Brick by brick: building momentum in New Orleans

June 1, 2012

New Orleans knows about starting over. When the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina breached the city's levees and floodwalls, the subsequent floods killed more than 1,500 people in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana. This one-two punch of catastrophe also left more than 100,000 more displaced—many of whom have never returned. As a result, New Orleans is both a very old place and a very new one. Some of its problems, entrenched government bureaucracy among them, predate Katrina but have nevertheless made building post-hurricane momentum difficult.

Perhaps that's why this city, right now, is exactly where Jennifer Cecil (MPP '09) belongs. The former Meijer Fellow is Director of One-Stop Operations. In the spring of 2011, she was asked to assist New Orleans' Chief Administrative Officer with analyzing the city's permitting and construction data. A year later, these simple metrics have led her to oversee Mayor Mitch Landrieu's "one-stop shop" for building permits and licenses.

Jennifer has worked for New Orleans local government since graduating from the Ford School; her first job landed her in capital projects administration, "literally building public buildings, rebuilding New Orleans." But the capital fund was a logjam of too many projects, construction management contracts with perverse incentives, and nearly $33 million in money that couldn't be accounted for.

She spent two years working on the capital fund, the preparation for which she credits Sharon Maccini's course on public sector economics. During the first budget cycle of the Landrieu administration, she eliminated the expired grant funds and created projects based on real money in the fund—100 projects, not 500. Working in concert with the New Orleans City Council, and Deputy Mayors she was able to create a capital project list that was fully funded and realistic. And the city was then able to be more transparent with the public about what they could accomplish.

Jennifer delivers on the promise of the capital projects work in her current position working directly for Deputy Mayor for Operations, Michelle Thomas. The One-Stop Shop will begin to bear fruit this year.

By late summer 2012, the software powering the one-stop shop, including a new web portal, will be in place—the first step in a two-step overhaul that will revamp the way New Orleanians obtain permits and licenses. A simple home addition in the French Quarter, say, might typically involve several visits to multiple city departments—including Safety and Permits, the City Planning Commission, and the Vieux Carré Commission—many of which are not in regular communication with each other.

"Currently the onus is on [citizens] to do all the legwork—which is a very piecemeal and frustrating process. People will be able to electronically route everything; what they get back will be comprehensive. They will be able to access all the information they need for any project," Jennifer explains. "This is different than what we've done before because managers tend to implement projects in a top-down way. That's a big flaw—the software is not [currently] implemented with the people who do the work in mind." The second step in the process, scheduled for a late 2012 roll-out, involves co-locating these departments—bringing them together under one roof.

Jennifer's approach, she says, is to de-escalate situations and deal with customers' needs in an efficient and timely way. The idea is to empower citizens.

It's an enormous challenge that nevertheless reminds her why she's in New Orleans and why she's committed to seeking out new Ford School talent to help NOLA start over.

"Ask me what I'm most proud of," Jennifer says.

Her voice rises cheerfully. "I'm proud of the fact that I was able to help Dave Gavlinski (MPP '08) and Lelia Gowland (MPP '11) get jobs down here in city government." David has been in New Orleans for more than three years and is currently assistant fiscal officer for the New Orleans City Council after starting as a policy analyst. Lelia is a policy advisor for the Dept. of Human Services, which oversees the practices and programming of New Orleans' juvenile detention center.

"I don't have a problem staking my reputation on the Ford School name—super high quality people. I know they have something to offer New Orleans."