Sweep the streets when it’s dark!

Several years ago cities thought they were in crisis.  Revenues were falling, expenses were growing and emergency funds were depleted.  Some aggressively changed tact, or challenged people or cut costs.  Most waited it out hoping the storm would pass.

Memphis has an opportunity to use our budget crisis today to reform our system for tomorrow.  Examples from peer cities and from visionary business practices could set the stage for Memphis to emerge stronger.  But only if hard decisions are made, bold initiatives are completed and basic principles are developed to guide us in good times and bad.

We cannot retreat, putting this off on the next generation or even the next administration.  Let’s tackle this today so we can enjoy tomorrow.  Let’s take our medicine; otherwise we will keep getting sicker.

Cuts Are Inevitable

CityMayors.com posted this in 2003: “As a result of an increasing squeeze on municipal budgets, many US cities and towns are cutting staff and services and increasing fees.”

According to a survey by the National League of Cities, the biggest negative factors affecting budgets were: costs of city workers’ health benefits (cited by 63%), costs of city workers’ pensions (30%), reduction in state aid (29%), the local economy (25%), and infrastructure needs (25%).

In response to the deteriorating fiscal condition of cities: nearly half (47%) of all cities increased fee rates in 2003, 30% reduced city employment, 29% imposed new fees or charges on services, 21% reduced actual levels of capital spending, and 11% reduced city service levels.

The cities that reacted with great enthusiasm then, may not be panicking as much through the current crisis.

The Streetsweeper Theory

We have to ask why we do certain things the way we do them.  An easy example is streetsweeping.  Has anyone ever wondered why some cities operate streetsweepers at night and others do it during the day?  I once took over a program that ran a streetsweeper between 9 am and 5 pm.  Public trash cans were emptied.  Weeds were cut.  Flowers along the sidewalks were planted and watered, while the sun was shining bright.

Some might just say, “Yea for sweeping the streets!”  Those people had not seen the budget.  It was unsustainable and it was costing other programs like public safety and economic development, as more and more funds were diverted.  We had to ask, “Is our goal to have a great looking downtown or is it to look like we are trying to have a great looking downtown?”

Streetsweepers run at night because cars aren’t on the street and people aren’t walking along the sidewalk.  Some cities run sweepers during the day precisely because people are around to see what they are getting for the money.

By changing the system and putting our crews out from 5 am to 7 am when everyone was out of the way, we accomplished far more impressive results.  Expenses plummeted.  Efficiency skyrocketed.  And the place looked amazing.

However everyday for about a year, a different property owner or elected official would call.  They were enraged that our streetsweepers were gone and couldn’t believe how we were wasting their money.  We stuck to our guns and over time (and with a bit of campaigning) the public caught on to the change and how cool the end results really were.

This is, of course, a most simplistic example.  I know many of our troubles are tougher to tackle.  But picking apart every initiative to get to the why, is what we have to do.  When we look strategically at the service and what it is intended to accomplish, we may not have to debate funding verses firing.  We may find ways to improve performance, doing a better job for less money.

What To Do

1. Improve customer service today.  This is cliché by now but a culture of great customer service brings costs down while driving customer satisfaction up.  Do something extra and unexpected and smile while you are dong it.

2. Look to cities that beat us to the punch.  Some cities started changing their budgets and attitudes in 1993, others in 2003 and others in 1953.  We have to start expecting responsible government at all levels of our community but that doesn’t mean we can’t look to others for help.

3. Hire real estate managers… good corporate real estate managers… to manage everything.  Great real estate investors understand the balancing act between reducing a property’s expenses, generating new revenues and keeping existing tenants from moving out.  This is honestly and exactly what our government is facing.  Commercial real estate has trained an army of managers who could easily use their talent with building portfolios to improving the portfolio of our city assets.

4. Stop thinking about the money and start thinking about the performance.  Cutting is one strategy.  Raising new funds is another.  Delivering a better product almost always wins… even in government.

    Where To Start

    Phoenix is known as America’s Best Run City.  They have long had one of the best government websites.  An academic case study was done by Janet and Robert Denhardt entitled – Creating a Culture of Innovation: 10 Lessons from America’s Best Run City.  Phoenix takes pride in customer service, looks into the future to prepare for challenges, empowers both the public and its employees, and confidently stays the course because they have laid a solid foundation.

    Minneapolis has started to think strategically about everything it does.  Cost-benefit analysis may not be what they call it, but that is what they are doing.  They are attracting business and revitalizing the inner city by making one strategic change.  Mayor Rybak recognized that the usual suspects in their incentive package were driving expenses in areas that hurt the economy of the core city.  He didn’t take any incentive off the table and may have actually added a few.  But he did state very boldly that Minneapolis would no longer give incentives to business to do whatever they wanted to do.  He would only entertain assistance to companies that would provide development that was beneficial to the city, in locations where it was needed, fit strategic goals and didn’t cost his people more than they were going to get in return.  If this means losing a business to a neighbor or distant competitor, he figures it is better to burden their citizens than his.

    What To Read

    There are voluminous business textbooks on strategic marketing and production management and operational efficiency.  If you have time, go get an MBA.  But for now, you may just want to take a weekend and read two, more simple books.

    Ken Miller has a 124-pager called We Don’t Make Widgets – Overcoming the Myths that Keep Government from Radically Improving.  If you don’t get the point by page 12, other people and their systems aren’t your problem.

    Despite the most cumbersome title in history, Michael J. Lipsey has distilled a wide range of revolutionary changes for customer service in the 191-page Tenants or Guests, Brokers or Clients, Vendors or Partners.

    These should inspire you to look deeper, as well as to act on something today.