The Dixon formula: Trim the fat in middle management

David Kusnet

June 26, 1991|By David Kusnet

MAYOR Sharon Pratt Dixon's plan to eliminate from 1,200 to 2,000 middle managers contains powerful ideas not only for easing the fiscal crisis in her hard-pressed city government, but also for presenting the Democratic Party as something more appealing than its stereotype of free-spending, big-government liberalism.

Dixon's payroll-cutting plan isn't traditional urban liberalism, but it isn't traditional cost-cutting conservatism, either.

Rather than go after low-paid workers and the unions that represent them, Dixon is training her fire on the fat cats in municipal government. Instead of threatening to fire the workers who clean the streets, empty bed pans in hospitals, teach children, maintain government records, police the streets and fight fires, Dixon is trying to trim the upper middle layers of the municipal bureaucracy: managers whose duties are often as dubious as their salaries are generous.

At the moment when the city government almost certainly needs to make some painful cuts, middle managers who are often well-paid, well-educated and well-connected, are better situated to find new jobs in the private sector than sanitation workers or hospital workers.

Indeed, Dixon has gone to some lengths to reassure employee unions and social service advocates that her targets are not those who do the real work of city government. She's promised to spare front-line workers and union members, and, indeed, she's asked the City Council to suspend the "bumping rights provision" which could let some senior managers survive by replacing other workers more directly involved in providing public services.

Understandably, city union leaders remain skeptical of a plan to eliminate so many jobs. But Dixon's plan contains powerful ideas, not only for public officials but for public employee unions, for a Democratic Party caught between its honorable historic ties to the union movement and its need to appeal to middle-class voters who doubt they're getting real value for their tax dollars.

From private industry to the public sector, the hottest idea is "flattening out" bureaucracies, drastically trimming middle management and pushing decision-making down to front-line workers. It's an idea which should be congenial to unionists who have always sought more autonomy for workers on the shop floor and have never been fond of meddlesome front-line supervisors or overpaid middle-echelon paper-pushers. Indeed, the idea of worker self-management is central to the agreement between General Motors and the United Auto Workers to build the experimental Saturn car in a new kind of workplace where workers take personal responsibility for quality.

In the public sector, teacher unions and education officials are experimenting with "school-based management," where crucial decisions are made by teachers, not by administrators and bureaucrats. While experiments in such school systems as Rochester, N.Y., and Dade County, Fla., have had their share of difficulty, most observers agree that the new ways allow for more innovation and, ultimately, more excellence, than the old top-down management. And another important advantage is that school-based management should eventually eliminate many high-paid managers in the school systems' central offices -- bureaucrats who haven't been in classrooms since the blackboards turned green.

Democrats on the national scene should learn from Dixon and from the school reformers, and start talking about trimming government without going after the hardest working and lowest paid employees. Indeed, Democrats and their allies in the public employee unions should hammer out a new philosophy of government that would be embodied not only in union contracts but in a new social contract between government and its employees.

Accountability and excellence would be the watchwords of a new spirit in government that would value front-line workers more than political hacks and high-level managers. Workers would have a high degree of discretion in performing their jobs, provided they showed results. While middle management would cut back, many of the best would become planners, trainers or expediters. People entering public service would be guaranteed secure careers, not secure jobs, and, if the need for one kind of work diminished, employees would be trained to learn new skills for new jobs. As in Saturn -- and as in private industry in Japan and Western Europe -- unions would be partners in the process of "reinventing government." Collective bargaining would be a forum for addressing not only wages, hours and benefits, but how to improve the delivery of public services.

Significantly, Sharon Pratt Dixon won the Democratic mayoral primary with her pledge of leaner, smarter government, in spite of -- or possibly because of -- the fact that the electorate is dominated by government workers. Traditional Democrats and "swing voters" alike may respond favorably to a call for a government with much less fat, but more brains and muscle and heart and soul.

David Kusnet was a speech writer for Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and Jerry Wurf, the late president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

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