Jul 4, 2023
53 min
Episode 3

We Are San Francisco: 'Fixing City Government' with Kanishka Cheng

Ben Kaplan  00:00

Hey, BART riders. Hey San Francisco. I'm Ben Kaplan and this is the podcast where we define who we are and who we want to be.


We are diverse. We are innovative, we are inclusive. We are change makers,

Ben Kaplan  00:15

problem solvers, activists, leaders, citizens. We are open minded optimistic, because hope for a better tomorrow and you and you and you gotta get in the hole. This is the podcast. That's more than a podcast for Cisco. They are the world champion, our San Francisco

Ben Kaplan  00:43

Hey, San Francisco. Today I'm chatting with Kanishka Cheng. She is currently the founder and executive director of together SF, a prominent San Francisco nonprofit, funded by famed venture capitalist Michael Moritz tackles key city issues like the drug crisis, homelessness and crime. Kanishka is unique in the city because she's an SF triple threat. She served in the city's executive branch in the mayor's office in the legislative branch as an aide to board of supervisor members and in multiple government agencies like SF planning, and the Office of Workforce Development. She's drawn upon that wealth of experience in city government to create both political and charitable community based nonprofit organizations. So what can we do to reverse the deadly impact of fentanyl? And how can we make San Francisco city government operate more efficiently and effectively? Let's find out with Kanishka Cheng.

Ben Kaplan  01:38

Kanishka one of the things I love about your background, and also think is a super interesting perspective is that you've played a role in many different important stakeholders in the future of San Francisco, you've been a legislative aide to a member of the Board of Supervisors, you've been in the mayor's office where one of your roles was a liaison to the Board of Supervisors. And now you run a well known nonprofit that is very visible in the city and taking a lot of action steps. So for those who don't know it, as well as you do, who holds the power in SF, how do we get things done? And why does everyone seem to be fighting,

Kanishka Cheng  02:15

that's a great way to start. Thanks for having me on. So who holds the power in SF, I think the harsh truth is that the power is held by so many different people that no one is really in charge. And therefore no real decision can get made unilaterally. And no one can really be held accountable for that. Because everybody has the opportunity to point a finger at somebody else and say, well, if they hadn't done this, I wouldn't have to do this, or I can't do this because they're blocking me from doing this. In fact,

Ben Kaplan  02:44

just in the news this week, the mayor was at the Board of Supervisors meeting, and it was back and forth. And it almost sounded a little personal back and forth and saying, Oh, they don't want to talk. They're not showing up at meetings. And the other side says, Well, you're the one he doesn't want to talk. You don't want to show up at meetings. Is that inevitable? Because of how San Francisco is structured? Or is it the personalities involved? Or why is it like this, the

Kanishka Cheng  03:02

combination of the two, definitely San Francisco structure, our organizations, big mission goal overall, is to reform the structure of socialist government, because we think the structure is so broken, that it has these twisted and perverse incentives that kind of lead people to behaving this way. And then on top of that, we have San Francisco that's known as like this political battlefield nationally, that attracts people who are just really by nature, very political, believe in aggressive advocacy, and really do see politics as a career. And they want to start here in San Francisco, because we have this pattern of San Francisco, local elected officials climbing that Democratic Party ladder all the way to the White House. And so everybody that wants to do politics comes to San Francisco, because it is it fosters that kind of behavior, I think because of the structure and environments. But it's

Ben Kaplan  03:55

interesting, because you would think we're all Democrats, there shouldn't be alignment. So why is it and for someone that doesn't know it as intimately well as you like, why is there such a progressive, moderate divide, and I've spoken to a lot of people interview people on the show, and they're like, people call me this, and I'm not this and I don't know how to say it. And people will say, I'm the furthest thing from a Donald Trump supporter. And yet people will say, Oh, you're a secret Donald Trump supporter that we were all Democrats. Why is that? Well, there should be more alignment. Yet. It's not we just wanted to bait we want to fight so we just find ways to have more division.

Kanishka Cheng  04:30

Absolutely. I completely agree with you. I think that most ever Siskins agree on like 95% of the things. It's that 5% that we disagree on. That's what we focus all of our energy on is amplifying those fights. I think it all comes back to the way the D Triple C is run in San Francisco that the Democratic County Central Committee it's the local chapter of the Democratic Party. It's an elected body. We talk a lot about this in our SF politics 101 event which is like a good primer for you kind of understanding the landscape here in San Francisco, but That body is made up of elected officials who are currently in other seats. And it's pretty much owned by the left faction of the Democratic Party by the far left progressives in San Francisco. So they make a lot of endorsements that have ripple effects across all of the elections. And because control of that body is so instrumental in election outcomes, it creates this very, like moderate Democrat versus progressive Democrat fighting environment. And then the other thing to remember, I think, is like even a moderate San Francisco Democrat is still a far left Democrat by national standards, right. So we are extremely close, but the things we fight about are just the minutia that around the edges that I think are more about holding on to power or just extreme ideology and not being willing to compromise.

Ben Kaplan  05:48

What do you think, are issues that if we didn't pick sides and teams, and we're kind of like, no, no, we're all on the same team. That would be so much easier to solve. I know together. So if you have a mandate, you're in a number of different issues. Right now, it looks like you're focused a lot on drug crisis, Fentanyl crisis. If we didn't pick sides and made which side you're on. So important. What can we do that would better lives if we weren't so polarized.

