By James Weinberg, FUSE CEO A FUSE fellowship lasts one year. In that time, our executive fellows tackle enormous challenges in cities across the country: addressing a homelessness crisis; getting more students from school to college; integrating autonomous vehicles into city infrastructure; responding to the opioid epidemic; taking action on climate change. So how does a one-year fellowship provide enough time to address such ambitious goals, especially when we know that large, complex challenges require long-term, sustained problem-solving efforts? And what can cities learn from this process? While there's no way to completely resolve these kinds of issues quickly, we've seen over the last few years through the work of FUSE fellows that it is possible to make measurable and significant improvements in just one year. These issues did not crop up overnight. They've developed over years, during which time talented civic leaders have been working on solutions — and their efforts will continue long after a FUSE fellowship ends. But adding a FUSE fellow to the team can help problem-solving efforts to go further toward achieving impact. During their year of service, fellows bring new capacities — serving as catalysts, facilitators, conveners, objective perspectives, skill-based specialists, or dedicated project leaders. Defining the scope of each fellowship is one of the most important steps in the process. FUSE works with cities to identify specific deliverables that can be successfully completed by a fellow within a given year. Through conversations with our city partners and in-depth interviews with key stakeholders, together we are able to identify a crucial missing piece of the puzzle. In fact, it's that very act of thinking about the challenge in a way that breaks it down into steps and planning over an extended period of time – and determining how someone from outside of government can best contribute in the coming year – that allows our city partners to imagine new possibilities and create space for innovation. Over the course of the year, FUSE fellows quickly draw insights and identify opportunities to maximize impact. They bring together new partners and collaborators who may have never worked together before to share insights and coordinate approaches. In one year, a fellow can become enmeshed within a community as a convener of leaders from different sectors to help everyone work more efficiently together toward common goals and collective impacts. Not only is a year enough time to have a meaningful influence on a strategic initiative, the very existence of a 12-month deadline is one of the keys to our impact, as FUSE fellows consistently prove that urgency drives innovation. On the first day of work, fellows know they have 364 days left to achieve some very ambitious goals. A perpetually ticking clock motivates them to push through challenges, overcome obstacles, come up with creative solutions, and mobilize partners to achieve goals. So, although 12 months might not seem like it's long enough to make a difference, especially given how long these challenges have taken to develop, FUSE fellows demonstrate every year that it is enough time to advance innovative, sustainable, and high-impact solutions.
Interested in learning more about our fellowships? Check out our 2017-18 listings here.
Why One Year Is Enough
For outsiders, Los Angeles may conjure images of film sets and movie stars, but the city’s 3.8 million residents have been living a far less glamorous reality. In neighborhoods across the city, sidewalks have teemed with debris and illegally dumped trash, abandoned couches on street corners, and hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage have been piling up along the city’s alleys and vacant lots. For the past three years, the city has been taking on the trash issue head-on, working from a playbook created with and for the city by FUSE fellow Mark Thomas. And last month, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was awarded first place honors in the 2017 City Livability Awards Program by The U.S. Conference of Mayors. Garcetti’s CleanStat Program is a digital tool that provides data on the cleanliness of Los Angeles city streets and alleys. CleanStat uses quarterly, block-by-block cleanliness assessments of the entire city to build a bank of useful data to identify where the trash is accumulating. Based on that information, city staff can glean the contributing factors to impacted areas, and decide what resources to deploy. Here's a preview of how it works: US Conference of Mayors - City Livability Awards - Los Angeles - CleanStat LA from GVI on Vimeo. Thomas' fellowship began in 2014, with the help of then-City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana and then-Assistant CAO Robin Engel, who were instrumental in bringing the project to life. At the time, Thomas, a former deputy director of a think tank who had developed economic strategy for New York, had just finished an MBA at MIT, with a focus on global competitiveness and city-based innovation. The goal was for Thomas to gain a holistic view of the problem, then form a plan to clean up the city’s neighborhoods using a coordinated approach that engaged both communities and stakeholders. He had one year to do it. UNDERSTANDING THE FULL PICTURE Los Angeles has more than 100 neighborhoods, and Thomas went to all of them, meeting with locals and capturing their stories and photos of trash. He saw alleys so choked with garbage that residents couldn’t use their garages anymore, thousands of bulky items left abandoned on city