Spring 2019 Journal: A Conversation with Nani Coloretti

This piece is the fifth featured in our Spring 2019 journal. For the complete journal, please see the “Current Issue” tab above.

Edited by: Chitra Balasubramanian, Adam Buchholz, and Tsuyoshi Onda

Nani A. Coloretti is a graduate of the Master of Public Policy program from the Goldman School of Public Policy and currently the senior vice president for finance and business strategy at the Urban Institute. Prior to joining the Urban Institute, Nani served as the Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Obama administration, and before then as the policy director and budget director for San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom.

The below transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

BPPJ: What do you think are some of the benefits and drawbacks of moving away from the public sector, and some things that you’re excited about at the Urban Institute?

Coloretti: I’m lucky in that the Urban Institute works a lot with the public sector in addition to other stakeholders and on some of the same issues that I worked on throughout my career. So that’s the benefit of being in a think tank. There’s harmony in the issue areas and also in a quest for informing policy with good information, with good facts, with good research, and good data. And so it’s sort of the very best level of decision-making in a public policy environment here because it’s a think tank. You know the difference is that you don’t have a critical decision before you, but because we work with those decision makers we’re able to try to inform and raise the level. The tagline for Urban is, “Elevate the Debate,” and that’s what Urban has been trying to do for almost 50 years now.

BPPJ: Are there any other things that you’re excited about doing in your current role?

Coloretti: I joined Urban with the explicit knowledge that it is going through its own celebration of its last 50 years. Next year we will celebrate Urban’s 50th, there are a series of ways in which I’m helping Urban understand more about what it’s doing and where it’s growing and where it’s shrinking. I’m also helping equip people here to grow where it makes sense, so that’s a lot of what our focus here has been on the executive side of Urban: really trying to harmonize and bring together different research centers. We’re also moving next year to a new building. We’re both moving and launching a series of dialogues with key stakeholders for Urban’s 50th, so it’s just a cool time to be here.

BPPJ: Speaking from your experience at HUD, could you share a perspective on the policy-making process at the state and federal level? What was your experience?

Coloretti: Yeah, it’s super smooth! Just kidding. There are so many different ways to answer that question. I guess I’ll talk about one of the policies that I spent some time on as the Deputy Secretary. The way Cabinet agencies are structured, there’s a hierarchy but we’re not the military so HUD has a lot of disparate parts to it that need coordinated policy making.  HUD has a part that’s trying to back and securitize loans, a part that’s trying to coordinate community planning and block grants, a part that aims to build more affordable housing, and a part that helps manage almost four thousand grants to public housing agencies.  And it also has a fair housing office.

And so one of the things we worked on across HUD and with the leadership of Secretary Shaun Donovan and then Secretary Castro and with a directive from the Obama administration was to put regulations forward to affirmatively furthering fair housing. Now the Fair Housing Act passed in the 60s and they had never regulated this piece of it. But in my first year there I helped facilitate and umpire the internal policy-making process for that regulation with the general counsel and other legal experts. Everyone was more of a subject matter expert than me, but a reason why I could see that it hadn’t been done for many years is that people have different interests in the programs they’re trying to run, and affirmatively furthering housing goals using data may get in the way of the fastest way to get the money out into the community.

If a community is saying, “The only place we can find for this affordable housing site is in this neighborhood, but that neighborhood site [would further concentrate people of color],” actually maybe you shouldn’t site the building there. But that might be the only location available. So there are a lot of actual competing programmatic issues that I could see and I don’t even know if I understood all of it, but the thing I was supposed to do as deputy secretary was to help the organization resolve those and put it into a regulation. So I really only did the very tail end of that. And then later some pieces of the regulation then [became], I don’t want to say reversed, but stalled in their implementation by the Trump administration.

But we still got the regulation out and it has not been redone yet so it still stands. But that process was really, really hard, and what was hard about it was not just the technical part. What was hard about it was people needing to make sure that their voices were heard, that their policy subject matter voice was heard, respected, understood and worked [with] in a real way. I feel good about the work that we did and it wasn’t just me, it was a whole bunch of other people. If issues really couldn’t be resolved they went to the secretary. Secretary Castro did make some calls and I made a lot of the calls to help staff move forward. And we got [the regulation] out. So it was really good but it was super hard.

This was only one piece of policy making, and you guys know this already and whatever your work was before you got to GSPP, but you know, that’s an administrative process and what happens in agencies. There are also processes in agencies that are legislative in nature. There are processes in agencies that are intergovernmental in nature. There were things that we would get pulled in on where a Mayor or a Governor of a state is having trouble with a HUD rule or a HUD requirement. And HUD’s nationwide so it would go to the regional office and then it would get sent over to me and my team at the HUD Headquarters to finally resolve. The agency is wired together in a way that sort of makes sense but also it makes it hard to decide what you do first, second, and third. It’s important to have a governing framework to do that kind of job.

BPPJ: So, on a slightly different note, there’s the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) that you co-founded. What do you see as the future of the CFPB, given what’s happening currently?

