The Advocate Think Tank

The Office of the Public Advocate has seen its budget eviscerated over the last decade. Although the original budget wasn’t sufficient for an office with such an important mission, the current budget of approximately $2.1 million severely constricts the reach of the office and the ability of the Public Advocate to actually move an agenda forward and advocate substantively for the citizens of New York City. Thus, our city’s next Public Advocate must be creative and thoughtful in maximizing resources even when those resources are meager.

Since July, Guerriero for Advocate has been outlining a proposal to do just that. Dr. Catherine Guerriero has considerable applicable experience in working in research, as well as managing research-based projects and graduate staff. Cathy Guerriero proposes to create – inside the Office of the Public Advocate – a veritable “think tank” that will utilize a team of research fellows and pro-bono graduate students from universities and colleges around the city, supervised by policy professionals on staff.

Webster’s defines a think tank as “… an institute, corporation or group organized for interdisciplinary research.” The Public Advocate’s Office will retain talented graduate students through a set of specific collaborative agreements with university administrations around the city to work in one of three units in the think tank: the policy unit, the constituent services unit and the legal services unit. The symbiotic relationship between the universities and the Advocate Think Tank is clear: universities get to place a set of junior researchers in the Office of the Public Advocate to participate in and co-author quality research that will move and potentially shift the conversations in NYC government; the Public Advocate’s office gets the quality work of scores of outstanding staff for very little resource allocation.

The Think Tank will produce quality, sophisticated research in three-month, six-month and 1-2 year snapshots that will begin in earnest in May, 2014 (for a summer slate of student work), and again in September, 2014, with smaller research projects beginning in January, 2014. It will produce both qualitative and quantitative studies. The students will work in shifts (15-20 hours a week), thus allowing for the maximization of space allocation and other physical resources. The layout of the office in the Municipal Building allows for a limited number of staff on the 15th Floor North. Therefore, Research Fellows will have to work in shifts: 9am to1pm, 1pm to 5pm, etc. The PA also may still have an auxiliary space on the 10th floor South that was used during the Gotbaum tenure as a place for special projects. Dr. Guerriero will be asking for a tour of the facilities shortly.

A snapshot of the current detailed plans for Think Tank follows. A through-line to all these research projects will be how to fund services in tight economic times (i.e. state, federal grants, public-private collaborative, etc.)

  1. Policy Unit: 50 students (“Research Fellows”), PhD and some masters’ students, all graduate students. This unit will be run by a paid, senior researcher / director that will direct a set of concurrent, sophisticated studies.

    1. Education Studies: 10 fellows to work on education / children’s services.
    2. Housing Studies: 5 fellows to focus on issues of housing (NYCHA, affordable housing, green/environmental concerns)
    3. Homelessness: 5 fellows to research the homelessness crisis in NYC
    4. Small Business Issues: 5 fellows to research the complex concerns of this community (over-regulation, over-ticketing, access to adjudication, women and minority-owned business concerns, government contracting process, disaster recovery)
    5. Union Concerns: 5 fellows (expedited bargaining process, cost-benefit assessment of union labor, pension concerns
    6. Senior Issues: 5 fellows (access to services, housing, and related issues)
    7. Disaster Response Issues: 5 fellows (hurricane/blizzard preparedness, emergency response optimization, evacuation procedures, damage assessment and recovery)
    8. Transportation Issues: 3 fellows (TLC, rails, buses, bike lanes, pedestrian walkways, traffic patterns, tolls)
    9. Disability Issues: 2 fellows (access, programs, connection between services and access to community)
    10. Miscellaneous Issues: 5 to 10 fellows to monitor other issues (reactive: issues that come to our attention through ombuds calls, borough days, community board meetings, etc.)
  2. Constituent Services/Ombuds Services: This unit – consisting of 20 fellows – will mirror the former constituent services unit that has been a hallmark of the Public Advocate’s office over the last two decades, but will be populated by graduate (and some undergraduate) students from schools of social work and similar disciplines throughout the city. This unit will be run by one (or two) paid, senior management staff that will facilitate the management of the ombudsman mission of the PA’s office.
  3. Legal Services: This unit will consist of 5-10 legal fellows from law schools around the city that will facilitate both a legal team of available staff to do legal ombudsman intake as well as work on additional research projects that highlight legal concerns of NYC and the important tool of lawsuits or potential lawsuits brought by the Office of the Public Advocate. This unit will be run by a senior legal expert, a paid member of the PA’s staff.

Each of the Public Advocates has utilized interns in various units, but never has that practice been taken to a higher and more defined level. This is an idea and concept that will generate more work product specifically designed to help New York City taxpayers, without costing them more. While much thought and preliminary planning has already gone into The Advocate Think Tank concept – through the proactive vision of Dr. Cathy Guerriero – this is an ongoing process, with more details and proposals to follow this overview.

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