Business improvement districts: Private government; public consequences

Abraham Unger, Fordham University


Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) were created in a policy environment of privatization. They are contracted private partners of local government responsible for supplemental service delivery to declining urban areas. BIDs additionally contain a public-style mandate to improve the socio-economic quality of life in their districts. BIDs are non-profit organizations governed by private boards, yet they exert governmental authority in their districts through publicly collected commercial property assessments. BIDs are therefore public-private hybrid organizations. This study asks whether BIDs behave similar to a public agency given their broad governmental aims and taxation ability. That question entails distinguishing public and private organizational behaviors, something not yet accomplished by the relevant theoretical perspectives of private government, voluntary associations, privatization, and public administration. The central issue underpinning this study is the degree to which BIDs replicate criteria of accountability considered standard in the administration of public agencies. A response to that issue speaks to the core American value of democratic governance expected of any institution granted the right to tax and spend. Hypotheses analyzing the comparative explanatory roles of leadership, resources, and organizational culture were tested to discern the degree of publicness found in six different New York City BIDs. Critical areas of institutional life were used as measures of BIDS' publicness. BIDS' relationship with their public partner agency was analyzed to see whether BIDS are held to a governmental standard of accountability by their municipal overseers. Findings suggest that the culture of organization is critical in determining the degree of public spiritedness found in a BID. The values of a BID's leadership toward community revitalization tells whether a BID will behave more democratically. However, BIDS are ultimately free to choose their roles in their communities. They are public-private hybrids unbound from governmental checks on their authority. BIDs' lack of accountability raises deep questions about the quality of democracy in public-private partnerships carrying out governmental functions.

Subject Area

Political science|Public administration

Recommended Citation

Unger, Abraham, "Business improvement districts: Private government; public consequences" (2007). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3255050.