sidewalks, and encampments of homeless people living among trash. Thomas also met with dozens of civic and community groups and interviewed leaders from a wide range of city agencies — the Department of Public Works, the mayor’s office, the city attorney, the LAPD, and more — gathering perspectives and learning about which departments and outside entities were involved in keeping the city clean, down to the smallest detail. “Part of the process was learning where we were, what it’s supposed to look like, and then finding, one by one, all of the disconnects,” Thomas said. Much of what he found wasn’t new: There was a lack of coordination, a lack of education and outreach, and a need for more resources. But then he had a realization that reframed the whole conversation about trash. Los Angeles was originally designed to be a more suburban city, but in 1970s, there was a push to convert many of its single family homes into multi-family buildings. As a result, the population exploded far beyond even the boldest development projections. The city’s present-day population maps show tremendous demographic density. Some neighborhoods have more than 90,000 residents per square mile; only New York City and San Francisco have higher density levels. L.A.’s Koreatown is the densest neighborhood in the country outside of Manhattan. When Thomas overlaid these maps with the various sanitation services provided in the neighborhoods, the volume of trash he was seeing on the streets started to make sense. The city’s services were not keeping up with its booming population. When he started reporting this back to city leaders, he could almost feel a new understanding click into place. “The big thing that hit everybody is that we have a system for keeping our city clean that was designed in the ’70s and we have a population that’s double that size today,” Engel said. “The city grew, but we didn't adapt to it. Our systems just weren’t geared for a modern L.A.” The city’s street-sweeping program didn’t map to its highest trash-generating areas. South Los Angeles — an area with 800,000 people — maintained just 52 public trashcans. Exacerbating the issue was the city’s reliance on residents to report illegal dumping through the 311 system. L.A. has the highest percentage of renters in the US, many of whom move into their neighborhoods assuming the status quo is the status quo, and weren’t motivated to make a change. FROM PLAN TO ACTION The next step was to convert the insights and inputs that Thomas had amassed into an action plan. He researched best practices from across the country, looking for ways to bring more modernized, data-driven approaches to L.A.’s trash problem. He studied “bright spot” initiatives already being piloted within Los Angeles, including several already implemented. And he continued to capture, consolidate, and refine ideas from civic leaders across the city. Thomas presented a list of top ideas for cleaning up the city to a group of municipal leaders, a subset of whom then worked together with Thomas to further hone the ideas into recommendations. In May 2015, they released their official report, “Improving Livability in Los Angeles,” which outlined 10 recommendations to improve the city’s cleanliness, either by expanding existing services smartly, adding new capabilities inspired by other cities’ best practices, or launching initiatives designed to activate residents’ sense of civic responsibility and community pride. The recommendations were highly pragmatic. One recommendation, for example, was to develop a cleanliness rating index — which more that 80 U.S. cities already have — for assessing conditions on every Los Angeles street. L.A.’s Office of Community Beautification already has a similar rating system to monitor graffiti and its removal that could be expanded in this new direction. “All we had to do was tweak it a little bit,” said Kevin James, president of the Board of Public Works. “It made me realize that I could really put hands around this trash issue, and that we could be data-driven and efficient in solving it.” [caption id="attachment_3774" align="alignright" width="150"] Mark Thomas[/caption] What’s more, eight of the 10 could be fully implemented for less than $10 million a year — twice what the city was already spending on the problem but still a modest sum for a city with a $9 billion operating budget. In 2015, Mayor Eric Garcetti led his State of the City address with the trash issue, announcing plans to add 5,000 public trashcans to city streets over the next four years. The mayor also took another one of the recommendations — to develop and launch a comprehensive “clean and pride” pilot campaign that targets users of the city’s services and programs — and pushed it one further. Other results that came out of the fellowship were the Clean Streets L.A. Initiative, and CleanStat, which was at the center of the Mayor’s Conference award mentioned above; a vastly improved and dramatically more responsive 311 system for reporting all sorts of items on streets and sidewalks; and a more robust Volunteer Corps with a clean neighborhood component. Kevin James believes Thomas’s presence was key to the program’s success. “Having a dedicated resource really expedited the process. It provided the jolt that the issue needed,” James said. “At the end of the day, we got a very thorough clean streets initiative that is a terrific collaboration among city departments and bureaus—and a partnership between the city council, the CAO’s office, and the mayor’s office that is impressive.”
Cleaning Up the Streets of Los Angeles