Is Government Too Slow?

I frequently hear criticism that government is too slow and never gets anything done.  We should be more nimble and responsive to change, like businesses, for example.  I won’t repeat my arguments about why governments are not businesses, but I would like to analyze the myth that government is too slow.

The first question that comes to mind is, “too slow for what?”  Are we too slow when responding to the daily emergencies that happen throughout our community?  Satisfaction surveys typically tell us that the vast majority of people are highly satisfied with fire and police services.  Emergency responders take great pride in getting to the scene quickly because they know that lives may be at stake.  We measure how long it takes to respond and constantly look for ways to improve our performance.  The most important resources to ensure a quick response are people, equipment, and facilities that, coincidentally, are not cheap.  We spend about $30 million annually on police and fire services in order to make sure that we aren’t too slow.

Are our water and sewer services too slow?  People complain about their cost, but I seldom recall anyone telling me they had to wait for water from their tap or let sewage build up in their toilets.  We have rare service interruptions when a line breaks, but I have never been without water or sewer service due to a City-related problem during my adult life.  Emergency and utility services comprise an overwhelming portion of our annual budget for the simple reason that citizens would not and should not accept slow or poor quality performance.

What about the City’s finances?  When I started as a city manager about 30 years ago, we produced monthly financial reports that were available to the public in council packets if anyone wanted to stop by City Hall to see them.  Now, any citizen can go online and see daily reports on their smartphone.  What once took weeks is now done automatically every day.  Many transactions, like paying a water bill, that used to require a fair amount of time can now be done with a few keystrokes.  You can even renew library books and check out materials online.

I am occasionally frustrated by the time it sometimes takes to get a project underway or completed, but I don’t forget that the most important things we do happen every day.  The new fire and police stations now under construction took much longer than I would have liked, and they will help our responders do an even better, quicker job.  We did not, however, stop providing quality services while waiting for the new facilities any more than we interrupted water service when building the new treatment plant in 2005.  It is appropriate that we take time to plan and explain projects that require large sums of money and will serve the community for many years.  Often, the delays that frustrate are only signs that we are taking the time to do things right.

Another Departure

Kate Porsche’s departure to become the Community Development Director in Redmond is a loss for the City of Albany but an opportunity both for Kate and our organization.  Kate will go on to great success wherever she works while leaving behind a chance for other people in Albany to build on the things she’s done here.  It’s a familiar pattern.

We have lost many good employees in recent times, and we will be losing more in the months ahead.  I think it’s a sign of a healthy organization when people who work here know they can advance and succeed anywhere.  I have always believed that it makes no sense to discourage people from looking for new opportunities.  At the same time, I also believe we have an obligation to make our City a great place to work.  Part of that obligation is fair compensation that includes the benefits needed to make our families as safe and secure as possible.  Equally important are working conditions that allow people to know they are making a difference and getting the chance to progress.

Kate started as the administrator of our urban renewal program and steadily advanced to become a department director. Former directors like Diane Dennis and Mark Shepard and current directors Jeff Blaine, Chris Bailey, John Bradner, Jorge Salinas, and Ed Gallagher have followed a similar path. Many of our senior managers have also moved through the organization to reach their current positions, often because someone else was promoted or hired away by another agency.

Departures also create opportunities for new people to join the City and add insights acquired in other places.  We have some outstanding new employees who have strengthened the City and helped us provide better service.  As much as I believe in the importance of promoting deserving people, I believe in the need to bring in new perspectives.  Upcoming retirements will almost surely provide the chance to promote and to hire.

I clearly remember the day Dick Ebbert told me he found an outstanding person to fill our urban renewal position.  Soon after Dick described this great new person, Laura Hyde came into my office to confirm Dick’s assessment.  She had served on the interview committee and felt Kate would be a great employee.  Dick and Laura were right.  Kate excelled and made many contributions to the City.  She will be missed.  I won’t be filling Kate’s position and will leave that decision to a new city manager next year.  I wish Kate all the best in her new job and look forward to working with those who are stepping up to take on her responsibilities.