University alum Kristina Ford returned to the University on Friday to present Taubman College’s 2015 Distinguished Alumna Lecture. Titled “Implementing Public Policy: The Heart of the Matter,” her lecture examined challenges that often stem from a lack of communication between urban planners and policy makers.
During the lecture, she touched on her experiences as director of city planning in New Orleans and as chief of staff for New Orleans’ deputy mayor in charge of public facilities, infrastructure and community development.
According to Ford, the gap in policy plans and implementation stems from an inconsistency between the needs of communities and the focus of policy and government leaders. To bridge this chasm, she said an open discussion between both parties must occur to foster a better level of understanding.
“Planners know how to write good plans, but what we don’t pay much attention to, and never have, is figuring out how to get them implemented,” Ford said. “We ask much better questions of citizens once we get them in the room. What we have not been very good at is getting new people into the room. What we need is new life.”
She said elected officials frequently identify opportunities for improvement. However, she emphasized it is voters who drive change by choosing their representatives and bringing attention to areas of concern.
Rather than waiting for a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina to strike and demand society’s attention, Ford presented an alternative scenario where people and government proactively work together to steer policy change.
“The person who’s in charge of trying to oversee rebuilding or even working with the plan has got to find a way to keep citizens interested enough that elected leaders stay interested,” Ford said. “Otherwise, their impulse is to wash their hands of it and go on to the next thing.”
The combination of vocal citizens, capable planners and receptive leaders plays a role in effective policy changes. In 2006, the Bring New Orleans Back strategic plan was rejected almost immediately. Ford said this was an example of the leadership’s failure to pay attention to the public.
The plan included newly designated areas for park land and paths to connect these features. However, after widespread devastation, citizens were most concerned with being displaced and feared relocation. Instead of working through concerns, as officials claimed would happen, the plan was simply discarded.
“What will we have to do? If the Bring New Orleans Back plan had asked and answered this question, New Orleans might now be the sustainable city it once was,” Ford said. “Instead, what New Orleans ultimately decided to do was build the city as it had been before Hurricane Katrina. Implementation seemed easy.”
Richard Norton, chair of the University’s urban and regional planning program, said people tend to consider urban planning and design when change is needed after a disaster, such as in New Orleans after Katrina.
“When everything’s working, nobody pays attention to it, and they take it for granted,” Norton said in an interview after the event. “Urban design and planning are more quiet professions. They happen in the background, but they profoundly influence the way people live their lives and how the landscape gets built around them.”