Bill Chong, who was appointed commissioner of the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, has served in various capacities in city government under four mayors, beginning with the former Mayor David Dinkins’ administration. But in the past four years, Chong has seen his department’s budget double, freeing him to take on infrastructural challenges that have existed since DYCD was formed through the merger of smaller city agencies in 1996.
Chong’s agency provides after-school activities, community development and youth and family supports through programs such as the Comprehensive After School System of New York City, School’s Out New York City, Beacon, Cornerstone and the Summer Youth Employment Program. Chong and Susan Haskell, deputy commissioner for youth services, joined us for a podcast about what they have planned for the newly strengthened agency. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full podcast here.
NYN: What are your priorities for the agency as a whole?
BC: I benefit from several things having worked at this agency for eight years as an assistant and deputy commissioner, so I had no learning curve. I knew the people, I knew the programs. The biggest challenge for us has always been funding and that itself is a sea change. Our budget has more than doubled in the last four years. We went from under $400 million to about $840 million. So now the challenge for us is, how do we do a better job with what we have? How do we do better integration of services?
We ourselves are a merger of three separate smaller agencies: Youth Services, the Community Development Agency and the Department of Employment. For many years – and this is true of government in general, having worked for four different mayors – is that the left and the right hand don’t know what they’re doing. So we have an opportunity to make sure at least the left and right hand at DYCD know what they’re doing.
So we’re into community building now. We’re talking about how do we learn from the nonprofit community – from settlement houses, for example, because settlement houses do this seamlessly. They take disparate pots of money that serve different programs and create a holistic strategy to help people. And we know that the people that come to the programs that DYCD funds have more than one challenge. How do we connect the dots? That’s what we’re focusing on now, is making it easier to connect people so when they come in for one service, they can be connected to another service.
NYN: What particular challenges are you looking to address?
BC: When I was deputy commissioner in the Bloomberg administration, half the programs relied on one-year funding. Now you can’t run any program not knowing what your budget is until the start of the new budget year. That situation has been greatly alleviated. Most of our programs have permanent – what’s called baselined funding. One of the things I’m most proud of is providing permanent funding for the summer jobs program. … We’ve recently released what’s called a concept paper, which is our beginning for our process to redesign the programs. And so we’re seeking input from the public, from people who provide these services, because we want to do several things. We want to expand the number of programs that serve young people – provide summer jobs. We want to continue specializing services because we know that young people have different needs and one size does not fit all.
NYN: What has your working relationship been like with Mayor Bill de Blasio?
BC: I’ve known the mayor for almost 25 years, since we were both alumni of the Dinkins administration. A lot of the pathbreaking work for young people started in the Dinkins administration. Richard Murphy, who was then the commissioner of youth services – in fact he was the first commissioner of youth services appointed by Mayor Dinkins – was one of the first advocates in government for a principle called youth development. … A lot of the work we’ve done is built on the foundation that Richard Murphy laid out.
NYN: What challenges are you looking to address in schools?
SH: One of the things that we’re paying more attention to is social-emotional learning and youth leadership development. And I think after school and the field of youth development, that’s always been one of their strengths. But now we’re sort of being more intentional about it. … We’re working with the American Institute for Research, and they’ve helped develop a survey. They looked nationwide. They do work all around the globe and they were not able to find a great youth leadership development tool and they’re implementing it now in the commissioner's SONYC program, which is the middle school after-school programs.
NYN: How do you make sure your nonprofit providers are up to speed with ever-changing requirements?
SH: It takes a really close connection with the programs and our program monitors. … I think Commissioner Chong has been really committed to strengthening the school partnerships. I think that’s where that work begins is when you have a really strong relationship with school-based programs – between the school leadership and the program staff so that they can develop a strong program together.
NYN: What are you doing to help improve the contracting process with nonprofits?
BC: We were the first major agency to test what’s called the HHS Accelerator system, which is an online application. … And we’re looking to do other things. In listening to our nonprofit partners, they’ve said that it makes sense to group contracts so that if you have five community center Beacon contracts, it would be one contract. It’s one-fifth the work because its one-fifth the set of documents. So we’re looking to do ways that will still maintain accountability, but make it more streamlined for not only the nonprofit staff but for the staff at DYCD.
NYN: What new initiatives should nonprofit providers be keeping an eye out for?
BC: We’re partnering with nontraditional providers. One of the initiatives in the Summer Youth Employment Program is that we have jobs set aside for young people who are court-involved, homeless or in foster care. And the key to the success of that experience is making sure that they’re ready to work. Knowing the young person, having worked with them during the school year, makes a huge difference and a good outcome during the summer.
Our ideal goal is when a person or a family exits one program, another door opens. We’re doing that. We’re building a new data system called DYCD Connect. We had six or seven different data systems. It’s a legacy of being three different agencies. So the different systems didn’t talk to each other. Once the system is up and running next year – some time, probably the spring or summer, when a young person, when a family exits a program, they will be referred automatically to other programs they might be eligible for.
We know from experience that one-shot efforts don’t work. You have to have continuous intervention. You have to have sustained intervention to have long-term impact.