[from November 2006 issue]


There is no doubt that the voters have given Mayor-elect Fenty a genuine mandate. And, there’s no doubt he will strive to live up to the hopes and expectations of the voters. But whether he ultimately succeeds will take time to know.

One way citizens judge, at least in the early days, whether their trust in a newly elected leader appears to have been well-placed is by looking at the kinds of people he or she brings into the new “inner circle.” As we noted in this space last month, Adrian Fenty appears to be off to a good start on that account, having then announced the appointment of Dan Tangherlini to be his City Administrator and of his intention to reappoint Natwar M Gandhi as Chief Financial Officer when his term expires next year.

Now the really tough appointment decisions will get underway and the challenge will be to find genuinely competent and knowledgeable persons to fill departmental directorships and senior management positions, as well as outstanding persons to fill chairmanships of critical boards and commissions. This will not be easy. Especially challenging will be to identify and lure in persons who are not cut from the same old bureaucratic cloth of the old days, persons who understand how to motivate their troops and how to instill pride in their organizations and how to change the culture of DC government so that the Fenty promise of citizen-oriented service becomes a reality.

Wouldn’t be a wonderful thing if, say, a couple of years from now instead of somebody commenting to a friend about an amazing but unusual experience of actually dealing with a DC employee who made a problem go away without fuss, that such an experience would be so routine that it would not even be the subject of cocktail hour conversation? Wouldn’t be wonderful if the employees who cheerfully and reliably give out the correct information or push the right buttons -- or even actually answer their phones -- so that whatever needs attention gets attention is the absolute norm to the extent that it is no longer anything that would amaze us?

So, while we applaud Fenty’s desire to make reforming our schools a major priority, at the same time we hope he will not become so absolutely focused on that single monstrous issue -- the elephant in the room -- so much so that he devotes an inordinate amount of his time and energy to a complex set of policy and operational issues that might so drain his attention away from other matters that we will be left with the same old same old when it comes to the average taxpayer’s daily or weekly interaction with government service delivery problems. That’s the level where Fenty will ultimately rise or fall.

We have said this before (and we are far from claiming original thought in this regard): what people care about most, after crime and public safety, is garbage and trash, potholes, getting straight-forward accurate assistance without attitude -- and that includes being able to receive the correct forms in timely fashion, to not have their calls shunted from one bureaucrat to another claiming “it’s not my job,” and so forth. And let’s scrap this business of seemingly every time one gets connected to a phone line that is supposed to be answered by the only person who can assist that we get that damnable automatic message stating “our call will be returned within 24 hours or the next business day” (!).

What we are most concerned about, therefore, is that with all the heavy focus seemingly being directed at how to take over the schools, there may not be adequate attention paid to reforming how the “bread and butter” departments and agencies perform. If Fenty is to go down in local history as a dynamite mayor he will need to be -- from the get-go -- totally on top of developing plans and putting into practice operational reforms in the management of basic services by departments such as Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, to name just a few.

He will also need to concentrate on replacing many of the martinet-like regulatory board members who presently serve and who seem to take great delight in lording it over the groveling petitioners. Let’s populate these positions with persons who understand basic administrative due process concepts and who will perform their duties with appropriate regard for those who appear before them and who will insist that their staffs actually willingly assist citizens with getting their proper paperwork done correctly and cease and desist from what is an all-too-common practice of stonewalling legitimate requests for copies of needed documents, either for the purpose of completing filings in timely manner or simply for the purpose of knowing what action an agency may have taken on a matter. Too often the basic rule about public documents being public is denied. That has got to stop.

Well, these are just a few of our broader concerns about the kinds of problems the new Mayor ought to be addressing on a priority basis very early in his tenure. If he can succeed at this level then he will be off to a terrific four years.

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