IS ANYONE ACTUALLY MANAGING THE BUREAUCRACY?
[from March 2005 issue]

PRIOR EDITORIALS ARCHIVED HERE


That was basically the marvelously articulated lament by Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans a few weeks ago during a hearing being conducted by At-large Councilmember David Catania on various messes within the health department.

As usual, Councilmember Catania was right on target as he zeroed in on operational problems and dysfunctional follow-though adversely affecting vital programs. Among other things, his hearing brought out specifics as to why programs don’t produce the results they should--mostly, it would seem because nobody “upstairs” appears to take responsibility for even the most simple of management tasks. Of course, it’s the folks who desperately need the services who end up getting the shaft. But, that’s a story for another day.

What especially struck us that day as we observed the proceedings on Channel 13 while working at our computer was the obvious frustration expressed by Councilmember Evans. Of course, as chairman of the council’s finance committee, none of what he was hearing really came as a surprise. Nevertheless, when one of the witnesses, an outside health services contractor whose organization clearly knows how to do things properly and efficiently, explained that her people found it necessary to avoid working through a health department-run finance operation and instead reluctantly was working through a more costly route for the simple reason that they could never seem to get reimbursed and her small agency could not afford to carry the DC government on credit for months and months on end.

In response to Evans’ pressing her for her take on what might explain these hang-ups, her answer basically boiled down to the fact that nobody farther along the processing stream seems to undertake any timely processing of routine paperwork that was otherwise timely submitted. And when Evans asked who or what office might be responsible, she couldn’t answer because the management structure is so sloppy that nobody seems to know who’s on first.

That’s when Evans sounded off about how frustrating and unacceptable it is that nobody appears to be willing to take responsibility for anything, managers always seem to be blaming some other office or agency but avoiding any responsibility in their own shop. Of course, we are paraphrasing; we do not have the transcript in front of us. But, when he observed that this kind of thing is absolutely endemic throughout the city’s government and that it is driving him nuts, he was without question speaking for all of us taxpayers.

One has to wonder why these kinds of basic, down in the trenches managerial deficiencies continue to persist. When Robert Bobb was hired on at an enormous salary as city administrator we heard nothing but praise and about how he was going to get these people to shape up or ship out. To date, we have no evidence that the culture has changed.

It’s the little irksome things that drive residents nuts, things that could so easily be taken care of with virtually no effort or expense and if so done in the aggregate could make the mayor and his minions look fantastic.

A recent example has been chronicled with photos in both the January and February issues of this newspaper, what we will be coming to know as the Great Christmas Tree Non-disposal Caper. Readers will recall our pictorial evidence of a group of trees that had been placed in a tree box by the curb during the first week of January in accordance with announce procedures issued by the public works department. Notwithstanding, that particular group of three trees, even though put out in precise compliance with DPW’s orders, never got picked up. Then, when this writer decided to test the system and placed a call late in January to the mayor’s call center (his vaunted service “innovation” that, from our own personal experience during the past five or six years has never once resulted in the promised service being delivered, despite the issuance of confirmation numbers), the clerk airily opined that the trees couldn’t be picked up because it was now past the first week of January and after that they were supposed to be placed in the alley.

What’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong is that, once again, we have an employee who won’t take initiative or responsibility to think the situation through. Here the clerk was saying, because it’s past the magic date, the trees won’t be picked up from the tree box. It appeared to be of no concern to that clerk that the reason why the trees were still there was because nobody in DPW did their job when they were supposed to and no supervisors bothered to check up on whether the crews were performing properly.

Finally, around the third week of February, help was enlisted through the staff of the council’s public works committee, chaired by At-large Councilmember Carol Schwartz. She has a terrific oversight committee operation and a highly competent staff and one has to assume that when they intercede on behalf of a taxpayer with personnel in the department that is dependent on her approval somebody would definitely jump to. Amazingly, even the council member seems to have no clout when push comes to shove for getting a minor task carried out. No doubt the answer to this weirdness is not that they disrespect her--on the contrary--but the true answer is undoubtedly that here is another example of nobody assuming responsibility for anything; just easier to pass the buck & wash one’s hands of any worry about anything.

And, for this kind of lackadaisical service the mayor wants to glom on to the cash windfall that will be poring into the city thanks to the soon-to-explode real estate taxes--and that over and above the already humongous unanticipated surplus thanks to previous real estate tax revenue windfalls. No way should this be allowed, at least not until we start getting decent service for our money!