In San Francisco, the wheels of progress move exceedingly slowly, if
at all. Despite the determined attention of a few supervisors, little in
our city government has changed over the two years since Beryl Magilavy, former director of the San Francisco Department of
the Environment wrote this article.
San Francisco Government Reform Is Long Overdue (Part 1)
By Beryl Magilavy
In developed countries around the world
over the last few decades, high taxes combined with shoddy public services
have created pervasive public anger and disillusionment with government.
In response, elected officials and public sector managers have vastly
improved the delivery of public services. In the last twenty years, there
has been growing improvement of government management, performance
analysis, and minimizing the environmental impact of government
operations. The federal government, a latecomer to the game in 1993 with
then-Vice President Gore’s reinventing government initiative, has made
tremendous progress with a huge bureaucracy as resistant to change as any.
Where is San Francisco in this global effort to serve the public better?
Nowhere. It is outperformed by nearly every large city in the country. One
reason is that in San Francisco, overall operational responsibility for
the effective delivery of city services is in nobody’s job description.
Another is that the techniques of modern municipal management threaten the
practice of political patronage. Finally, the effect of the city’s
patronage system has been to deprive it of the management expertise
requisite to perform even to an average level among U.S. cities, to say
nothing of the superior performance that would be justified by the size of
its revenue base and the willingness of its public to support an activist
In other large cities, there is a strategic management planning function
in the executive branch that is responsible for objectively measuring the
performance of city services and making changes in policies and programs
to better meet public goals and to prepare for projected challenges.
People in this agency work with department heads, who are responsible for
ensuring that the right programs are developed and evaluated, that staff
are properly trained and compensated, that they work as a team to
evenhandedly enforce laws on the books and to serve the needs of the
public, and that they not only have constant feedback as to the progress
of their efforts, but make that information available to the public.
A look at
the organization of the City and County of San
illustrates one reason this does not happen in San Francisco. What other
large organization has ever operated with such a structure? How, one might
ask, are performance data collection systems or improved management
techniques set up in all these parallel agencies? The answer is, they
aren’t. How do these agencies avoid overlap, collaborate and share
resources? They don’t. Who does municipal strategic planning, ensures
government accountability, and does oversight evaluation of departmental
efforts to serve the public — such as whether the fire department spends
too much on fire response to the detriment of fire prevention? No one.
Supervisor Gavin Newsom chairs a working group made up of a few city
agencies whose directors have volunteered to work toward integrating
modern management techniques into their operations. This is a job for an
administrator, not a legislator, but there is no one in the executive
branch who considers it his or her role.
Recently, the Recreation and Park Department announced the availability
for public comment of its draft strategic plan for bringing the city’s
parks and recreation facilities back up to an acceptable level. Such
planning is rarely performed by city agencies. The plan resulted from a
ballot initiative passed in 1999, which required strategic planning as
part of a bond measure. The new Municipal Transportation Agency, uniquely
among city agencies, now publishes a broad range of performance measures
and plans for improvement on a published timeline. This, too, was the
result of a citizen initiative process; both these reforms can be traced
to work initiated by SPUR. The city’s sustainability plan, created at the
impetus of private citizens and passed by the Board of Supervisors in
1997, contains a broad range of long-term goals and near-term objectives,
with performance measures. It is not being implemented.
Responsible internal management practice and transparency of a government
agency’s performance are not the sort of issues that generally get the
public out en masse with burning torches. Yet in this wealthy, highly
participatory city, surrounded by prestigious graduate management schools
and in the center of the digital revolution, it has taken “outside
agitation” to push even the tiniest beginning of municipal administrative
reform. This is very odd.
Why has an organizational structure as unwieldy as that of San Francisco’s
persisted? Several things spring to one’s attention with even a cursory
glance at the organization chart.
The most striking thing about the
chart, usually printed in a compressed layout
that veils its true structure, is the remarkable multitude of top-level
city agencies. Thirty-seven independent departments and commissions are on
the right branch immediately reporting to the mayor, 5 more report to the
mayor nominally through the City Administrator, and 13, on the left branch
of the chart, are in the mayor’s office itself, making a total of 55
essentially autonomous agencies. The 37 on the department branch all
(except the Zoo) have governing commissions, the members of which are
appointed by the mayor. Most of these commission appointments, in this and
most administrations, are the mayor’s supporters and representatives of
supporting interest groups. San Francisco’s city structure may not work
from an operational standpoint, but from a political point of view, it is
The left branch holds a striking number of operating agencies — often with
responsibilities that overlap those of various departments — in the
mayor’s office itself. Policy-level staffers in these agencies serve at
the mayor’s pleasure, outside the civil service system. These can be, and
often are, places for more supporters and sons and daughters of
supporters, regardless of professional skills. The Redevelopment Agency,
the Port Authority, the Treasure Island Development Authority, and the
Housing Authority (highlighted with a dashed-line box on the chart) similarly have flexible hiring
potential outside the city’s civil service system. They are federal or
state agencies, not city agencies, but the mayor appoints their
commissioners, which gives him or her considerable control over agency
operations. These agencies represent opportunities for patronage
placements, and that has been San Francisco’s longstanding practice. In
addition, spots in these federal and state agencies have often served as
consolation prizes for under-performing City Hall staff people. The effect
of this practice on the performance of these agencies over the years has
been the subject of widespread dismay to insiders and occasional press
reports. However, nothing is ever done about it.
A unique feature of the current administration has been the expansion of
patronage staff appointments into the departments themselves, long the
purview of the civil service system. With the five-fold increase in the
number of special assistants — a senior level position outside civil
service — since the Jordan administration, the opportunity for patronage
has increased greatly. In particular, the Solid Waste Management Program
and the Airport, with its enormous public works construction, have seen
numbers of staff people whose professional qualifications are not
immediately obvious. Additionally, a surprising number of the department
heads appointed in the current administration have little or no previous
management experience in the area for which they have been given executive
The result is that along with many well-qualified, dedicated civil
servants, San Francisco employs a large number of people, particularly in
more senior positions, who are simply not sufficiently skilled,
experienced, or motivated to pursue improved government performance. They
report to commissioners who usually have little background in the function
of the agency for which they have ultimate policy authority. And no one
ever asks them to make these measurable performance improvements, anyway.
With this understanding, San Francisco’s failure to pursue management
reform; its inadequate human resources support; its limited, scattershot
approach to providing public information and responding to the concerns of
the public; its lack of innovation and transparency in handling contracts
and purchasing; and its failure to implement local sustainable development
planning become less surprising.
San Francisco clearly has reached a point at which it must embrace
fundamental government reform if it is even to begin the difficult task of
bringing its management systems into the modern era. The responsibility
for managing government operations rests solely with the office of the
mayor. However, experience has shown this administration to be highly
unlikely to embrace a reform agenda. On the contrary, in recent years the
city has gone in precisely the wrong direction.
Given these circumstances, reform must come from
public outrage, from the Board of Supervisors and the ballot.
This article, which was funded by the Columbia Foundation, first
appeared in the SPUR newsletter of July 2001.