Reforming Local Government

How can San Francisco make the most of its public resources?
Article
July 1, 2001

1. Renew and Codify Government’s Commitment to Ethical Standards:
The City Charter already sets out prohibitions against appointments to the public service as a reward for political activity and for friends and family. However, longstanding practice has led to complacency with “the way it’s always been done.” It is time that appointing officers pledge to perpetuate neither nor tolerate this practice. More generally, among employees in many agencies there is not always a shared definition of what constitutes ethical behavior within government service. The Board should pass an ordinance requiring every agency, including itself and the Mayor’s office, to discuss, adopt, and make an ongoing commitment to an appropriate code of ethics.

Such guidelines would make it clear, for instance, that it is inappropriate for building inspectors to have sideline work as real estate investors, that Supervisors should not carry legislation assisting an industry in which they are employed or vote on a permit appeal where a spouse stands to make a profit, and that city employees have an obligation to report misuse of public resources that come to their attention.

The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions has collected over 850 codes of ethics for various fields. Implementation might be monitored by the Ethics Commission, with ongoing reporting to the public.


2. Create a Commitment to Efficient, Public-Service-Oriented, Accountable City Management:

San Francisco has made no realistic commitment to establishing sound government management practice that provides the best service to the public for the least cost to the taxpayers, while fairly considering the needs of people employed in government service. This may be because existing patronage relationships are threatened by this level of accountability. It may be due to simple lack of leadership and institutional resistance to change. Whatever the reason it has not happened in the past, the public should insist upon it now. An efficient, wellmanaged government is key to getting the most public service the local economy can afford. An investment in resources in public management will pay off many-fold in the future.

The Board should create a policy that it expects to receive regular performance measurement information from all city agencies, and that this information will be shared with the public in an accessible manner on the Internet.

There must be an integrated management function within the Mayor’s office to guide management practice in all city agencies. If the Mayor will not create such a office, the Board of Supervisors should propose a charter amendment to create one.

Such a body, staffed by professional civil servants working with consulting services as necessary, would study the best practices of other jurisdictions and put structures in place for citywide performance data collection, analysis and strategic planning. It should be held specifically accountable to 1) reform management practice; 2) analyze and negotiate civil service and human resources reform; 3) assist in establishing best practices in procurement and contracting; and 4) minimize the environmental impact of all government operations. The office should also make recommendations for consolidation of city functions into an organizational structure that might be able to function effectively.

Cities throughout the world work toward the international set of management quality standards called ISO9000 and ISO14000. These uniform standards—“iso” is the Greek prefix for “the same”—are issued by the International Organization for Standardization, with 110 member countries. It develops quality and other management standards to facilitate the international exchange of goods and services, and cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity. San Francisco should join San Jose, Seattle, and many other well-managed cities in using this well-respected management systems framework.

For public accountability, dissemination of public information and ease of use of public services, the Mayor, or if necessary, the Board, should quickly increase the use of information technology and e-government by expanding and directly funding the Department of Telecommunications to handle this activity citywide. Most routine public transactions should be available on-line. The voting records of members of the Board of Supervisors should be readily accessible and easy to analyze. The public should be able to find an agency’s budget, its record of performance and plans for improvement, and a summarized log of citizen complaints and how those complaints have been handled.

3. Revive the City’s Commitment to a Professional Civil Service:
The increase in special assistants and the placement of inexperienced people in department-head positions drains resources from legitimate government activity, demoralizes competent staff, undercuts the ability of city agencies to manage their own programs, and sours the public’s perception of government. Legislation should vastly reduce the use of the special assistant job category to the few special occasions for which it was originally designed. The job qualifications and performance of incumbents in this category should be closely scrutinized and appropriate staffing adjustments made. The Mayor’s office should remove itself from the business of running operating programs with political staff and combine these functions with the appropriate existing city with professional civil service staff.

The public, the Board, and the editorial boards of the media must make clear to this and future mayors that they expect experienced professionals in department leadership positions, and apply the pressure of public opinion against the appointment of people who would be learning on the job. The Board of Supervisors has had a bad record of approving high-level staff and commission nominations of professionally under-qualified individuals for political reasons. It should stand up for the long-term public interest and decline to continue this practice.

