It’s been said that the Wharton Administration will announce some striking changes in City Hall soon, and in light of that, we reprise this post of September 13:

The listening tour on merging governments was based on a central premise: the business models for Memphis and Shelby County Governments are broken.

There may be disagreements about seemingly everything related to merging city and county governments, but surely there is no dispute about this.

After all, county government traces its roots back to the days of ox carts on English mud roads and the vestiges of these origins are seen in the structure that remains in place today. Until the 1970s, Shelby County Government still had squires heading the legislative branch and three commissioners and chairman of the County Court over administrative functions that conflicted and overlapped. The county mayor’s office was created in 1976 to correct these problems, but a government filled with fiefdoms answering to various elected officials and a plethora of boards remain.

About a decade earlier, City of Memphis streamlined its structure to eliminate a similar multi-headed administrative structure. Until then, commissioners headed up various parts of the city administration and one them served as mayor. In 1966, the commission form of government was replaced with the mayor-council form, and today’s city government is largely unchanged from that time.

Culture Change

In other words, city government was last modernized back when all prime time television began broadcasting in color. And yet, that same structure operates today in a world measured in nanoseconds and in instantaneous communications unimaginable back then. It’s hard to think of any organization other than government that has been so resistant to the kind of transformative change that is needed to cope with the changing realities over those years.

At a time when Memphis itself needs leap frog strategies to shake off its low rankings in key economic indicators, the change should start with improvements to city government itself. Hopefully, city-county merger will be approved after a comprehensive education campaign in the coming year, and even if it is, it will be several years transitioning to it.

As a result, the new mayor needs to begin immediately upon taking the oath of office to overhaul the culture of City Hall and to improve its operations. Contrary to conventional wisdom, city government does not spend more money per capita on its services than the other governments in Shelby County. In fact, it spends less than most of them.

Despite that, as the city government efficiency study pointed out, there are some fundamental changes that can save millions of dollars. In other words, on the first day, the new mayor should begin to implement the recommendations in a study that was quickly put on a shelf in the mayor’s office with all the others pointing out ways to improve operations.

Change Should Be In The Air

On the second day, the new mayor should order that Memphis will throw out its website and its technology planning and start over. This time, the objective should be to develop the best 21st century e-government, to put every government report online, to develop a website that allows citizens to do everything on line that is done at a counter and to get serious about the application of GIS mapping that brings with it more accountability. There’s a point at which it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the websites of local government are intentionally unnavigable and impenetrable. It’s just too hard to make websites that have as little value to their visitors.

On the third day, the new mayor should set up an innovative program to identify and empower changes agents who can shake up things and becomes forces for change throughout city government.

In other words, the new mayor’s first three days should be devoted entirely to culture change. There’s no more powerful message that the mayor can send, because so much of that person’s success will depend on a City Hall culture that has been leaderless for years.

It’s impossible to imagine any company whose CEO has left after 18 years that would not engage in a top-to-bottom evaluation of the organization and its services and would not draw up an actionable plan to generate new energy and new focus on its core business.

That’s exactly what the new mayor needs to do.

No Risk, No Pain

It’s hard to imagine that the next mayor won’t face the Obama dilemma. There’s so much that has been left untended, there’s so much that has been done wrong and there are so many challenges pressing for attention. So the mayor needs to set priorities carefully, because it’s easy to be pulled off message and off target.

While government is always tough and frustrating on agents of change, a city government with the same mayor for 18 years is especially so. As a result, there’s the widespread feeling now that the best way to get ahead is to adopt a no-risk approach to your work. It’s largely a fact of life in the public sector at every level that if you take no risk, it’s the safest way to move up.

Of course, innovation requires risk. New ideas require risk. But, there is no reward for taking a chance and striking out in government. It’s not a laboratory. There’s no R & D. There’s often not another chance to experiment, because the punishment for mistake can be high, so the safe, take no chances approach works best for lifers.

That has to change, because it’s a zero sum game. Government ends up with a lot of people who learn to play the game, people who learn to play it safe and people who learn that it’s best to just say no. Taxpayers end up with a government that innovates too little and costs too much.

Volcanic Designs

So, for us, the challenge for the next mayor is not just to pick creative people to fill the chief administrative officer and directors’ jobs. It is also to develop a change agent program for City Hall.

Such a program requires three things: a thoughtful design, the careful recruitment and development of personnel and close integration between the change agent team and the areas targeted for transformation.

There are two options for the new mayor for such a program – centralized or decentralized. The centralized team answers directly to top management and the other leaves the change agents in their respective areas with a reporting relationship to a change agent leader. We’d vote for the second approach for city government for a variety of reasons

We’re not saying that there are no potential change agents in city government. In truth, there are, but they lie dormant like volcanoes, looking for the right conditions to have any impact. There needs to be a mix of existing employees willing to flourish as change agents and new employees with specific experience that’s needed – like human resources, technology and communications.

Key Change

All of this reminds us of how important a mayor’s role is in driving change. It is so easy to settle for incremental improvement when it’s transformation that is needed. That’s why just like in the private sector, there is no substitute for CEO leadership.

If there are applicable lessons from the private sector, they are that the CEO is key to making the change meaningful, because people will work hard for causes they believe in, so it’s up to the leader to inspire workers that they are involved in something important. Then, there is the behavior of the CEO, who needs workers to emulate it and whose own personal commitment to the objectives drives change. Finally, the CEO needs to appoint a dedicated management team that also embodies the change they hope to produce.

That’s because there’s no message as strong to city government employees as understanding the personal story of the transformation as explained by the mayor. In this way, it’s not about powerpoint presentations, but about “management by walking around” and clear explanations of why change is necessary (including stories of the mayor’s own experiences).

As countless business research has shown, there is absolutely no substitute for a CEO directing energy toward the right targets and making the transformation relevant and meaningful to every worker.

It’s tough in business. It’s even harder in government. But it is nonetheless absolutely vital. That’s why it has to be top priorities for the next mayor. `