Kanishka Cheng  06:15

So let's look at the drug crisis. As an example, here, we have one side talking about a more harm reduction based approach. Portugal is doing they've decriminalized, they have safe consumption sites, they've managed their drug crisis very well. And we as an organization would agree Portugal has done a really good job, and we'd love to move towards the Portugal model. But the Portugal model also includes a role for law enforcement, and includes it has not decriminalized drug trafficking and drug sales. Drug use is addressed through administrative citations. There is a role for safe consumption sites. But it means that people don't use drugs in public anywhere else, they come to the sites. So all of these additional pieces are just not on the table in San Francisco. The biggest problem is we don't have that social and political consensus around a full a true Portugal approach would get us out of this crisis, I think. But instead, we have the advocates on one side saying we only want harm reduction, we only want safe consumption sites, we don't want a role for police at all in this. That's not actually the Portugal model, right. So people are picking and choosing what parts of the response that has worked in other places that they want to have here. And I think that is where we end up fighting. And if we can see like, actually, we're both saying the same thing. Let's find some middle ground, let's find some compromise, we could actually address this crisis.

Ben Kaplan  07:37

What's interesting is, if you look at other cities that have solved really hard things like homelessness in Houston, they've made a lot of progress, housing access in San Diego, they've made a lot of progress. We're leveraging a ton of federal money during the pandemic in a way that San Francisco wasn't. What you usually see, is that a couple things, one, there's alignment, if it's hard, if it's complex, usually one person, one group can't solve it. So you see alignment, you also see focus, whether you talk about versus if we're talking about homelessness, and Houston, you know, they had a real like housing first approach, which mainly meant we're going to focus on getting people who don't have housing, housing, and we're not going to try to solve all of poverty all at once, because that's really hard. Let's just focus things. So you see alignment, you have focus. And then you see some type of simplification of the solution. Why? Because government bureaucracies are complex. And even if it's like brilliant idea, but like hard to implement, which may describe some things in San Francisco, you can't get it done. So we have those examples. And we're like, Okay, we got to be aligned, we got to make things simple. We got to stay focused, but aligned, simple, focused, doesn't sound like I'm describing San Francisco right now. So what would it take? Whose job is it? Is that the mayor's job? Should we not be waiting for elected officials? Is it the community's job to get aligned? Is it the Board of Supervisors needs to come together and be like having dinner every week, doing some trust falls together? Who gets us there? If that's the model that we see that works?

Kanishka Cheng  09:13

I think it takes both sides giving a little bit that's how you find compromise, right? And right now we have two sides where everybody thinks they're giving but probably no one's giving enough to meet in the middle. We have one member on the board of supervisors who has said as recently as January that compromise should not be a value that we strive for it the Board of Supervisors, so that kind of is a line in the sand, right, that they're not here to compromise on issues. And I think then the mayor becomes put gets put in a very awkward position where it's like, well, they don't want to compromise with me, so I have to try to force things through. I think that's why we don't have that alignment. Now the focus, I think, is because we have this massive bureaucracy, right we have a 14 plus billion dollar budget. We have like 30,000 Something employees Lee's, and it just continues to grow and grow and grow without anybody coming in and saying, what's actually working and what's not working? What can we cut? What can we streamline? What can we make more efficient? These are just things that our government is not good at. And I think a lot of this comes back to those perverse incentives that I've mentioned that the example that I think most about is, if you're a member of the Board of Supervisors, or you're even on the City College Board or Board of Education, in San Francisco, you're thinking about your next step in that political ladder. Very few people are thinking about how to solve the current problems on hand, they're always thinking about how am I going to secure my next election? What am I going to do now?

Ben Kaplan  10:40

Why I mean, seems like the best way to secure next question is do a great job in your current role.

Kanishka Cheng  10:43

Yes, I agree. I mean, there is only one person on the board of supervisors right now who has ever held a job outside of working for the city or for a nonprofit that worked for the city. So just think about that for a second. Nobody has any other job experience, there's nothing else that they can do, except politics and government. So they're always thinking about what's the next job, what's next role within this ecosystem that I can have, we would

Ben Kaplan  11:11

be healthier, if it was a more diverse in every sense of the word, we just want different perspectives, opinions coming together, if it was a diverse body, in terms of experience, by any measure, we will be better off.

Kanishka Cheng  11:23

Absolutely. Because the biggest thing is, right now, because everybody's experience is only in San Francisco government, when they get told why we can or can't do something, they don't have a counter example to compare that to, they don't have the frame of reference to think about, well, when I worked at this company, we were able to do it faster, or we would have done it this way. They just don't have that that sense of comparison. And I'm speaking from my experience from working in the building that that's what it was like. And when I left. And I started working with people from the private sector, people who had done startups, people who worked in nonprofits that were more efficient, it was kind of mind blowing to see how quickly they expect things to move, how, how quickly they respond to things, how there isn't as much, you know, spend six months studying something before we take an action at the city, they only know that approach. They don't think about other approaches. And part of it is that government has an obligation and a role to do public outreach and accept public comment and bring the public along. But they also have a responsibility to be leaders, right and to say, we've studied it, this is what needs to happen. This is what will be the best for the most people that are dealing with this problem. So we're going to do it now. Instead, what we see is a lot of hemming and hawing because because of those incentives to get elected to your next thing. everybody's scared to upset any one group. Even if that one group is a minority of voters, there's a lot of fear of pissing people off. So that's one part of the problem, then I think the other incentive is, if you are on the board of supervisors, you want to run for mayor one day or you want to become an assembly member or a state senator, you need to get your name idea. That's what primarily people vote on our names that they recognize, they very rarely do more research than that. So the way that your name idea is you get your name in the press a lot, because then people start remembering your name. They hear it right. So the way you get your name in the press is you make big bold statements you present yourself as oppositional to the mayor who's always in the press, because they are the mayor. That's the perverse incentive I see with the board of supervisors and the Mayor, Members of the board are kind of incentivized to be oppositional to the mayor. So they can present themselves as also a leader, but with a different perspective.