Imperative to a revived commitment to civil service, as well as to achieving management excellence, is civil service reform and improvement of the human resources function. The Board must insist that this critical function be improved as quickly as possible. The Department of Human Resources should work with the Civil Service Commission, the Mayor’s office, and worker’s representatives to do a citywide staff and management survey to identify areas in which the system is not meeting their needs. A strategy must be created to meet these needs, with progress toward implementation reported to the Board. In addition to other goals identified in the survey, the strategy should include reduction of the time it takes to fill vacant positions with well-qualified applicants; overhaul of the compensation system to provide flexibility for effective recruitment and retention; bringing the civil service testing schedules and content up to current needs; changes to the classification system to update class descriptions, reducing the number of classes, more flexibility for cross-training, and the introduction of new job types without resorting to the use of the special assistant category; advancing performance-based government through individual employee performance plans and incentives; and investing in training and professional development of the city workforce. These are all areas in which San Francisco’s human resources support services need work.

4. Establish a Formal Complaints System Run by an Elected Public Advocate:
The public deserves responsiveness from local government, which it is not getting. Government needs information from the public as to whether its services satisfy public needs, but it often acts as if it is not interested. Complaints now often are handled by city agencies making the complainant a formal adversary of a city program manager or employee, with the responsible agency taking on the role of some sort of neutral arbitrator. This represents an abdication of the city’s overall responsibility for the satisfaction of members of the public with its services. No one keeps a central log of complaints and their disposition with which to improve staff training and as an early warning sign of structural problems, such as a lack of code enforcement.

As a representative body independent of the executive branch and a central focus for people’s contact with the city, the Board of Supervisors should house an office of complaints, managed by an elected Public Advocate such as that in New York City. The Advocate serves as an ombudsman, or go-between, for the consumer of city services. He or she investigates and answers complaints about government, proposes new solutions to make service to the public more efficient, and helps people gain access to government agencies. The Public Advocate is responsible for reporting the failure of any city agency or official to comply with the city charter. The Advocate also monitors the effectiveness of city’s public information and education efforts.

Creating a new elected official will require a charter amendment, but the Board could start getting the program in place by ordinance first.

5. Protect the Confidentiality of Staff Reports to Investigators:
Not only should government be responsive to the concerns of the public, but city staff people should have a safe means of reporting observations of shortcomings in government operations. While San Francisco needs new internal auditing functions, it does already have a number of agencies that more or less frequently investigate as part of their ongoing activities: the Controller, the City and District Attorneys, the Board’s Budget Analyst, the Civil Service and Ethics Commissions and the Civil Grand Jury. Immediately, a city ordinance should insure that the identity of any employee and the confidentiality of his or her information, if it would compromise the source, will be protected scrupulously. Currently there is only after-the-fact whistle-blower protection; by the time an employee has been discriminated against, damage to his or her career has already been done. This lack of confidentiality (and the widespread perception that current investigative agencies are not politically independent) has created a tremendous disincentive for city staff people to come forward with information on problems within their agencies.

6. Create an Independent Public Auditor:
There are many disadvantages to having organized political parties vying for public power, but one advantage that “nonpartisan” San Francisco lacks is partisan scrutiny of its government operations. In this situation, it is essential to have a robust internal audit function. An Independent Public Auditor looks for waste, fraud, and the abuse of public trust. It has a staff of investigators who not only look for the kind of malfeasance that might be referred for prosecution, but for examples of undue access to government resources and services by favored groups, such as instances of political pressure applied to purchasing and contracting decisions and to subsequent performance evaluation, agencies giving preferred treatment to private “expediters,” private individuals participating in the hiring process for city staff, or “friends” committees which allow interests with a financial stake in agency decisions to make financial contributions to the agency’s operating budget. There are numerous examples of public auditing agencies around the world, often called auditors general; in the military, inspectors general; or at the US federal level, the General Accounting Office.

The Auditor General’s work would not replace the fiscal and performance audits now done by the Controller and the Budget Analyst. In fact, those audits should be expanded to ensure that all city agencies receive regular performance audits. The Public Auditor would focus on areas that are known to be readily susceptible to corruption: procurement, revenue collection, law enforcement, licensing and permitting, the provision of services where there is a government monopoly (such as subsidized housing), construction permitting and land zoning, and government appointments.

