Working in the public sector can be tough. You want to make a difference, but too often, you find yourself trapped in a labyrinth of ridiculous and impossible obstacles. Facing down the three-headed monster of government itself–policies, procedures, and regulations. It’s enough to make anyone want to give up but now, you don’t have to.
Jeff Roth’s new book, Fires, Floods, and Taxicabs: Taking a Bite of Big Apple Bureaucracy, offers a complete kit of effective tools for your own projects, programs, and initiatives.
Strong government depends on dedicated stewards who can earn the public’s trust and make sound decisions for the people they serve. Jeff’s book aims to recharge your passion for making real change.
Drew Appelbaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum and I’m excited to be here today with Jeffrey Roth, author of Fires, Floods, and Taxi Cabs. Jeff, thank you for joining, welcome to The Author Hour podcast.
Jeff Roth: Drew, thanks so much for having me. I’m so happy to be here.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s kick this off, can you give us a rundown of your professional background?
Jeff Roth: I arrived in New York City after I finished grad school, where I studied public policy and urban planning, and landed a job as an entry-level analyst in what’s called the Mayor’s Office of Operations in the New York City mayor’s office. I really got to delve into a number of projects and programs there that were looking at issues that were of mayoral priority. We were a small team and if the mayor had some hot topic issue he wanted looked at or some nuts and bolts issue that he needed to research or delve into, he would call on our team to do that.
Early on in my career in New York City, I got to delve into a lot of diverse projects across a whole range of issues, across city agencies, which was a great education. That was the stepping stone for my career in New York City government.
After three years there, I went on to what I consider to be one of the noblest institutions in the United States, the New York City Fire Department, where I got to work for four and a half years on similar sorts of issues.
From there, I went to the Taxi and Limousine Commission with New York City. They oversee and regulate the “for hire” vehicle industry, the taxi industry in New York City. Then from there, I got picked to help build a brand-new city agency called the New York City Department of Veteran Services, which is the first or was the first of its kind in the United States, under mayor de Blasio. I got to help build a brand-new organization from the ground up.
That brings us current. Though I should say, during this time, I’ve also been an Army Reservist and just got back from deployment overseas in 2020 where I was helping run our COVID response operations in the Middle East. I’ve dual-headed it, and that brings us to today.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, why was now the time to write this book? You’ve been in this world for a long time, you clearly have a ton of experience, and all the ideas probably rattling around in your head. Was there a moment of inspiration, was there an “aha moment” or is it as simple as, “Hey, you know, COVID’s going on, I’m inside a little bit more, might have some extra time on my hands?”
Jeff Roth: Well, I actually started writing it pre-COVID, and then yeah, COVID’s impact certainly gave me more time at home to put my head down and get the actual writing done.
This was rattling around in my head very early on. I grew in small-town Michigan, end of a dirt road, and somehow found my way to New York City and into the Mayor’s office, working on some pretty spectacular projects, at least from my perspective. Just having that experience and that exposure to the high points of urban policy if you will, or that shining example of urban policy, I had these stories and these experiences that I wanted to share with other people who were eager to work on urban issues, eager to work in urban policy or planning.
The book really started writing itself as soon as I stepped foot into New York City and started to have some of these experiences that I thought were phenomenal, fascinating, first-rate, interesting, complex, all of those things, and wanted to find a form or platform for sharing those.
There Is a Method
Drew Appelbaum: Now, were there any learnings or major breakthroughs during the writing of the book? Again, you lived these experiences, but sometimes, when you sit down and put that pen to paper and you really dig in, you find some things that you originally didn’t see.
Jeff Roth: Yeah, I think for me, it was the organizing of all those experiences. As I was writing about each of these case studies and each of these experiences, what emerged for me that was surprising was there was this–I don’t want to call a lock step method–but there’s a method for how to tackle complex urban issues and come up with solutions that could be actioned, that you could implement, that was based in reality or data studies and research that engaged stakeholder and public community.
These methods are what, I think I knew existed, but as I started to tell these stories, that’s what really emerged for me was there is a process. There is a way to approach difficult situations and lead those and actually get results that have an impact on whatever it is you’re trying to do.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, in your mind, who is this book for? Who did you write it for? Is it only for workers in the public sector or can other professionals have takeaways from the book as well?
Jeff Roth: Well, I think anyone in a leadership position or anyone who is looking to make an impact or make a difference can take some key lessons away from this book.
