Public discourse about the City Council’s decision to end the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) has polarized between those who defend the NRP and others who say it is too expensive in these hard times. Unfortunately there is little discussion about the merit or lack of merit in the program itself. The debate seems to assume that the NRP is a grass roots initiative that empowers neighborhood residents when in reality it operates more like a colonial government with entrenched bureaucrats calling the shots.
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The NRP is a great idea. Neighborhood residents have expert insights into the urban problems that the city’s community development efforts need to solve. They can and should help drive the allocation of city resources. But NRP is a great idea that was never implemented. The NRP program was so poorly designed and badly managed that it ended up disempowering both the City Council and neighborhood organizations.
I see the world from the vantage point of a community activist. I have been involved in community based development since 1977. I have participated in successful community driven development projects and I continue to believe that grass roots participation is the most effective way to pursue urban policy.
The NRP fails to harness the wisdom of community members because it was designed by bureaucrats rather than community organizers. Its first mistake was to assign neighborhood groups the task of resource allocation, something they have very little experience doing. They are much better at solving problems through political influence. Resource allocation is also a task that tends to divide rather than unite citizens who disagree. The ability to organize to get a majority vote in a community meeting is much different from the ability to organize a mass movement within the neighborhood to pressure the City to take action. The NRP created internal conflict in neighborhoods and ultimately reduced pressure on the city to do the right thing.
The second big mistake was to divide the $20 million a year among 81 neighborhoods. This looks like a stunning lack of political courage. Unable to decide who should go first, the NRP decided to have everyone go at one time. This killed any chance of city-wide strategic thinking and insured that no neighborhood would have enough resource to actually solve serious problems. It also meant that the city could not target its support efforts and neighborhood groups could not afford to hire their own professionals to assist with planning.
The third fatal flaw was the superimposition of an arbitrary organizational structure and process onto existing indigenous neighborhood organizing systems. Existing neighborhood groups were required to create a parallel structure featuring a “Steering Committee” and elaborate procedures and requirements. Only the most dogged and committed neighborhood activists could complete the rigorous marathon needed to actually get money flowing. The parallel structure requirements stretched neighborhood group leaders who had plenty to do before the NRP. The Steering Committees were often made up of people who lost in elections for the neighborhood group and ended up fighting with the group’s leadership rather than following a shared agenda. Minorities and renters, who were unable or unwilling to slog through this bureaucratic swamp, often dropped out of the process.
There are numerous authentic success stories within the NRP program but those successes are generally a result of herculean efforts by neighborhood leaders who pushed through obstacles created by the program itself. The results are however at best localized and often haphazard. The NRP Policy Board which is responsible for hiring and firing NRP staff is too politically diverse to effectively reign in the bureaucrats in charge.
The result is a small empire run by a handful of unaccountable bureaucrats who are more than happy to use NRP funds to control the neighborhood politics of recipient communities. That’s how colonial government works. It’s not grass roots democracy.
The recent round of moves and counter moves by the Mayor, City Council and NRP Policy Board are a departure from the more deliberate process of ending the NRP that prevailed earlier. This chapter lacks the elegance we would like to see in our government but the end goal, termination of the NRP Program, is a step in the right direction.