Ben Kaplan  13:46

You're someone who, as I mentioned, has made an impact in many different ways and many different types of organizations. What is the best way to do it now? Like if you want to make an impact? I mean, should you just start volunteering for things and gain to know what people were doing? Should you you know, you founded your own 501 C three, and now 501, c four, which we'll talk about, should you go found your own organization? Should you get involved in community benefit districts or other things that are other important stakeholders in this hack? Should you run for office? Should you run for the board of supervisors if you're listening? I mean, I think one of our missions of this podcast is get way more people involved,

Kanishka Cheng  14:24

I think, come to one of our events, sign up for our newsletter. Get informed about what's happening in this city. There are many organizations that have cropped up during the pandemic right to try to get people more engaged in the city. I think that we present a very unique perspective of people who have worked for the city worked in the building work and city departments work for us with officials that see this problem very uniquely and we know that the best way to change things is to amplify more resident voices. And so you getting involved can literally look like you just coming into event or you sending an email to City Hall to say this is what matters to me. I think the biggest way to move the needle right now is to show up consistently 2023 is not an election year, but it sets us up for a very big election year, next year in 2024. There are a lot of important elections next year. And so starting to get engaged and informed this year will have huge impacts. Just you know, our mental life, our ad campaign, our efforts around the drug crisis, the ad campaign was designed to engage people to send an email to the board of supervisors and the mayor around the city's budget, which that process ends at the end of June. So this month of June is a hugely impactful part of the year where the city is setting its budget, which is its policy priorities for the rest of for the next year. Right. So you send me an email on that makes a big difference. Because during this budget process, which is very insular, pretty opaque, it moves quickly. It's too hard for the general public to track sending an email right now. And getting engaged right now is impactful because traditionally, the old people engaged in that process are the nonprofit groups who want to get their contracts funded lobbyists who want to make sure their clients are well representative the budget, and that's pretty much it, there is rarely very rarely any large scale engagement from just residents who want certain policy outcomes and do not have a specific financial gain coming out of the budget.

Ben Kaplan  16:26

And just to sort of unpack this campaign because it did generate headlines it was it did what was designed to do, which is get attention and shock people a little bit describe the ads as campaign that was called that's Fenty life for people that weren't in, really the areas where, you know, it was really looks like targeted at places where it were fentanyl addiction. drug crisis is really like front and center. And it's super interesting to hear you say that actually the goal was to influence the budget process. But we're going to do this kind of consumer ad, can you take us through what were the ads saying? And when did this idea start? How long did it take to sort of develop this,

Kanishka Cheng  17:02

we actually did it in a very, very fast timeline. We had been working on the drug crisis since January through public engagement events, teaching people about what's happening. And so since January, we've been mobilizing people to send emails to City Hall, ask them to prioritize addressing the drug crisis, we didn't always said was the supply side needs to be addressed through law enforcement, the demand side needs to be addressed with more treatment available. And we need to have both of these solutions happen together. And then we knew the budget process was coming up. And we knew to really be impactful on the budget process, we need to show a city wide coalition. It can't just be from the neighborhoods that are feeling at the most, because frankly, the supervisors don't have an incentive to represent districts that they're not accountable to. Right. So you need every supervisor to feel the pressure of this crisis. So an ad campaign seems like the best way to get everybody in the city engaged and talking about it, especially when it generates press right, which I think we were successful in doing. Now the impetus for the ad campaign, the creative behind it was actually a creative team that came up with the concept pro bono because they are also longtime San Franciscans that care about what's happening in the city. And this was, I think, a way for them to give back. So they came up with the ad concept. And if you see the ads, they look cheerful and bright. There's rainbow colors, there's like a retro, happy font. All of that was designed to be a play on what we think of as the California lifestyle. People come to California, they come to San Francisco for its beauty for its outdoors, healthy lifestyle, the innovation, the technology that's here, they come here and reality doesn't always meet that expectation, especially right now in San Francisco in certain neighborhoods. And so we also know that the city that we as residents have sort of normalized, what's happening, we've kind of accepted it, we turn our heads because it's honestly too hard to look at. And we wanted the ad campaign to be a sharp contrast with that we think we achieved that given the design of it right? Like it does grab your eye, especially when it's on the side of buildings, in the Tenderloin across from playgrounds, where there are security guards around us that kids can play in it right. Now, we did launch it in the tenderloin and in Selma, where the drug markets are most prevalent, but there are now billboards in the mission in the Richmond. We did posters throughout the city. We'll be launching digital ads very soon that will be around the city too. And all of this is just throughout this month to get people engaged on the budget process.