Coloretti: Yeah, just to explain my role in the stand-up of the organization. So again, as it happens often in my career, I’m not a subject matter expert on consumer finance. That said, when Treasury was helping give technical assistance to the Hill to advise on many of the parts of the Dodd-Frank Act, including the consumer agency, the reason why I got involved was because they were trying to figure out they being Dodd, Frank, and others how to size an agency where you would be pulling together authorities from seven different already-existing federal agencies and moving staff from six agencies, and not the entire staff but pieces of the staff. The consumer protection laws were being implemented by a panoply of agencies without coordination, which is hard on the financial system, but also means that lots of things fall through the cracks and standards could be hard to follow.

So just the fact that CFPB is now there is huge because before I’ll just I’ll pick on the Federal Reserve they regulate banks and they have a lot of requirements they have to regulate for safety and soundness of the financial system, one of which is consumer protection, but they have all these other things they have to check for, audit, and regulate, and so to have the consumer piece come into this new agency along with OCC’s (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) consumer piece and FDIC’s (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) consumer piece is actually pretty powerful in and of itself.  I helped size the agency to figure out how much money it would cost to do that. And there were new functions also, so it wasn’t just moving existing staff, it was adding new staff and new functionality. So that kind of work works best when it is aligned with the policy goals of the agency, and it works best when you’re in constant communication with your key stakeholders. I was there for seven months and helped stand up the agency, transfer the staff in, pull the implementation triggers, find space.

On the policy side, the way we originally set it up is that it would be data-driven. The CFPB has a lot of additional regulatory scope and scale beyond what existed before, not just because you combine everything but because they had new powers and new authorities, and those are vast. The way it is set up is to be data-driven, to seek enforcement or regulation in areas where the data is showing that consumers are being harmed.

Like with the Fair Housing work, there may now be things, and I’m not tracking them, but I imagine there could be enforcement areas that have been slowing down. But I am still seeing enforcement actions come out of CFPB, so they’re levying fines and taking enforcement action on cases that they inherited and that means not everything stopped.

Right when the Dodd-Frank Act passed and CFPB was being birthed, there were a set of both advocates and legislators out there who would like to kill the CFPB. But they have not managed to do so, and so that’s another bright sign. I guess I would say I’m not a good predictor of this and I’m not in the substance of it every day, but my suspicion is that it would be very hard to completely eliminate it.

BPPJ: That’s good to hear!

Coloretti: Yeah, I mean I’m an optimist too.

BPPJ: Now moving on to the personal side a little bit. What do you see as some of the roadblocks or challenges for women in policymaking? As a woman have you found any specific challenges while being part of the policy-making process?

Coloretti: So I get asked this a lot. This is hard for me because of my framing: when I have had challenges getting my voice heard or being effective, my framing is to find another way. And so I have felt sometimes maybe being one of the few women or the only woman in the room can be helpful because you stick out in a way that can help your voice be heard if you find a way to do that. I suppose there have been and there are and remain some challenges in both being effective and leading. But if I find them, I try to break them down.

BPPJ: Just as a follow-up, are there any specific instances that have manifested in your career that you could elaborate on?

Coloretti: So just to give you my frame for a second, as I think over my career path what often happens, and this happened in the Obama administration, I’ll come in and the Treasury Department did have some women in key places. But I got brought in by a guy who I had worked with at the Office of Management and Budget right out of grad school, and I had been away from DC for 12 years. It was someone I had worked with in the past that knew what I could do that invited me in to become what’s called a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) – that’s sort of a senior-level appointment in an executive administration, which does not require Senate confirmation but it’s the right below the level that would (so it’s already high up there).

I was [Treasury’s] DAS for Management and Budget, and the economy was falling apart if you remember back to 2009. I worked on a huge part of the Recovery Act, tracking and accountability for that, and I worked on this little CFPB project, just the legislative part of it.  What ended up happening in the Treasury Department, and when I got tapped to go over to HUD, was I was able to get people to understand what decisions needed to be made, what I needed from them, what they need from me, and what they could count on me for. And so, I just kept getting more and more responsibilities and more and [higher-level] different jobs.

So if you asked me, “Under the Obama administration was there a time when you didn’t feel heard or when you didn’t feel like people were respecting or listening to you because you were a woman?” I’m sure I had all the things happen, like when you go to a meeting and you say something and nobody says anything and when someone else does they’re like, “Oh yeah that’s right!” And you think, “I literally just said that!” All of those things have happened. But as I see over the course of it, did it hold me back? Absolutely not. Absolutely not. So I don’t know how to interpret that. Was I left out of a meeting because I didn’t fit into that group? I’m sure I was. But in the end was it ok? Yeah.

And so what happens in my career, this sort of has happened in all the jobs I’ve had in a way, is that if for some reason, and it could be gender, color, or just because you’re new and you seem young, if for whatever reason someone is underestimating what I could do or just cutting me out in some way, it’s actually okay because it is a good thing to be underestimated. Because you will always surprise. You will always surprise.  And so that has happened to me too where people are like, “You did such a great thing on this, you are so wonderful!” You know? And you’re [thinking], “I know!”

