the New York City Housing Authority, "Greatly improved cost control and management of both energy consumption and the authority's work force are now possible, thanks to the computer systems developed and implemented by the Urban Academy."
Preliminary figures show that a new computer system the academy staff designed for the housing authority to monitor energy consumption has saved the city an estimated $3.3 million a year.
Yet what makes the Urban Academy possibly unique is that its municipal employee training is carried on at all levels. Many cities have launched training programs just for top managers.
This aspect of the academy emerged just at the time when the city's fiscal crisis was taking a severe toll on manpower levels. In fact, since 1975, New York City's work force has dropped by around 40,000 people, according to the Citizen's Budget Commission, a private, nonprofit think tank dedicated to improving the city.
Faced with increasing cuts, especially in the service area, city officials realized they had to do more with what they had. So the academy, which now has a $2 million-a-year contract with the city, was hired to improve productivity.
In contrast to the Citizens Budget Commission or other nonprofit organizations, which make suggestions aimed at improving aspects of the city, the academy works for implementation of forward-thinking recommendations. In short, the academy rolls up its sleeves and "is not afraid of getting its hands dirty," commented one urban expert.
Lee Oberst, a New York Telephone Company vice-president, likens the academy to a university business school -- but one that is aimed at improving a city, as opposed to a private business.
The academy is not without critics. A Citizen's Budget Commission official says the academy "doesn't do as wide- ranging a job as possible."
There are many agencies which have not made use of academy training. But people like Mr. Oberst believe the city is getting more than its money's worth out of the in stitution.