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Good News Dallas
by    Tue, Jan 3, 2006, 11:59 AM

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In 2004 the Dallas Morning News did the seemingly impossible: it united the Dallas City Council. The News published a special section titled “Dallas at the Tipping Point.” Its thesis was that Dallas was a city in rapid decline and that it was fast approaching a “tipping point” from which there would be no turning back. The section was partly reportorial and partly a report by the management consulting firm of Booze Allen Hamilton. It was impressive, well documented, and should have been must reading by anyone who lives and pays taxes in the city. According to the members of the Council it was bunk.

The response of the council to the Morning News effort is perhaps most indicative of why Dallas was a city in decline. The people with the responsibility for managing success couldn’t even see, or maybe admit, failure.

This past year the News published an update. It tried to be a bit kinder by suggesting that changes like a new City Manager and Police Chief and new employees at the street level were taking some small steps and making some incremental progress but on whole the assessment was the same: decline.

It is hard to say that a city with Dallas’ crime rate and poorly performing education system can be in anything but decline. But set aside the volumes of Booze Allen stats. One word captures the decline of Dallas: Haggar. A Dallas brand known nationwide, whose family members have served on every board in town including the City Council, left Dallas for Irving. When is the last time you can recall a name brand company relocating to Dallas from the suburbs or anywhere else. I cannot recall one in 10-years.

Still, all is not doom and gloom. This past year saw the groundbreaking of what will be two spectacular Arts District facilities and a signature bridge across the Trinity. There are construction cranes again over downtown. And the crime rate did edge down. However, encouraging, these are but candles in the gathering darkness. The fact remains that our school district performs terribly, our basic infrastructure is still coming apart, and our crime rate is among the highest in the nation and the FBI is crawling all over City Hall.

One key problem identified by Booze Allen was a lack of accountability at City Hall. Translated from consultant speak the charge was simple: no one is in charge. There were two efforts to correct this problem in the form of two elections to put the Mayor in charge of the city. The first overreached and was opposed by everyone except an increasingly unpopular incumbent. The second was defeated because most people had ceased to care except for the city’s African Americans.

And there lies the problem: racial politics. Black Dallas struggled for decades to get what they considered their rightful piece of the city’s political pie. They got it in the form of four members out of 14 on the present Council. Black Dallas simply didn’t want to give up power on a powerful Council to a Mayor they voted overwhelmingly “no” on both propositions. More, noting that Dallas will soon be a majority Hispanic City many African Americans believed Ron Kirk would be both the first and last African American Mayor the City will ever see. Holding on to 28% of the council seemed preferable to a powerful Mayor they doubted would ever again be black.

And so Dallas is still stuck with a government with no one in charge and absolutely no hope of any change any time in the foreseeable future. No wonder Haggar left.

The Booze Allen study also talked about the lack of strategic direction. Mayor Miller had, of course, brought in a Booze Allen competitor, McKenzie & Company to provide a strategic plan and vision, and at no charge. The plan was fine, and useful and generally ignored.

But does Dallas really need a Strategic Plan? Or does it simply need to do what cities do they way those things are suppose to be done? What are cities about? They are about providing services: protection of life and property, drivable roads, drinkable water, etc. The city’s strategy should simply be to do these things well and efficiently. It requires a mindset among the city’s management and employees that they are to serve the taxpayers. Paving roads and hiring cops doesn’t require grand strategy. It requires trained motivated employees, efficient processes, and money.

There is a simple six step program that can carry Dallas where it needs to go even if the Mayor were elected by the Council.

Step One: Get rid of the city’s Civil Service system. No one gets fired in Dallas. They get paid vacations waiting for the City’s Civil Service Commission to reinstate them. No other Texas’ city operates this way. While the system may have been put in place decades ago for the best of good government reasons it is a failed anachronism. City Hall is full of deadwood that needs to get cleared out. That won’t happen until the Civil Service system is axed. Axing it would be a far more powerful way to change things than bulking up the powers of the Mayor.

However, it would be no less difficult. While the deadwood cuts across all demographics,

Minorities, particularly the city’s African Americans, would have to be convinced this wasn’t simply a way of firing minority city employees. It would also take an initial toll on city employee morale. But the struggle would be worth it. Until know they can lose their jobs for failure to perform there will be no incentive for employees to perform as needed.

Step Two: Create a Privatization Commission. I have no idea if there is single city service that it makes sense to outsource. But I bet there are plenty. Unfortunately, the Mayor is hostile to the concept and few politicians are inclined to outsourcing and while I have no idea what Mary Suhm’s views are on the subject few managers are anxious to shrink their empires. But it is well worth the try. A Citizen’s Commission that could take a clear eyed look at each department and city function could decide if there was tax dollars to be saved or greater efficiency to be had.

Step Three: Replace the City Auditor with an elected three-man Ombudsman Commission with power to investigate reports of wrong doing, poor service, inefficiency, etc. The Ombudsman Commission should have subpoena power. This is no criticism of the City Auditor. But Dallas has a corruption problem that can be solved only when those in power know that someone with the power of the people behind them can look where it wants and find what it will.

Step Four: Conduct a top to bottom productivity and quality review. The kind of consulting Dallas needs is the kind that will look at the city’s processes with a clear eye for efficiency. The Dallas Observer’s Jim Schutze wrote last year about the multi-step process the city employed to fill pot holes. Jim had the right idea: send on truck to see if the hole needed filling and if so shovel in the asphalt, and if didn’t drive on. I have talked to dozens of city employees who want to do well that explain they are hemmed in by absurd processes or no processes at all.

I am a partner in a firm that has helped major corporations get their employees to take responsibility for quality and productivity. Long before I joined it our CEO was doing wonders for companies with budgets the size of Dallas. Obviously, I am not suggesting the city hire us, but I do know what is possible and there are firms that can help Dallas dramatically transform its workforce.

Step Five: Establish a one-time Citizen’s Commission for IT Infrastructure. There is every indication that Dallas government is relatively inefficient because it is technologically deficient. IT done right can in and of itself make an enormous difference. IT done wrong can drive up budgets and do more harm than good. But IT can be done right. It can revolutionize purchasing, dramatically cut losses from theft or incompetence, and cut wait times for services.

Step Six: Offer pay competitive with private industry and tie raises to productivity increases. If City Hall is run efficiently, with the latest IT and processes, it will realize productivity gains that can fund significant pay increases. My bet is that handled right City workers would buy into all of the above if they thought serious raises and public acceptance and a job perceived to be well done were waiting at the end of the rainbow.

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