My original intent was to write it for the person I was 15 years ago that was just stepping into a new role, eager to make a difference, maybe naïve to some of the ways of bureaucracy and city government, but definitely wanted to get things done. There wasn’t much of a guidebook, there weren’t too many examples of that, and there’s certainly a lot of leadership books that are out there. Certainly, for non-profit or the business world or the military, but there’s not as many that I found for that entry-level person, or analyst that’s coming into a new organization, trying to learn it with the sole intent of, “Hey, how do I make the world a little bit better?”
That’s what I hope to do here was to impart a little bit of knowledge and experience into, “Hey, what is it, what are the nuts and bolts, how does the system work, how can you short circuit it to get results faster? Where are the buttons you can push or levers you can pull that help drive change?”
That was the audience, though I think a broader audience can certainly take away lessons from it.
Drew Appelbaum: Are there similar books like this out there? If so, how would you say yours is different?
Jeff Roth: There is and there isn’t. There are lots of books on getting things done, on productivity, on leading projects and people and teams, and on leadership but what I had found was that I, as the reader, always had to do the translation from the private sector to the public sector.
I had to, as I was reading, make these little mental notes. “Well, here’s how that applies in my reality as a public servant. Here’s what we do in the public sector,” and make that translation in my head as I was reading.
I think what makes my book stand out is the audience is for the public sector, the public sector employee, or someone that’s working in the non-profit who works in an organization that is intent on creating some level of change or running an operation in the government.
I think by doing that, I’ve changed the language, so to speak, of readership so they don’t have to make that translation. It’s written for people in the public sector. I think they’ll find terms, obstacles, challenges, issues, very familiar to them, having worked in government.
Drew Appelbaum: How would your career look different today had you had this book when you were starting out?
Jeff Roth: I don’t know if my career would follow necessarily a different trajectory. I certainly think that along the way, I’ve learned some lessons the hard way. I do think had I had a book that shared with me some of those lessons, perhaps I could have gotten to making an impact much sooner or at a lower personal cost perhaps. Maybe avoided some of the pitfalls that I ran into or some of the issues and challenges I confronted, certainly.
But I’ve loved the trajectory of my career so I hope it wouldn’t have changed it other than to make me more informed and certainly better prepared.
Drew Appelbaum: I am a New York City resident so I enjoyed digging into the book and if you will, could you name drop for us, tell us some of those major projects you worked on in New York City?
Jeff Roth: Sure, I think that the first and most fascinating one for me was when I just started in my position, I wasn’t even 90 days into the job when there was a fire at the Deutsche Bank building, which was an office tower down near the World Trade Center, that had been damaged and was being demolished by contractors floor by floor.
There was a fire in early August of 2007 where two firefighters, unfortunately, were killed and within a few days of that, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had pledged to ensure that this sort of situation or the conditions for the situation wouldn’t ever happen again.
My team was pulled in to look at the operationals, the nuts-and-bolts side of it and as it relates to data and information flows between principal city agencies that were working on this or regulating some portion of the teardown of that building.
That was under that mayor and I got to delve into what was extremely complex. It took us many, many months of information and data gathering, creating process flows to really understand the touchpoints between the city agencies so that we could ensure we met the mayor’s intent, which was to ensure that firefighters, when they went inside a burning building, had better knowledge and information about the conditions inside those buildings. That’s one example.
We worked on flood mitigation, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission certainly worked on some high-profile issues there, when Uber and Lyft were becoming more significant players in the “for hire” vehicle industries. That certainly came at a cost to the taxi industry in New York City and across the globe. That was principally under Mayor de Blasio who was at city hall at the time.
But those are some of the big focus issues that certainly garnered a lot of public attention just because they’re fascinating and they’re transforming how we live our lives every day.
Drew Appelbaum: Let’s dive into the beginning of the book where you say that government is a spot where you can enact real change but yet, in your experience, when you went into it, you found it to be very bureaucratic and a formidable foe. Can you talk to us about maybe one of these experiences that you had in dealing with the bureaucracy when you knew change you wanted to enact?
Jeff Roth: Yes, I don’t know that this is unique to government necessarily. I think any institution has its own level of bureaucracy and for me, I think that the tension existed because being young, wet behind the ears, wanting to jump into the policy mix and make a change, there’s certainly this eagerness there.
Then you start to hit some obstacles where you’re slowed down, where the rules and regulations that are in place are just slow to change or you want to create technological innovation, yet the budget doesn’t warrant massive investments and those types of things.