Ben Kaplan  19:39

So for people who don't know exactly how the budget process works, the mayor proposes a budget. It's reviewed by the board of supervisors who maybe negotiates things or changes things and it's ultimately approved. Why does it matter what everyone in the city thinks other than we want to get committee involved? Why is proud From them important if like, hey, the mayor already proposed the budget, you could have been lobbying the mayor, just, you know, let's get more money in. You can lobby the Board of Supervisors and say, Hey, approve this approve this approve this. Why is it important that the 800,000 plus people are engaged in behind this in terms of enacting change and getting your desired outcome, which is more focused on the budget on drug crisis?

Kanishka Cheng  20:21

It's kind of standard politics, right, your elected representatives should respond to what you want them to do. But they don't know if you don't tell them. I think there's a real disconnect, especially from the Board of Supervisors, and what the general public wants. If you look at polling in San Francisco, just generally available public polling, public safety is people's number one issue homelessness is their second issue. But if you look to the Board of Supervisors, they're pretty anti police, they have traditionally HUD law enforcement budget. And they want to shift resources away from that. And that's very out of step with what the public is saying that they want. So we need them to feel the pressure of what the public wants. And that's what sending the emails does. That's what mobilizing residents to send an email really does, makes them feel that public pressure makes them feel like people are paying attention. And certainly our organization is going to track what they're doing and is going to remind voters whether or not they listened to them when it comes time next year for their re elections.

Ben Kaplan  21:19

And a good example of that would be let's say the vote for overtime pay for police officers, really two, three years ago, the fact that the Board of Supervisors voted for that, even though the mayor proposed it would have been like unthinkable because there was such a chorus for like reducing funding for the police. The catchphrase at the time that a lot of people have turned away from was defund the police, and all of that yet, because there was such a sense of pressure to do something on crime and safety, suddenly you have this overwhelmingly approved and it goes through. So that would be maybe a good example of with enough focus pressure, maybe the community can lead and elected officials follow it doesn't have to be elected officials lead and community follows.

Kanishka Cheng  21:59

Absolutely. And that is what we do it an off year, every year, you know, we have to tell them what we want, we can't expect them to just know, because unfortunately, they don't. So we actually mobilized over 1000 emails to be sent to support that police supplemental and it and it worked. And then you know, they got a sense of that this is actually important to voters. And they actually approved an increase to police salaries this year without any fighting, right, it just happened, we didn't even really hear about it. We didn't have to get engaged on because we made a point about what we the public want what matters to us. Now, because we mobilized this campaign in May, the mayor's budget did fully fund the SFPD. And so now we're going to shift to June to ask the horse brothers not to make cuts to that budget, we're also asked the board of supervisors to increase more treatment options, which the mayor did a good job of, but we'd like to see more. So we know that this public pressure works, there's a lot of other things we'll be advocating for. But we kind of have to exercise our muscles as the public our political muscles and kind of train them that we're going to be there. This is not a one time thing. We the residents are going to consistently show up. And that's how we from the outside of government can kind of guide these outcomes.

Ben Kaplan  23:11

And what's interesting about that is if I think about San Francisco, and like community led initiatives that sort of enacted had dramatic results. What I kind of look to is really two things that happened fairly recently over the pandemic, which is to recalls right recall of the district attorney recall of certain members of the Board of Education. And I get the sense when talking to people who were involved in that that that was a very unifying moment for a couple of reasons. And it actually unifying us on both on both sides, right? Because people different and smart people can differ on that. But it was a unifying moment, because you sort of had a unifying opponent. If I was being a little bit more so like crass, I would say a unifying enemy, but everybody's an enemy kind of strong. But in political terms enemy not like that could be a good person. Right. So it was unifying. But when I talked to people, it was unifying, but then things kind of dissipate somewhat after that, because you don't have this immediate thing. It's a recall, we're rallying and also, one of the questions is could those recalls have happened if it wasn't during the pandemic law? People had time on their hands? Other things to do? They were home. So what is it about almost like mobilizing against something or a unifying opponent or enemy that gets people going? And how do we keep that going? When it's not, it's not a recall every day, we just need a ton of recalls.

Kanishka Cheng  24:30

If we don't even have to recall. Our organization is working to keep that momentum going of people seeking out people holding the leftists accountable to outcomes. That's really what I saw that recalls as was an ultimate expression of voter frustration, voter anger, frankly, about what they were seeing the elected officials do. I think that given the current state of San Francisco given that problems that were created through bad policy decisions over the last five years are going to take a lot longer to fix. And I think until we see elected officials taking those problems head on, there's always going to be that voter anger and frustration, I can tell you that, you know, we do a lot of in person events, not only in our space, but we go to people's homes, their offices, their small businesses, they want us to come speak to their groups. And there's still a lot of voter anger and frustration around what's happening in San Francisco. The drug crisis is I think, like the biggest powder keg of that because it feels so visceral, I think the tent encampments, given the current lawsuit situation that's happening there, that feels very visceral to people. And there's a lot of anger there. And I, honestly, I hope that our organization can provide a middle ground solution. So we don't swing too far to one side on either of those issues.

