WE NEED TO CHANGE THE CULTURE OF SYSTEMIC BUREAUCRATIC INCOMPETENCE

[from January 2007 issue]

PRIOR EDITORIALS ARCHIVED HERE


A few hours before we went to press with this issue we received from the Mayor’s press office a breathless announcement of his “ACTION PLAN: 100 DAYS AND BEYOND.” Unfortunately, it was devoid of specifics and could be characterized as nothing more than a PR piece to get the troops excited. But we would have been better served with details. From what we do know, the Mayor has already formulated 200 specific goals for his first 100 days. But what are they?

And, even more to the point, can we be confident that he’s not biting off more than he will be able to chew and digest? Rush, rush, rush for the sake of appearing to be on the ball all the time and everywhere may end up to be counter-productive, especially given that he is likely to be consumed with his efforts to take over the schools -- a political hot potato that will surely drain much of his energy and divert too much of his attention.

Back in November of 2006 in this space we did raise a caution about this potential bomb. We raise it again.

So, we wonder, will the Mayor’s people simply be popping out 200 little this and thats in the next 100 days to make us think important things are being accomplished or is it possible that on that list of 200 items there are some that will be of meaningful substance -- and if so, those will require considerably more than 100 days to fix!

One of the worst problems facing the taxpayers is the constant encounter with what we label systemic bureaucratic incompetence which leaves citizens totally flummoxed -- the old problem of the right hand not knowing what the left hand knows, etc. The list of little things is extensive, such as phone calls not being returned even when the voice mail promises “within 24 hours or the next business day,” when one well-meaning functionary intones with great authority what the regulation or statute requires of the inquiring citizen only to discover that another equally well-meaning and seemingly knowledgeable functionary provides a contrary interpretation of the regulation or statute, or when the functionary’s supervisor or higher-ups have failed to convey updated information to be passed on so that we are being led down to garden path.

And, it’s more than these little things which are the bane of taxpayers here in the city. This systemic bureaucratic incompetence can often lead to horrendous results causing serious disruption to affected individuals, not to say anything about economic loss, but also often results in major, negative economic consequences for the city itself which, of course, becomes the problem of the taxpayers. And, yet, even when things go horribly wrong because the bureaucracy is so out of it, the individuals who should have prevented such problems in the first place never seem to suffer consequences -- they still keep their high-paying jobs and carry on as if nothing more happened than a big Oops.

And, speaking of Oops, the headline in the Washington Post’s January 10th Metro section may have said it all -- “Oops: D.C. Must Raze Luxury Home.” The subhead nicely summed things up: “Mistaken Construction Permit Proves Costly.” You bet it was costly -- to the tune of at least the $1.5 million settlement with the people who received the permit (which should never have been issued in the first place) to build. And, there are other expenses the city must pick up, such as the cost of demolishing the mansion that had been built and restoring the land to as close to its original condition as possible.

What, one might ask, was this colossal error that has so infuriated this writer? It has to do with a fundamental matter that is peculiar to the District of Columbia that we would have thought that anyone working in any building permit granting office in DC government would have known about -- or at least known enough to know that something needs to be double-checked. We refer to an age-old requirement that has been part of DC life seemingly forever; that whenever there is a plan proposed to build anything that can be viewed from within federal park land that the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts must first review the plans to ensure that there be no visual encroachment on the protected vistas for which it has statutory authority to protect.

The head of the consumer and regulatory affairs department was quoted as explaining the failure to submit to the Fine Arts Commission not as being an unknown requirement but, according to the report in the Post, “the property was not identified as being near parkland.” We still won’t give the bureaucracy a pass on that one. The people in the permit office knew the property in question was out in the subdivision known as North Portal Estates, renowned for its proximity to Rock Creek Park. How could functionaries and their supervisors not discern a red flag just by the mention of North Portal Estates? If they work for the city they should be alert to these things. After all, the extent of the territory they must be familiar with is only 64 square miles. Anyway, it was the permit office. How can it be that the property records in this city, of all places, not be organized in a way to clearly carry some kind of notation when a property is located on a tract that is subject to federal agency review?

Well, we have carried on here with but one hideous example. There are so many more that have come to our attention over the years. It is this kind of systemic problem that the new mayor must really make a supreme effort to stamp out once and for all. We wish him luck; he will need it!

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