L.A. Supervisor Contender Steve Napolitano Dubs Himself a “Data-Driven Guy” with a Streamlined Vision of County Government (Chronicle of Social Change)

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When it comes to children’s issues in Los Angeles County, candidate Steve Napolitano is hoping to borrow a page from current Supervisor Don Knabe.

Knabe is stepping down from his fourth district seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors because of term limits.

In the Nov. 8 election, Napolitano hopes to fill his shoes and carry the banner for a smaller, fiscally prudent style of government on the board.

A longtime Knabe aide, Napolitano is banking on his experience working in a district that spans from coastal cities like Long Beach to inland communities like Artesia.

He looks to an embrace of public-private partnerships around early-childhood education, greater oversight of county initiatives like foster-parent recruitment and increased use of analytics as the way to keep the massive bureaucracy of L.A. County running smoothly.

“It’s local government on steroids,” Napolitano said of the current county administration.

With more than 10 million residents, Los Angeles County has an annual budget of $28 billion dollars. It also possesses the nation’s largest child welfare system and jail system, along with the second-largest public-health department in the country.

A lifelong resident of Manhattan Beach, Napolitano served on its city council before being starting work with Knabe in 2005.  In the race to replace Knabe, Napolitano is hoping his hands-on experience working with the 27 cities in the fourth district will make a difference to voters, who will also be weighing a famous name for the post.

U.S. Congresswoman Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro), daughter of well-liked former Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, led the way in the primary election on June 7, with 47 percent of the votes. Napolitano earned about 37 percent of votes cast.

In his run for the Board of Supervisors, Napolitano wants to find more money to spend on persistent issues facing the county, like homelessness.

A self-described “data-driven guy,” he’d like to see the county move to consider whether many of its programs are actually working the way they are supposed to.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Napolitano said. “In terms of the services that we provide, we need to make sure that we’re doing them efficiently, that we’re doing them effectively. And if we’re not doing things right, we need to adjust or cancel a program and go to one that works.”

For example, when it comes to the county’s foster-parent recruitment, he would to see more investment in private providers. The number of foster parents in L.A. County is down by 50 percent over the past decade, and the county is currently struggling to recruit more parents for the nearly 21,000 placed in out-of-home care in the county.

The county currently places 22.5 percent of these youth in private foster family agencies, compared with 6.4 percent with the county’s own system of foster care.

“We should probably devote more resources to those outside agencies,” Napolitano said. “The outside agencies are doing a better job with getting [potential parents] through the process and actually turning them into foster parents. We need to follow up on that and either expand upon that or learn from it ourselves, because they’re obviously doing something better than we are.”

He’d also like to see the county continue to invest in the use of big data in an effort to predict which families might be at the greatest risk of child maltreatment, an issue that has seen more debate in the wake of the recent death of 11-year-old Yonatan Aguilar.

He thinks the greater use of predictive analytics would even benefit in helping the county find better foster parents.

“It’s worth the money,” Napolitano said. “To me, it helps break down barriers … about all the ways that that person and the county may have interacted. Was this person ever in jail? Were they ever arrested? What were they arrested for? Do they have mental health issues? Things like that would help us make a better prediction as to who’s going to be a good foster parent and who isn’t.”

Napolitano is also keen to work with the private sector to develop public-private partnerships around homelessness and early-childhood education, including the use of social-impact bonds.

Also known as pay-for-success initiatives, social-impact bonds promise a financial return to investors if the services they provide meet certain performance thresholds. A few jurisdictions have experimented with social impact bonds to decrease homelessness and recidivism, for example.

Napolitano sees more funding for early-childhood education as a priority for the county in the wake of decreasing funding for  early childhood development programs funded by tobacco taxes, as mandated by Proposition 10.

“When people reduce smoking, you reduce the tax base, too,” Napolitano said. “But with pre-school, we’re talking about putting kids on a better track from the get-go rather than trying to get them on a better track after they’ve already done something wrong or they have ill health or mental health issues or addiction issues.”

A pay-for-success model could be a way to finance early-childhood education programs.

“Social impact bonds, to me, are a great way to pay for performance, fund early childhood education, and get better outcomes for the county,” Napolitano said.

As he mounts a bid to upset Hahn, Napolitano is hoping his fiscally conservative, socially progressive message resonates with voters, allowing him to continue on the path laid by Knabe.

“You can’t say yes to everything,” Napolitano said. “Being fiscally responsible means that you have to set those priorities. The problem when you start writing checks that you can’t cash is that, then, you start taking from other things to cover that. And when you take from those other things, that means you’re cutting services off from folks who might need it over here.”

— Jeremy Loudenback

Jeremy is the Child Trauma Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change.