Ben Kaplan  25:51

I feel like the next couple years is like a critical period, not only because of the election, 2024. But just there's moments when you have the collective will, the collective will to do something and those shouldn't be squandered. And the question is Kanishka, are we in one of those moments? Now? Is there enough collective will from the people to kind of spur action, we saw moments of that with the recalls and other things like that? And, you know, there's no guarantee that that's here, you know, four years from now or five years from now or 10 years from now. But do you think we have it now that that can be channeled to create change, because it seems like sometimes our systems are designed to protect the status quo, which is a problem when the status quo is in the wrong direction, which I think most people no matter where you are on the spectrum, kind of feel like it's going in the wrong direction right

Kanishka Cheng  26:40

now? I absolutely think we're in that moment. Right now. I think public is super engaged, super frustrated, ready for solutions. We're ready for both solutions. So actually, we have been talking about, we do this event called why San Francisco is broken. And we highlight four or five structural reasons that we think it's broken and ways that we want to change them. And so we are actually working on bringing forward a ballot measure in 2024 start to reform the structures of San Francisco government. Because I think the time is right, where people know, not only do they feel this sense of frustration around the conditions in the city, but they also feel like it's not easily solvable. For some reason the city doesn't feel governable. And that's what we want to get to the heart of is can we use this opportunity to super engaged and frustrated sentiment to get people to take a big action to help restore the Governability and certainly the functionality of the city,

Ben Kaplan  27:37

I think, to do that, in some ways, it requires a the term would be a movement, you know, a movement to do this. And that's one thing and my other work, I've kind of studied a lot of movements around the world. And sometimes it's a relatively surprisingly small number of people can actually create a lot of change. And I don't know if you agree with this, you know, we've not talked about this before, but in my opinion, know, San Francisco, 800,000 plus people, if you could get 1% of San Francisco, right, that's 8000 People aligned, doing things taking action, whatever it is, if it's like 1000 people show up here, 8000 people sign this 8000 people, you know, write an email to your WordPress 1% seems to be the threshold where that's actually a lot. I mean, some board of supervisor elections, the total number of votes isn't maybe that much more than that for one side. So to me, when I think about I was like, okay, 8000 people, like, that's not like, that's not something you do tomorrow with no planning. But that's also not a huge number, right, that's reachable? And it seems like if we could do that, we could change everything and somewhat fast order, or at least get us moving in the right direction.

Kanishka Cheng  28:44

Absolutely. I mean, the recall started with like, 20 people that signed a petition or like, you know, got it initiated, maybe it was three, but it's such a small number that is super committed to an issue. There is nothing more compelling for people than to hear from another person who's so passionate about an issue. So I think that we are working on building that movement of people who are so passionate about changing the course of the city, getting it back on track, through some reforms, and through policy advocacy. So that movement, I think, definitely is necessary. And I think it is it is taking shape right now.

Ben Kaplan  29:21

What is 2024 going to look like, as you describe it with a metaphor, which is 2023 sets the table 2024 We eat the meal. What do you think you see people already declaring their candidates to certain things, posturing a little bit like, Oh, that looks like that person's running. What should we expect for 2024? And can we achieve progress before then? Or is it gonna be like you gotta get through this election? Because because people are already positioning themselves for it.

Kanishka Cheng  29:50

I think given that 2024 is such a big election year we can expect to see progress this year. In a normal world. People who are running reelection next year want to please their voters this year, they should be incentivized to be more responsive to their residents this year, because they will know that if they're not, they're really putting themselves at risk next year. So in a normal world, we should be able to achieve some policy outcomes that are better this year. Now, I don't know that in San Francisco, we live in a normal political world. I will say that for sure. It does seem like there are certain members of the board of supervisors who are unwilling to take in public input from anybody that diverges from their personal point of view. That is, I think, the real problem, but 2024 is a huge election year, I would even call it like a generational Turning Point election year, if Nancy Pelosi doesn't run for re election as she vacates her seat, it creates this whole cascade of people running for different things. And a lot of people moving up the ladder around the chessboard, in addition to the things we know that are going to happen, which is the mayor, the DEA, each odd numbered supervisor, district, three of them, which are termed out so those are seats that are completely opened. That's a huge opportunity.

Ben Kaplan  31:05

Yeah, I think six and total for the board of supervisors three, which are termed out, though, maybe some of those people will be the people running for higher office because they're termed out anyway. That's right. Yeah. So three that are kind of people running for reelection three that are termed out. There's a lot of stories in especially national media now that are just really, really negative towards San Francisco. Do you think that's overstated?

Kanishka Cheng  31:31

I think they are amplifying a narrative on the ground. They're only slightly overstated. Of course, like when Fox News picks it up, they're going to inflate it and overstate it. Of course they are. But we give them a lot of fodder to do that with in San Francisco, I think there is a lot of sentiment from kind of the establishment of San Francisco that this is bad PR, we just need better PR. But I don't know how you get around the fact that anybody who comes here has a phone in their pocket can take a picture and put it online, that's always going to be the reality. And so we do have to first address the very real problems, before we can run a positive PR campaign. Every city has great vibrant, thriving neighborhoods. Not every city has these destructive, open air drug markets, and all the associated crime that happens around that right like that is an anomaly that's very real, and we can't run away from that problem. I do have a ton of hope we would not exist as an organization, if we didn't have hope for San Francisco's future. We talk to hundreds of people every day, who are frustrated, but hopeful. And I think that is that that is like the true spirit of San Francisco that we are always willing to show up and fight for a brighter future. And we're not gonna we're not going to give up on that.

Ben Kaplan  32:51

Take me through how you've structured you have together SF, which is a 501 C three nonprofit, which for those of you don't know, designations that needs to be non political, you have together is F action, which is a 501 C for nonprofit, which is allowed to be political, as long as it's less than less than half less than 50% of your effort and time. What do each of those things do? Why do they exist? And as one of the more funded community organizations, nonprofits in our area that's doing a lot of work? How does that all work together to set for the outcomes you want?