The key factors in a successful independent audit function are independence within the government structure, professionalism of staff, accountability of the audit function itself, and resources with which to operate. For independence from the executive branch, where most of the activity to be audited is located, the Auditor should report to the legislative branch, which in San Francisco is the Board of Supervisors. Having the internal auditor under the legislature is the common practice: for instance, the federal General Accounting Office reports to Congress, not to the President. The Independent Public Auditor would work closely with the Board’s budget analyst, who is an outside contractor. The agency’s work would be in addition to, not in replacement of, the fiscal and performance audits now conducted by the Controller and by the Budget Analyst at the request of the Board of Supervisors.

For independence from the politics of the legislature, the Auditor should be hired by and report to a joint legislative audit and review committee of respected community leaders, chosen by the full Board, not by supervisors individually. The Auditor should set his or her own audit agenda, be free to follow up on any reports received by the office, and have a high level of access to information. Referrals for prosecution should be given high priority by the District Attorney. Results of audits and recommendations for reform should be made easily accessible to the public, and the Controller should set up a system for following up on implementation of the Auditor’s recommendations.

It is essential that the Auditor be a highly qualified professional of scrupulous integrity, experienced in this type of auditing, with few or no ties to the local power structure. (Benjamin Franklin recruited the nation’s first successful inspector general from Paris.) For freedom from intimidation, like the Controller the Auditor should have a long term of office. The salary should be commensurate with that of a Superior Court Judge.

The Public Auditor’s office should itself be audited regularly by a independent public accountancy firm.

As has been mentioned, San Francisco does already have several investigative bodies, which either lack the complete independence from the executive branch necessary for an independent auditor, or are outside city/county government like the Civil Grand Jury. What they all lack is the budget to provide anything like serious ongoing oversight. Indeed, the Civil Grand Jury is essentially a volunteer organization. The Civil Service Commission has no staff of its own and the Ethics Commission has only one investigator. Creating these watchdog agencies but not funding them is worse than having none at all, since their existence deludes the public into thinking there is review of government activities. A public auditing function must be funded at a level commensurate with effective similar agencies elsewhere, with sufficient professional staff, or it will be another empty exercise. Its funding must be secured from potential retaliation as a result of the legitimate exercise of its mandate.


San Francisco: The City that Knew How.

7. Better Balance the Branches of Government:
One reason for the growing excesses of San Francisco’s executive branch that its power isn’t balanced by an assertive legislature. The Board of Supervisors needs better resources to be able to represent the public interest. Two aides per Supervisor are not enough to handle ongoing committee work, constituent services and daily administration, and to leave any time for good policy development, responsible participation in regional government or the establishment of new district-based institutions. Handicapping public representatives only handicaps public service.

It isn’t good practice to have elected officials employed in areas outside of government; it creates too much of a potential conflict of interest. Yet San Francisco voters pay Supervisors in one of the most expensive cities in the world—only London and Hong Kong are more costly—about $37,000 a year. It has been fashionable for years to jeer at the Board, but at that salary, the voters are narrowing greatly the pool of people who are able to run for office. Out of a $4+ billion budget, this false economy is detrimental to the public benefit.

The salary of Supervisors should be similar to levels of compensation of other county elected representatives in California, and automatically adjusted on a regular basis. Like the Mayor, Supervisors should not be allowed to hold outside jobs. These changes will require a modification of the Charter.

WHERE THE MONEY COMES FROM
An expensive set of proposals? It has been reliably estimated that the overhead for people who are not qualified for the jobs, and not performing the work, in the small Solid Waste Management Program alone comes to something close to half a million dollars a year. There are well over 500 special assistants on the government payroll, most of them highly paid. Public money that could be spent on management and accountability is being spent elsewhere, and not in a way that serves the public. On the other hand, every audit done by the Budget Analyst has resulted in net savings to the city that have exceeded the cost of the audit. A big reason the private sector embraces modern management techniques and internal controls is that it doesn’t have the financial luxury to waste money.

CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
San Francisco has a steep slope to climb out of the poor quality of public management it suffers from today. Travel to Europe: the cities are cleaner, the public transportation is enormously better, the public schools provide a good education to all comers. San Francisco is a much richer city, yet it does not provide nearly the same level of public services. With a Republican government in Washington and a downturn in the stock markets, San Francisco must start to make the most of its public resources. The November 2000 local election showed clearly that the public wants change in the status quo. The voters of San Francisco have brought in a reform legislature, which can make some real changes in the way the city works if it will grasp the opportunity.SPUR logo

About the Authors: 

Beryl Magilavy is past director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment and president of Sustainable City, which works on sustainable development and government reform funded by the Columbia Foundation.