One of the first things you learn in business school is that you can’t manage what you don’t know. Management fads come and go, but data-driven decision making whether by spreadsheet, big data, analytics is how management is measured.
Knowing stuff comes in many forms. You can count things, like potholes. Then you can ask questions, like how many have been filled? Or how long does it take to fill or how many people does it take to fill them? Data is the currency of performance. Norwalk has operated from a data void ever since horses dragged trolley cars up East Ave. New census estimates show Norwalk’s population around 89,000. Things have changed since those trolley car years, and so should how the city is managed.
Today’s Norwalk has different needs since the days when people drove cars with fins through cul-de-sac suburban streets. Mayor Rilling has given considerable thought about what today’s needs are, and he worked with his department staff to come up with a plan. It is a modest plan – a rearrangement of reporting structures, a couple of new positions and the expected cost savings and efficiencies that such things generate.
Common Council members get to vote to approve this new organization. There’s a smattering of worries that not enough time was spent analyzing things, or not enough feedback from residents was evident.
The thing is, the structure of Norwalk’s government has been failing for some time. With an antiquated charter and lots of political sniping, it all boils down to questions about who gets to decide how Norwalk’s administrative functions are organized.
As Norwalk’s chief elected official, the Mayor is accountable for ensuring that administrative functions are done. The cost of those administrative functions is authorized, or not, by the Common Council. This is what drives the definition of weak Mayor/strong Council. But let’s not forget the Mayor is the administrative branch of government, and the Council is the legislative branch. The Council makes laws, and the Mayor oversees implementation.
The Common Council gets to vote to authorize spending and contracts. Employment, if we skip over the union stuff, is a mostly contractual transaction. The performance of departments has been a contentious issue year after year. Why? Maybe it is currently challenging to figure out who is evaluating the performance of departments. Politics and the lack of a clear reporting structure has made it nearly impossible to measure performance, and so the status quo remained unscathed despite many administration changes.
Got a blight issue? Well, it’s simple right, send out an enforcement officer and fine the offending property owner, right? And yet determining blight becomes a complicated jurisdictional issue when you have different code regulations that overlap but subject matter expertise that doesn’t. Or removing snow from schoolyards, or issuing beach/transfer station permits. Who is in charge of what?
Mayor Rilling has proposed his way of organizing work and is presenting it to the Common Council. He isn’t eliminating functions. He isn’t reducing services. He has aligned the reporting structure and introduced new positions filling a void in management layers to gain operational efficiencies. When we say that government should be run more like a business, this is exactly what any business would do.
Of course, the fear of something new is the catalytic action that preserves the status quo. And there is near universal agreement that the status quo isn’t working either.
Norwalk’s next Mayor might have different ideas about how their administration is organized. They might like to try something new or a return to something old. Voting for a Mayor then is about management of the city. While previous Mayoral candidates have answered the ‘how to manage the city’ question with a call for hiring a city manager, the last election said Rilling should manage the city. He has now spoken about how he wants to do that. We should give him that chance. You see, his next performance review is in 2019.