Kanishka Cheng  33:23

Yeah, it's actually it's a very traditional model, that organization like Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club's, like, everybody kind of has a C three and C four. And most organizations also have a PAC, we don't have a PAC. And this is kind of evolved pretty organically based on what we have heard from our community what we think they want to do. So when I left my job in City Hall, I left to start a community organization, because I believed that I had to go find all of those voters, those residents in San Francisco that are in the middle that had disengaged from the process, I wanted to find them and make it easy and fun and accessible for them to reengage with their city and their community with the theory that once they came, they came to be engaged, they would start asking questions naturally about the city and like how it's working. So we started because it was March of 2020. We started as pandemic response. And that was very 501 C three nonprofit work. It was volunteers pitching them with other nonprofits to do things like grocery packing, food delivery, community cleanups, graffiti, removal, those kinds of things. And eventually people did start asking questions around, well, why am I coming outside to pick up trash on this block every week? Like what's the city doing here? Where is this disconnect? Or, you know, we really hit that point in the in the pandemic in the first year where schools weren't reopening. We a lot of parents in our community, who were really frustrated that the school board wouldn't even talk about reopening up their meetings. And so we were able to put together a webinar with two school board members to get the to come on and talk about school reopening. And because they were going to talk about it, we actually had about 1000 people sign up for a webinar. And I was just really shocked at the demand there was for this, people were coming on zoom in the middle of the workday to hear about homelessness or the housing crisis. very informational stuff. There's obviously an appetite and an information gap for most voters or most residents. And so we just did only that for the first year, two years. And it wasn't until last year after so 2022, we had four elections in San Francisco in one year, it was a horrible anomaly of the year that way. But after the June election, which was the third election of the year, which we had done a ballot explainer kind of explain both sides of every issue, we actually got a lot of feedback from our community asking us how would you vote on this? What's your recommendation, and that felt like a really good opening to then launch our 501 C four together SF action to be able to then tell people how we thought you should vote. And I think we will we set out to build a brand that people trusted before we would tell them how to vote. And I think that has really played itself out pretty well that people have are asking for our opinion, and want to engage in conversation. And so that's why we launched the 501 C four last fall to produce a voter guide for the November election, which was the first election that we took positions on, we did a voter guide distribution program through in person events through house parties through door knocking, we didn't do anything digital, we relied on our community to distribute our message. And we just targeted the neighborhoods that we know our community is strongest. And I think that was very effective in helping Joel and guardi to get elected in District Four, Matt Dorsey get elected in District Six. And so now in an off here, the C four enables us to do legislative advocacy at the Board of Supervisors. So that's what we're focusing on.

Ben Kaplan  37:00

The final thing I want to chat about is you've been a proponent that we need to make San Francisco government more efficient. And there are specific things we need to do to do that. What are those things? And this isn't the issues that gets all the attention? Because you know, people focus on crime and safety as they should people focus on homelessness, those are very visible things yet. I think this is important. That's why I want to focus on it. Because if we get these kind of government efficiency, structure process, right, it actually makes everything else easier to solve. So what are those things that we could do to make San Francisco government be the most efficient and effective city government in the United States? What would we need to do?

Kanishka Cheng  37:44

So we actually commissioned a study out of an academic institution to research it and look at what other cities do and come up with what they thought was or still could do better. And they actually came to very similar conclusions that I and former colleagues that I've always talked about as like the key problems here. A big one is that in San Francisco, the mayor doesn't have true executive authority. So if you think about a mayor, as a CEO of a $14 billion entity in San Francisco, the mayor cannot directly hire and fire her department heads. She has to go through Commission's to do that. The Commission's she doesn't even have full control over because they're split between her and the Board of Supervisors making the appointments to the commission. And things like the board appoints their commissioners, the mayor nominates her as within the board has to confirm them. So that's another example of the executive authority getting kind of whittled away and diffused across other bodies

Ben Kaplan  38:41

to play a little bit of devil's advocate on that, which is some people may say, this is division of powers. This is having checks and balances. So what is your response to that? When people say, Oh, is that feature of our democracy, that too much power is not concentrated? What do you say to that? Because you're I think maybe counterpoint is, if we're an organism that's fighting against each other, we can't get anything done, or how do you respond to that argument?

Kanishka Cheng  39:06

Well, definitely that counterpoint as an example, but also that this isn't how it was intended to be. This isn't how the city was designed to be governed. This is the reflection of years of supervisors, running charter amendments to diffuse power and take it away from the mayor. So it's not like it's always been the case. And it's not even the case in any other city. It's not a comparable example, throughout how other cities are governed the way that our powers diffuse so dramatically.

Ben Kaplan  39:34

You were saying it's popular, for instance, a supervisor to propose let's create a commission on this. And that act, which typically the mayor opposes would actually diffuse power away from the mayor. And if enough of those get passed over time, then you have a situation where the mayor might be a bit hamstrung to what she or he could do.

