COVID-19 IS BRINGING NYC BUDGET CUTS
Making a Case for Why Your Organization Is Essential
By: Anthony Hogrebe, Senior Vice President Communications
While public discussions remain rightly focused on the healthcare response to the COVID-19 pandemic, government officials are also starting to prepare for the short- and long-term impacts on New York City’s budget and what that means for the essential public services the City provides.
Mayor de Blasio has already directed city officials to make $1.3 billion in cuts – a number that could grow, with Comptroller Scott Stringer now estimating more than $6 billion in lost tax revenue to NYC.
It may be tempting to suggest that cuts can be accomplished by focusing on “waste, fraud, and abuse,” but the reality is that cuts of this magnitude are likely to more closely resemble what was required in the years immediately after 9/11 and the fiscal crisis of 2008.
For example, between 2008 and 2011 there were nearly $1 billion in cuts to education and more than $100 million in cuts to children’s services including foster care and child protection. Important and beneficial programs were forced to compete with essential services for limited resources and almost nothing was held harmless.
For organizations that depend on city funding for much or all of their operations, this can pose a unique challenge – especially at a time when their functions have already been disrupted by social distancing and they face increased demands from the populations they serve.
During a time of crisis, it can be difficult to focus on anything beyond the most immediate issues. But the reality is that organizations of all sizes need to start making an argument for why the services they provide are not just important, but essential. Here are a few key principles that can help guide that conversation.
- Don’t just speak directly to elected officials. While city officials will ultimately make decisions about the budget, they will do so based on what they think impacts the most New Yorkers. Convincing them requires also convincing the constituents they serve, the reporters who cover them, the political donors they depend on, and the policy experts they turn to for advice.
- Humanize the impact of the services you provide. Put the focus squarely on the people you serve. Quantifying the impact is helpful, but don’t underestimate the power of individual stories. A short web video or testimonial can leave a lasting impression – especially when amplified vis social media.
- Frame things in the context of COVID-19. How will the services you provide help people who have been impacted by both the pandemic and the longer-term economic fallout? Why are you now even more essential than before?
- Activate members, supporters, and beneficiaries. It’s more important than ever to activate individual voices via social media, email, petitions, and other direct action. Elected officials are going to make decisions based on the impacts that a specific budget cut will have on their constituents and whether they believe those constituents care. If they hear directly from 50 or 50,000 New Yorkers, your message will carry a lot more weight.
- Think about the values of your audience. The mayor and City Council will be looking for ways to apply progressive values to their COVID-19 response and budget decisions. How can the services that you provide be framed in terms of equity and access?
- Take the long view. There may ultimately be a need for pain to be shared widely across issues and organizations. Acknowledging that and being honest about where you can accept a haircut without it disrupting core services can go a long way with elected officials trying to find the lesser of many evils.
With the mayor’s executive budget due this month, debates about priorities at the agency level are already underway. Organizations would be wise to start making their cases now – or they may find themselves trying to convince the City Council to roll back painful cuts before the budget gets finalized in June.
Anthony Hogrebe is a senior vice president at Marathon Strategies, a NYC-based public affairs firm that helps organizations impact public opinion and policymaking. Hogrebe formerly led public affairs for the NYC Economic Development Corporation and served as a senior advisor to the NYC Council Speaker.