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February 17, 2003


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 public sector.

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 Francisco 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 terrific.

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 responsibility.

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.