Kanishka Cheng  39:53

Right and doing those Commission's doesn't even put power back on the board of supervisors. It puts power into this third part of the body that no voter knows who they are, nor can we hold them accountable. So they can both the Board of Supervisors can say, Oh, look, I created this commission to address homelessness. But now they can say, I'm no longer responsible for solving that problem. I created a commission to do that. But nobody knows who those commissioners are, and nobody can hold them accountable. And that pattern has repeated itself on every major issue as it's come up, as I think a way to deflect from having to solve problems, and then has led to a city that's become ungovernable. Those are some big examples about the lack of true executive authority,

Ben Kaplan  40:34

because that's one so you need some ability to true executive authority. That's one, what else creates efficiency, because a lot of people like to point to $61,000 toilets for something or housing that cost us $100,000. And in other cities, it costs $10,000. People like to point to that what else could we be doing?

Kanishka Cheng  40:51

So the other big thing is our Board of Supervisors, we have 11 districts, and each district represents 80,000 residents, only about half of them are registered voters, and only about half of them vote in the supervisory races. So you naturally have created this dynamic where you run for supervisor, as you mentioned earlier, you couldn't just get like 6000 8000 votes, and you're representing that district, you have a ton of power, the vote margins between winners and losers in supervisory races are coming down to 120 140 votes. So they're becoming extremely close. And it's demonstrating this phenomenon where supervisors are now accountable to such small minority voices of people, but have a ton of power in the overall outcomes of the city. So you compare this having to get, you know, a few 1000 votes, a couple of 1000 votes to win, compared to the mayor who has to carry 175,000 votes to win, and naturally has to appeal to a broader swatch of the city, which makes the mayor always a little bit more centrist and allows Board Representatives to always be further away from the center. And I think that creates this dynamic of an oppositional mayor and board. And really, the only solution to that is moved to a hybrid Board of Supervisors where it is fewer districts that are bigger, so they're more reflective of a more diverse point of view. And then you add some at large supervisors who are responsible for thinking about the city as a whole. That's really the problem here that nobody at the Board of Supervisors is actually responsible for thinking about the whole city, their only incentive is to represent their constituents. And it is only when they're thinking about running for higher office that they start to shift their politics. You saw this most recently with Matt Haney, right, he was a member of the board of supervisors that was very aligned with the left progressive faction of the board. But as he started to pursue running for the assembly, he shifted a little bit closer and closer to the mayor's politics over time.

Ben Kaplan  42:54

And what you're saying is that if there's one thing that seems to be a truth about politics, is that politicians will operate on behalf of their own interests, and where that interest lies. And if you can align it better than maybe you can get more desirable outcomes. And not because politicians are bad people, but it's human nature.


It's part of it, yes, they're operating in the system that they're in make for

Ben Kaplan  43:17

most one other thing for you and and see what you think about making things more efficient. I mean, I personally believe that San Francisco, one of its issues is good intentions, unintended consequences, meaning we have good intentions, as we want to protect those who are marginalized, we want to support the environment, we want to have these outcomes because we care and we're compassionate, and are you are probably more compassionate than most, which is a good thing. But the problem with the unintended consequences is that that good intention gets turned into a law which then has to be permitted, which then has to be tracked, which then has to have a system in place for it. And if you match, like you describe with commissions that add up over time, if you add up enough of these things, then unintended things happen, like for instance, incredibly slowing down the housing, new development process, and no one was out to do it. In fact, there was good intentions, there's a reason for it. But the cumulative effect is that lots of disruption can happen. Do you agree or disagree that our best instincts have worked against us? 100%? Agree.

Kanishka Cheng  44:27

Yes, I think for a long time, that's been the case. And that's how you ended up with a $1.7 million toilet, right? It's layers and layers of laws and processes that all come with a price tag attached, that eventually add up to these these enormous figures. Now, I think the one caveat, I would say is there are many people in power, who were part of getting to that problem, who are still in power. And when he asked them to revisit and reconcile what's been done and try to work together to streamline it, they don't want to make any changes. And that's the part where we're getting stuck is that we Now No, we've now learned that this is what's happening. We all know that's what's happening. But when we ask them to look back at what's happened and think about what could be streamlined, what could we cut out, they're not willing to make changes, because they're either wedded to their ideology that that was right. I think there's a lot of ego involved there. And they also know well, now I've passed this law, this process that some percentage of San Franciscans are expecting to happen. And if I take it away, I lose that support. So that's like a perverse incentive, again, to keep these processes that aren't working in place.

Ben Kaplan  45:31

And the other thing that is sometimes difficult is until you see like a stat about, let's say, How long something's taking to get through, or you gave a stat about how much something costs, you don't realize the extent of the problem until it sort of like hits you in the side of the head. And what I mean by that is, I spoke with recently Jennifer Pahlka, who founder of Code for America, and she's a big proponent of well, we ought to like test user flows, what they experienced, like if you come in and you want to create some new housing in San Francisco, what do you experience? What offices do you go to? Like, you actually map it out? what answer do you get back? What do you have to fill out how long you have to wait, you have to actually like, put yourself in the shoes of a real person. And to me, I don't know if this is done. But this has so much impact on like, all kinds of services that have to be deployed, if you're a homeless person, lots of elected officials are making policies for homeless people. But have they actually been in the shoes and said, Okay, I'm homeless, I want to get help. Where do I go? What is the response? How long does that take? Where am I sent? I need to map this out? Can we be doing more just to basically understand what people experience based on the laws we enact or create?

