Want Better Government? Just Ask!

(July 2010)

With Philadelphia in the midst of what threatens to become a perpetual fiscal crisis, folks like myself do a lot of yelling and screaming about making city government more efficient and effective.  "Do more with less," we say, knowing that we have all had to do the same in our own households during this downturn.  It is endlessly frustrating when we hear that our government simply cannot possibly find more ways to save without threatening vital city services.  It is absolutely maddening when we then find out that our government can, indeed, reduce costs without compromising agency efforts.  

Who knew all we had to do was ask?

Recent media reports about inefficiency in the Philadelphia Sheriff's Office focused on the news that the office charged with transporting prisoners, overseeing courtroom safety, and enforcing various court orders was on a pace to outspend its $12 million budget by more than $2 million.  Of course, high officials in the Sheriff's Office balked at suggestions that they could find ways to restructure staffing assignments or work with court officials to reduce overtime spending.

Then, Nutter Administration officials asked nicely.  Maybe, like my children, they asked "please" a few times without results and finally added "with a cherry on top" to make their entreaties irresistible.

That did it.  As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Sheriff's Office reversed itself and announced it was launching a plan to reduce overtime spending.

See, it's just that easy to do more with less.  Just ask.

There are plenty of ways to make our government more efficient and more effective.  I literally wrote the book on ways to improve Philadelphia government and make Philadelphia a preferred place to live work and visit.  (Check out Philadelphia:  A New Urban Direction.)  The book is now more than a decade old, but I still keep a version by my desk that I annotate each time one of the ideas put forth in the book is implemented.  

I just scrawled a note in the margin of page 193 that the city recently acted on the idea to enact an ordinance requiring inspections for taller building every five years to make sure that facades and stonework do not rain down on city sidewalks.  

There are pages full of ideas that can still help save city money or improve agency operations.  Some of the money-saving or revenue-generating ideas I outlined in the book that I would love to see implemented include:

  • creating an incentive program that would save money by rewarding municipal workers when the city reduces its liability expenditures;
  • reducing operating costs for the city and school district by consolidating and combining common back-office functions like fleet management, benefits administration, and procurement; and
  • creating a regional funding mechanism for the region’s cultural and historical assets.

There are so many other great ideas to make Philadelphia government work -- articulated by academics, promoted by pundits, and suggested by city employees who know where change can make a real difference.  

Unfortunately, for every worthy suggestion, there also seems to be some official responding that the city couldn’t possibly improve operations.  

But then, we find that sometimes we just have to ask to make it happen.

Pretty please -- with a cherry on top -- stop making excuses and start making government work better for us.