The obstacles are, like any organization, it just takes time to create that change and for me, what I learned is you had to learn how the organization operated. Once you delved into that and knew how the car operated, you could certainly drive it a different direction. For me, it was all about human relationships and taking time to build those relationships and learn who it was that I could lean on to move resources when I needed to, to rally for engaging the public, for helping get our data out there in a public way. Building those relationships is really what made the difference.
Drew Appelbaum: What does that struggle look like dealing with other government agencies even when you’re all looking to solve similar issues? Why is there all of the finger-pointing?
Jeff Roth: Well, yeah. Sometimes there’s lots of finger-pointing, sometimes it’s just a matter of getting to the right place. I think people are finger-pointing because it’s maybe not always clear who is responsible for what, or as you navigate these things, you sometimes have to uncover, “Well, who is the decision-maker on this particular policy or this particular operation?”
So, it requires digging and finger-pointing sure, but that’s true of any organization. Certainly, government has its share, but in my experience, I have found a lot of people who are trying really, really hard to create change to make things better and to serve the public.
Drew Appelbaum: Do you feel like behind every great government worker or project is really just a really great process? How important is nailing down a really good solution process in government work?
Jeff Roth: Yeah, I am a process-oriented guy. I think that’s extremely important. If the process works, regardless of how inefficient or efficient it may be, if it works and it creates the output you’re looking for, that’s the first key. Then you could go back and look at, how do we streamline or make it more responsive, faster, smoother, leaner? Whatever question you want to ask, but the process is really what undergirds the entire system.
If the process works and is delivering the output you want, that’s the bottom line, but often it doesn’t and that’s where you have to align processes to outputs and make sure you’re creating the right widget or service for the public.
Drew Appelbaum: I thought what’s really interesting about the book is that you get pretty granular in there and you even talked about while you’re doing your project, you’re working with big names, big departments but yet you still have to go and hit the streets and you have to do a lot of interviews and do a lot of legwork, almost like detective work so you can be prepared for the meeting. Did you ever think you’d have to do this sort of work to be able to do your job?
Jeff Roth: Yes, I welcome it. In fact, I’m leading a project right now where we do a lot of this. For me, the fascinating part of the job is actually going out and doing some of these things. I think one of the first things that I did when I got to the Mayor’s Office was take a tour of the digging of the third water tunnel, which is 700 feet below the Manhattan bedrock just to see that operation and get a briefing on that.
A week later, I was out filling potholes in Manhattan with a road crew, but it’s in doing those sorts of things where you see up close and personal, not only the experiences of the people that are doing the work but the processes behind them. You know, what are the data systems when they’re recording this thing? Is it paper-based? How do they receive their work orders for the day? How do they do their routing? Where do they go? What issues and challenges do they face?
When you do that and you get the on-ground truth, that’s where you really can start to paint a picture that you can then take back with you to City Hall or wherever you work, to inform the decision-makers.
Drew Appelbaum: Now what comes top of mind, what’s the first thing that really pops into your head when somebody says, “What suggestions do you have about finding the correct method or process to solving a problem?”
Jeff Roth: Yeah, I think the first thing is just to paint the picture. I have found, time and time again, in my experience that problem solving usually occurs by coming up with a bunch of solutions very, very quickly before we really delve into painting an in-depth picture of what the problem is. I was fortunate enough in many of my experiences to be given time to actually go and do that delving into the problem.
Going back to that Deutsche Bank building fire example, we spent six months to a year just researching, digesting, understanding, analyzing, and collecting information on how those processes existed currently and then testing new theories and approaches for how it could change. Being given the ability and the time to do that research I think is absolutely key but so many times, you hear solutions before you’ve even defined the problem, so how do you know what you’re really solving?
Drew Appelbaum: Now, the second half of the book focuses on common challenges you may face along the way. Your first half is about processes and why and how and asking the right questions and then the second half is adversity along the way. Can you talk about a few of the common challenges that you might run into?
Jeff Roth: Yeah, I think team building is extremely difficult in the public sector, not because of lack. There are a lot of people, talented and good people who want to work in government, particularly city government, and particularly New York City. I was fortunate to work in some organizations that attracted a lot of eager people who wanted to make a difference, but it is also difficult to keep that team focused and rewarded and engaged because you don’t have a lot of tools that the private sector, for example, has. You can’t give bonuses at the end of the year for a job well done, so you have to think of some creative solutions for awarding and recognizing your team and making them feel like they’re part of the bigger picture.