Kanishka Cheng  46:42

I absolutely think we could. And we should, there seems to be a real lack of true empathy for people, once they're in these systems in these bureaucratic roles for so long, where they forget that the public is actually your customer. And you need to think about how you're providing them with a service. Because that really is the role of government is to provide a service to the public. And we should be thinking about how they're experiencing that service. I remember what I used to work at the planning department. So I used to review permits at the planning department. So you said this front counter, everybody has a shift every other week where you sit at the counter, and you talk to the public as they come in with their permits or with their questions. And I think what a big moment for me was experiencing all these small business owners coming in with like their entrepreneurial lifestream to open a coffee shop, an ice cream shop, or restaurant, a bar, and the bureaucratic nightmare they would encounter when they got to my desk. And I just tell them all the things they had to do and how much that was going to cost and how much time it was going to take, usually a year where they're paying rent for a year, because now they've signed a lease, they didn't know that they already signed the lease, they're paying rent for a year, while they're not having any income coming in. And that is going to financially ruin many people, right? And there is no empathy on the bureaucrat side of wishes fix this problem. Nobody is kind of empowered to say we should fix this problem, let's work together to figure out how to fix this problem. A lot of people just kind of do their job. Well, it's my job to administer and enforce this code section. So I'm going to just tell you about it, and hold you accountable to doing it. And I think that's for that customer service pieces missing.

Ben Kaplan  48:25

And it would be amazing if we had this renewed effort to be like, Okay, if you come to a San Francisco city department, our goal is to give you a great experience, like our goal is that you're gonna come away being like, Wow, thank you, I have these people on my side. These are examples to help me realize my entrepreneurial dreams, like oh my gosh, thank you. Kanishka is at the front desk way back when when you were doing this to do it, it would be amazing. But some of the issues too, are incentives just in bureaucratic type jobs. Usually, it's to like, enforce the things you're supposed to enforce. Right? Like, these are the rules, my incentive is to make sure those are followed, as opposed to being Let's give an amazing experience service. We're all in this together. We're all part of San Francisco, the name of this podcast, we are San Francisco, what can we do to help make this person's entrepreneurial dreams possible, and also enable them to give back to the city we love? And that would be a shocking thing. Someone said that to you there. But there's a ton of good people working. You know, I talked to you all time, who are working in government who are smart, who are passionate, who care that somehow amazing people, smart people, caring people somehow are put in a system where it gets drowned out, it gets forced out. And why is that we got a ton of good people, the people of San Francisco, our strength, the people in the government, our strength, yet somehow the system doesn't allow it to come out. And it's frustrating to me because it's like our human capital. This is what we could unleash. I think there's so much we could do if we were aligned and focused and simplified. I feel like people want to do it and there's as collective will and all the things we've talked about, like, why can't we do it? What could we change, and I think you know a lot more than most about, you know how this might be possible and how it San Francisco's best days could be yet to come?

Kanishka Cheng  50:11

Seriously, his best days are definitely yet to come. I think the way we get back here is remembering what our core values are. So we say we are a progressive city, we are about innovation, we are here for you to to come here. If you have nothing you start with nothing will give you that leg up, we'll help you get get settled in this country in the city. But yet we forget that when we're in these bureaucratic roles, right, so in that small business experience, most of the people who are coming in are immigrants coming in trying to open their first business here, right, they see this as their opportunity. And so we're forgetting that our actual value in San Francisco is to help this person achieve their goal. Because not only are we helping an individual, we are helping our greater society by helping them. I think that the more of us that remember that the more of us that pointed out that government is failing to achieve what we're actually saying are our values. It is not compassionate, to let people disintegrate from drugs outside was not compassionate, to let them live outside intense that's actually not compassionate to let people make those choices. It's not compassionate, let people who were struggling with mental illness also deteriorate on the street because we're not willing to help them when they can't help themselves. So instead of getting into these minutiae around the edges argument about whether or not that's an encroachment on their civil rights, we need to think about the bigger picture. Is that actually good for that person? And how is that? Are we helping them or are we hurting them and how is that good for greater society as well? I think all of our work is about that. And I think we are building that movement to change the city for the good and we'll be doing a lot more work on that next year.

Ben Kaplan  51:49

According to Commissioner Cheng, one of the fundamental problems in San Francisco is that the power within city government is held by so many different people that no one is actually accountable, and in charge, as a result, we've got a big leadership void. Instead of coming together and finding common ground to get things done, every elected and appointed officials can point a finger and blame our problems on someone else. Kanishka says that in San Francisco, we actually agree on 95% of what needs to be done, but the remaining 5% gets in the way. But if we could set aside some of those differences and get aligned with a unified 360 degree plan, we could make tremendous progress, and much faster than most people think condition points out that we have a $14 billion budget and 10s of 1000s of employees in the city. That's more than enough resources. But as a result, the bureaucracy continues to grow and grow and grow without anyone critically assessing what's actually working and what's not. What can we cut, what can we string one. condition also says that we need elected and appointed officials from the mayor and board of supervisors on down with a broader range of experiences than just having worked in government. Currently, we tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, because we approach our biggest problems, like for instance, the fentanyl drug crisis in the same cookie cutter way. Imagine if you walked into a city government office or department, and it felt like everyone working there had your back, and was working hard to help you succeed in whatever your San Francisco dreams may be. What if it didn't feel like the city was blocking progress, but instead was incredibly responsive, efficient, effective, quick to act and always close the loop with any resident issue or request? Is that a pipe dream? Is that impossible? Or could we get focused, set clear priorities and change the culture of our city governments? Our elected officials represent us and should respond to what we want them to do. We've got to tell them what we want in one collective and unified voice. I'm Ben Kaplan, and remember, we is always greater than me. We are San Francisco.

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