Doing the Work of City Council, 3/4: Holding the Administration Accountable
In the previous post, I talked in detail about the City’s budget process and the need for a strategic approach based on clear priorities and a willingness to ask tough questions, of all agencies.
In this post, I discuss the third critical component of serving on City Council: Holding the Administration accountable for performance and execution, using monies allocated to achieve specified ends.
The budget process and accountability are closely linked. If agencies don’t present clear plans for what they are going to do with the money they request, they shouldn’t get full funding.
But even if an agency does provide a clear plan and does get the funding requested, we have to track and assess what was actually done with the allocated money and whether the program or agency achieved the promised or desired results.
My experience as a former director of an agency (the Office of Community Wealth Building) and as a senior policy advisor charged with helping develop performance management plans for all City agencies gives me a unique perspective on this challenge. Those experiences have yielded three critical insights:
First, government, including Richmond city government, does not have to be defined by failure and dysfunction. It’s possible to get important things done.
We got a lot of things done in a short period time during my two-year tenure as director of the Office of Community Wealth Building, from staffing the agency to launching or expanding six programs to supporting massive citywide initiatives; those specifics are documented elsewhere (see this previous post for some highlights).
One of my favorite examples of success is the RVA Future Center program, launched in the fall of 2015 and going into its fifth year this upcoming academic year. In the fall of 2014 we developed a joint City of Richmond/RPS committee to examine the idea of launching an intentional effort to help more RPS students access career and college opportunities.
Funding for the program was put into the budget for fiscal 2016, and the money become available on July 1, 2015.
Just two months later, in September, the program opened in dedicated spaces in all five comprehensive high schools, with Center directors in place in each school and a citywide program manager. Office of Community Wealth Building staff drove this process forward in collaboration with RPS leadership and the RPS Education Foundation. Working as a team, we laid out a specific program concept, established clear timelines to guide action steps, identified and overcame organizational and logistical barriers, and pushed the work through in the summer of 2015 with a sense of urgency.
When the program had its first public event in December 2015 at Armstrong High School, then-Secretary of Education Anne Holton attended the launch and lauded our efforts as a model of effective cooperation between the City of Richmond and RPS.
She was right. That effort shows that where there is a will and sufficient cooperation, public efforts can move effectively, in real time.
Second, the reason success stories like the quick, proficient launch of RVA Future are more the exception than the rule in City Hall is that too many core internal processes in City Hall don’t work well. So if we want to see performance and execution improve systemically across all the agencies, we need to pay close attention to improving the internal services that allow agencies to hire people, buy things, pay for things, and communicate in a timely way.
Third, city agencies do have clear plans, internally. But they are not generally held publicly accountable for executing on those plans: that is for following through and delivering on what they promised to do at budget time.
Here’s a key reason why: the public (including Council) hasn’t been shown those plans. When I worked in the Mayor’s Office in 2017, I worked with Budget and Strategic Planning staff to develop a template for reporting on each agency’s annual goals and objectives, in detail; the Chief Administrative Officer then directed each agency to complete the requested information. Once those plans were developed, I along with the CAO met with the heads of each portfolio to review the plans, and we then shared our assessment of progress with the Mayor.
Out of that body of work emerged the Performance Management Office, which is charged with assessing the performance of all agencies and making recommendations for ongoing organizational improvement.
While I am proud of the work I participated in and know that there have been numerous improvements and gains under the current Mayor, I am not satisfied with the progress of the administration in pushing performance improvements forward. Specifically, there are still too many systemic challenges in the internal services which have not been addressed, and the administration to date has failed to share with the public the internal agency plans.
Making those plans public would begin to change the equation. The very act of committing to achieve specific objectives, and publicizing that commitment, should motivate agencies to perform. If the Council and the larger public never gets a clear view of all the things an agency was supposed to have accomplished in a given year, it has little hope of holding its leadership and staff accountable for its use of resources.
The administration must discipline its agencies to ask these questions:
· What are the agency's core responsibilities and goals?
· What are the action steps that will achieve those goals?
· What resources are needed to implement those action steps in a successful manner?
· Who are the people specifically responsible for seeing those action steps are taken?
· What specific targets will be achieved, within various time frames (1 year, 5 years)?
· How will progress by evaluated and assessed, and what process is in place to allow mid-course correction if need be?
The answers to those questions should be shared with City Council and public. Publicizing this information would both help citizen better understand the work of their agencies and also would set a clear bar for holding agencies accountable.
I know that good work can be done in local government, even though even the most successful projects rarely go exactly to plan. That’s why on City Council, I will have little patience for excuses for inaction or failing to get done what was promised. I will ask agency directors at budget time and committee meetings to explain exactly what is going on and why or why not targets are being met.
That’s the same standard I held myself and the staff of the Office of Community Wealth Building to when I was a director. Indeed, I insisted that the ordinance making the Office a permanent city agency include a requirement of a detailed annual written report, delivered each year by the Mayor to City Council.
At the same time, however, I will appreciate the need to address the underlying organizational challenges that often lead to projects taking too long, stalling altogether, or simply failing. That means demanding the administration address its problem areas, and it also means being willing to put a much higher priority on internal organizational needs at budget time.
Agencies that get City funding must be accountable to the public for the use of funds and for fulfilling their key missions. As a City Council member, I will ask the hard questions of each agency. Those that don’t provide adequate answers for disappointing progress will fall down the pecking order in budget season.
Likewise, the Mayor and the administration as a whole must be held accountable for making progress on articulated goals. The language of “One Richmond” must be met with a multitude of concrete actions, strategically designed to advance an equitable city, in the arenas of education, housing, workforce development, transportation, and more. And those specific action steps must be executed in a timely, careful, detail-oriented manner, to have maximum impact.
The City of Richmond is capable of doing great work in a timely way. But far too often, it does not. We cannot reach our potential as a city so long as that’s the case.
As a Council member representing the 5th District, I will draw on my administrative and organizational experience both to hold agencies accountable for dollars allocated, and to push for organization-wide improvement. That’s what District residents—the local taxpayers—expect, and it’s what we all need if the community as a whole is to move forward over the next decade.