When I was at the New York City Fire Department, for example, we were able to take our team out and be what we called “firefighter for a day.” We actually went out to the Fire Training Academy and got to put on all of the equipment and uniform and go through the entire training academy.
We got to rappel off the side of buildings, we got to put out a car fire, we got to crawl under a subway to do a rescue scenario and those things. Seeing the glow on my team’s faces after an experience like that, myself included, those were the ways where we got to retain our top talent, by making them feel like they were part of something and giving them opportunities to go out there and experience and explore what it means to be part of this bigger picture of government.
That is one of the biggest challenges I think is, how do you keep your people engaged, how do you retain them within your organization when you can’t always pay them the top dollar that perhaps the private sector can?
Drew Appelbaum: Now, did I get this right? Did you dip your toes into the world of politics and what happened there?
Jeff Roth: Yeah, it wasn’t my favorite moment in my city government experience. Yeah, it was certainly a wake-up call. In 2019, I had an opportunity where the mayor of New York City offered me, well nominated me, for position to lead the Taxi and Limousine Commission where I’d worked many years prior to that, but they were looking for a commissioner to oversee that city agency.
The one unique thing about this particular city agency–I think there is one other that goes through the same process of the 42 mayoral agencies, only two have this process where the mayor nominates, and the city council approves that nomination, so they get to confirm the nomination, and this happened to be one of them. I had to go before the New York City council to prove myself and be vetted by one of their committees for confirmation into that role and unfortunately, it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped, but I certainly took away some key lessons from that experience.
Drew Appelbaum: Yeah, can you dig in a little bit deeper to that? Can you talk about some of the other maybe projects too or moments that didn’t go your way but still ended up being major lessons and learnings for projects moving forward?
Jeff Roth: Yeah, that was certainly one of them. I think also building a brand-new city agency with the New York City Department of Veteran Services, which we built from the ground up, a brand-new agency with a brand-new budget code and that faced many obstacles and hurdles for standing up that city agency, but there were a lot of lessons learned in there, in building something new, particularly in an organization like city government that is not used to startups.
Dealing with just the language of, “Hey, we need these resources because we’re brand new and we’ve got to put them in place,” was new to the lexicon of city government, but certainly, with the political confirmation process for Taxi and Limousine Commission, I just learned that you can’t control the situation every time, but you’ve got to show up as yourself, so be authentic. You are going to take some knocks, that’s okay and if things don’t ultimately work out the way you had hoped, sometimes there is a silver lining, sometimes things work out anyway and life goes on.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, after all of your experience thus far, would you still tell folks to join the public sector or would you say it should be just for the really passionate ones?
Jeff Roth: No, for anybody. I think it is incredibly rewarding work. It’s hard, you will get beat down. You will get burned out, there will be days when you need some motivation and inspiration but that’s okay. I think today particularly when you look at what’s going on in the world, this is the time when we need people who are dedicated to making a difference, who want to contribute some amount of time of their career, whether it’s a year, five years, 10 years to making a difference, we need it.
There is no shortage of problems in our world, particularly in the public sector, and we need people who are willing to step in and lead and create change and do, what I’d like to call, a tour of duty for some length of time and give back to our public institutions.
Drew Appelbaum: Jeff, we just touched on the surface of the book. I certainly have more questions, everything that you talked about goes in-depth, but I just want to say writing a book like this, which is going to help guide so many public sector employees and others, it’s not easy. It’s no small feat so congratulations on being published.
Jeff Roth: Drew, thank you so much and I enjoy talking about it.
Work Worth Doing
Drew Appelbaum: Now, one last question. It’s the hot seat question. If readers could take away only one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Jeff Roth: That this is work worth doing, that the public sector is absolutely vital. It’s important that the people who do the work every day, who may not be recognized or rewarded in large ways, are so important to our national institutions, our public institutions, for the lives that we lead. And for those who aren’t doing this work every day, try it out. Go and make a difference, give a little bit of time. Get a little bloody and dirty in the trenches of trying to make a difference for other people. I really think that is the basis for good citizenship.
Drew Appelbaum: This has been a pleasure and I’m so excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called, Fires, Floods, and Taxicabs, and you can find it on Amazon. Jeff besides checking out the book, where can people connect with you?
Jeff Roth: Sure, I have a website where they can come and find me. I’ve got a list of some of my projects there. They can connect with me and that is www.jeffreydroth.com.
Drew Appelbaum: Jeff, thank you so much for coming on the show today, and best of luck with your new book.
Jeff Roth: Drew, thank you so much for having me.