When Anthony Williams was elected in 1999 as the fourth mayor of Washington, D.C., the city was in crisis, racked with corruption and teetering on the financial brink. As a result, his most pressing objectives were to restore the public’s confidence in their city government.

In fact, when he was first elected, the District of Columbia government was under the control of the federally-appointed District of Columbia Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority. The city topped the list of cities with the most employees per 100,000, and as a result, the workforce was bloated and costs were extreme.

By “right-sizing” the workforce and restoring fiscal accountability, Mayor Williams moved quickly to balance the city’s budget and bring proven management practices to the operation of the government. His work put the city on track for the return to self-government as the District delivered a surplus of $185 million in fiscal year 1997. The cumulative fund balance swung from a deficit of $518 million to a surplus of nearly $1.6 billion, and during this same period, the District’s bond ratings went from “junk bond” status to “A” category by all three major rating agencies.

Getting It Right

Meanwhile, Mayor Williams launched an aggressive campaign to lure investment back into the District of Columbia, using innovative financing and tax incentives. The economic recovery and transformation of the District of Columbia remains one of the most dramatic turnarounds of any major American city.

Driven by a growth in local revenues, income and sales taxes, the District had the resources to improve services, lower tax rates, improve the performance of city agencies and invest in its infrastructure and human services. After years of declining population, the District of Columbia recorded growth in population. Chief among accomplishments was establishing the city as a hub of African-American professionals.

The District’s crime rate went down dramatically, new vibrancy came to downtown areas, major league baseball returned to Nation’s Capital and sweeping plans for development along both sides of the Anacostia River were begun.

Perceptions Matter

When Mayor Williams left office, gone was the public image of political anarchy embodied by his predecessor, Marion Barry, and in its place was a reputation of the District of Columbia as a fiscally responsible city where public servants were held accountable and a focus on the big picture produced major change.

Williams came to the job with technical skills needed. As chief financial officer for the state of Connecticut, the Department of Agriculture, and the Washington, D.C., he knew how to balance the books.

But he also brought skills that come with working in the inherently chaotic public sector, where authorities overlap and personalities matter as much as numbers. He knew how to wrestle for control of bureaucratic territory; he knew how to use the resources at his disposal to leverage his ideas; and he knew how to build alliances and move an agenda forward.

Knowing When To Lead And When To Follow

So when he became mayor, Mayor Williams knew that it wasn’t enough to simply control the budget. He had to win public support for structural reforms and innovations, and with his financial background, it’s no surprise that he came up with a formula for how to do it: seventy percent follow and thirty percent lead.

“Look at it this way,” he said. “You’re the pre-eminent leader of your city, and you’re also the butler. And I don’t say that in a pejorative way. You are a public servant. Seventy percent of the time, if you say jump, I say, how high? If the toilet overflows in your house, I need to be at your house figuring out what the problem is. There is no problem too small for the mayor. And there is no one in the government lower than the mayor for these purposes – you are there to be responsible to your people, seventy percent of the time.

“The other thirty percent of the time, you are there to lead,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out, what are the one or two or three issues where you’re going to lead, and what are the other issues where you’re going to follow. You need to figure that out, and you need to make that balance of short term versus long term.”

Facing Facts

Coming into the job, Williams knew what he had to follow on, and what he had to lead on. He had to follow the lead of a public that demanded better schools, cleanliness and crime-fighting. And he had to lead the public when it came to the steps needed to upgrade government and start transforming the city.

He said his agenda was grounded in a basic idea: the challenge of the modern American city is to recover from generations of decline.

All American cities have gone through the same stages, Mayor Williams said they expanded in the nineteenth century, stagnated after the Depression, and declined in the postwar era as America moved to the suburbs on President Eisenhower’s new interstates. Federal programs designed in the 1960s and 1970s to arrest that decline – “urban renewal” and the like – didn’t help much, Williams said. “Whatever we did with urban renewal and whatever came after it, none of it really substantively changed the direction of cities.”

Raising Expectations

To survive today, cities need to make themselves attractive and competitive, combining sound bookkeeping with creative development strategies, he said. For his city, the mayor had the vision of a revived metroplex drawing investment from around the nation and the globe.

But to win support for any long-range development strategies, Williams knew he had to shore up support with a short-term agenda that addressed citizens’ most basic needs. So he set out to fix the basics.

He improved customer service, improved the city’s website, he cleaned the streets and put more cops on the beat and he shortening lines waiting for city services. When he made unpopular decisions, he framed them as steps towards better public service. He took on the labor unions, he shut down a hugely inefficient but still popular public hospital, he helped facilitate new development and he focused on baseball and riverfronts.

“You know what I say when people ask me about my greatest accomplishment as mayor? It was not necessarily fixing any one thing,” Mayor Williams said. “It was raising the expectations of my people.”