I guess I would say I have found a way to navigate that does not seem to be holding me back, but are there moments when it was hard? All the time! Did I get some mansplaining? Sure! That’s okay, you know? The other thing is I say a lot, “Let’s assume good intent.” I think people don’t realize how they’re coming off. And it’s helpful to me to try to learn from that too.

BPPJ: I like the optimistic take!

Coloretti: Yeah it’s so optimistic.

BPPJ: At GSPP a lot of students are looking to embed themselves in working on social issues. So what’s some of the advice that you would give in terms of how they should go about an MPP program? What’s the best way to make the most of that, and look at things through a critical lens?

Coloretti: I think one of the most valuable things at GSPP and programs like it is when you work with clients, and you get to really try things on like a shoe, both with your client work and your internship. Just do not be afraid to try a weird thing that you wouldn’t have otherwise done.

My internship between first and second year was with an advocacy organization for Children’s Environmental Health. It’s not something I ever would’ve thought I would have done, but it was interesting and different. I am more of a quantitative person. It was not a quantitative job. It was a writing job and a research job but it was good for me to do that. It was really good for me to do that because what’s most important in your whole career pathing or even in the MPP program itself is to figure out what you like and what the conditions are for you to do your very best work.

You know, these are simple things that could help even in non-public policy careers, but they’re super important. I think what’s challenging with the MPP program is that it is quite technical and it can lend itself to thinking more narrowly about what’s possible. So if you think about what you like – did you like working in the IPA group with four other people, or three other people? Or were you like, “Geez I really wish I could’ve done this myself”? Was the APA better for you? That’s important information. Note that information. It doesn’t mean you’re not going change, but it is important in navigating your career to remember what you’re good at and what you need to be good.

I would argue that everyone needs to know when they’re taking a job what the chain of command is and whether that’s a supportive environment that will hear your voice. I might just be lucky in that every job I ever had, eventually my voice got heard because I picked the right organizations. And there would be ones that I could have entered that would have been a terrible match.

Everyone in GSPP is going to get a toolkit of very good tools. Very, very strong tools you can always lean on, but the harder thing is, how do you get information [about potential jobs] that’s not readily available?  My answer to that is to have and to keep a strong network. It’s hard to advise people on that because networking can be so awkward if you’re not used to doing it, or if you aren’t sure if anyone would even ever want to talk to you. You know what I mean? But try to use the GSPP network as a starting point because it’s a very supportive network.

When I came out here the grad school had what they call a Presidential Management Fellowship. I met with all the GSPP people from prior years I could find at federal agencies because I didn’t know what else to do. The PMF program didn’t help me do that, I just did it. Cecille and others helped me do it.

But [the alums] were very upfront with me and helpful, and candid, about what kinds of work they were doing. What they liked, and what they didn’t like. It was very, very helpful and I was able to get a quick map. I had thought I wanted to work on welfare reform, and I ended up working on Medicaid. It was still a support program for people that were low income and that was a good match for me because Medicaid’s a little more quantitative. I had thought I wanted to go into an agency but I ended up going into the Office of Management and Budget because I liked trade-offs, and I liked trying to get more of a bird’s eye view of what was coming through on that portfolio. But if I didn’t know those things from doing all those conversations I might have picked a different place that didn’t match as well. And so every time I’m on a job hunt I use my network a lot. Not because I think they’re going to get me a job, but because I think they’re going to help me create an understanding of what’s possible, what’s out there, and whether I like that or not.

[I’ve known] the Urban Institute for decades because they have very strong products and policy areas. But I also knew a little bit about [Urban’s] president who’s been here about five or six years, and that she was trying to do new things.  And that’s really why I came for the place, but also the people. And that’s what happened when I joined the Obama Administration, and this guy Dan Tangherlini, I knew what he had been doing since we’d all left OMB. I knew he was good, he’s solid and directionally oriented and that he’d be supportive, and he was. So if it weren’t for his backing I don’t know that I would have done all the things [in the Obama Administration], you know? But I also knew that he wouldn’t pick Treasury if it didn’t have good leadership. So find out your clues, or just try to understand something that’s hard to figure out. It’s not like people are going to say to you first thing out the gate, “This is a terrible place to work!” Or, “This is a great place to work!” No one’s ever going to tell you that.

The benefit of coming up through the budget examiner line of training is you have to learn how to get people to tell you things they wouldn’t otherwise want to tell you. So you have to learn how to ask the right questions, and that was a super great area of training for me. But other people who work here at Urban or who have worked [with me] at Housing and Urban Development or even Treasury came in Urban through a different pathway. A substantive pathway, where maybe they worked for many years in the financial sector and then came into Treasury. Or they worked for many years on affordable housing or on homelessness and then came into HUD. So those are equally legitimate pathways to do. It’s just more about what’s going to help you, as a person, be your best self and grow the most you can grow.