How Philadelphia Is 'Reinventing Government'


June 01, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Philadelphia. -- If you're wondering what the talk of ''reinventing government'' in America's states and cities is all about, check out this city's recreation department and especially its commissioner of the last 16 months, Michael DiBerardinis.

Mr. DiBerardinis was a community activist and organizer for 15 years in Philadelphia's gritty inner-city Kensington and Fishtown neighborhoods before being tapped by incoming Mayor Edward Rendell to take over a thoroughly battered city ''rec department.''

Hit by Philadelphia's devastating budget cutbacks, the department had seen its worker rolls slump from 1,200 in 1983 to 500 in 1992. Many of the community recreation centers around the city were in ramshackle condition, some close to abandonment. Only a few of the swimming pools -- safety valve for kids through long, hot summers in poor neighborhoods -- were getting opened early in the summer or at all.

To make things worse, the last rec commissioner, Delores Andy, had distinguished herself chiefly for working up so much weekend and holiday overtime that she demanded a $19,537 kiss-off payment when Mayor Rendell dumped her.

Mr. DiBerardinis was his pick because, the mayor said, he wanted someone to fight for the department ''like no one else ever fought for it before.''

The selection looked ideal. Mr. DiBerardinis is a bundle of energy who'd picked up a fighting spirit from a militant trade-unionist father, a social conscience from the Jesuits at St. Joseph's University, and first-hand knowledge of the city from years of working with kids in tough neighborhoods and from running (albeit unsuccessfully) for political offices.

But energy, conscience and knowing the territory won't, alone, cut the mustard in the resource-scarce '90s. There's a critical role for the so-called ''reinvention'' principles in today's governments -- being entrepreneurial, treating citizens like valued customers, involving employees and citizens in setting an organization's mission and priorities, delegating authority and then holding managers accountable for results.

One of Mr. DiBerardinis' first moves was to energize the rec department's largely dormant network of advisory committees -- parents, volunteer coaches and neighbors -- at each of the recreation centers. A manual outlining the department's responsibility to the advisory committees, and theirs to the department, was written by a team of department officials and local committee members: It was a strategy, says the commissioner, ''to involve the citizenry in the department in a real direct way, mirrored in how we deal with our employees as well.''

The scandal of closed and late-opening swimming pools, caused both by the uncaring management of past years and fund shortages, was high on Mr. DiBerardinis' list. He communicated the urgency of prompt openings to all his managers; then he launched a campaign for corporate sponsorship and support. Advisory committees held fund-raisers; the Philadelphia Daily News ran coupons for citizens to send in contributions.

In 1991, not a single pool was open by July 1 and many never opened at all; in 1992, all but two of the system's 80 pools opened promptly in June.

The department's slogan had been ''Life, Enjoy It.'' ''Kind of stupid for these times,'' Mr. DiBerardinis notes. He and his colleagues went to work on a new mission statement, focused around active involvement of neighborhood residents and organizations and taking on social issues important to young people. A new and improved slogan surfaced -- ''Building Youth, Building Neighborhoods.''

Recreation department staff and advisory councils started to get intensive training -- in how to recruit volunteers, how to raise money, how to galvanize community support. Mr. DiBerardinis instructed all his managers to spend more time in the field, staying close to problems. Rank-and-file workers were involved in internal committees focused on problems that used to be the sole purview of management. A retreat centered around five issues employees had said were important to them.

The new esprit de corps in his recreation department is clearly what Mayor Rendell would like to achieve across the entire lumbering city bureaucracy he now heads. The mayor last October did win a historic agreement with his municipal unions to pare costs and keep the city moving on a five-year fiscal plan to pull it back from the brink of bankruptcy.

But now Mr. Rendell and his department heads need ways to reach out to and motivate city workers, even as the workers are obliged to accept the idea of fewer raises, fewer holidays and fewer work rules. In some parts of Philadelphia government, such as the scandal-ridden and inefficient Philadelphia Housing Authority, hope of constructive change still seems light-years away. Reform is slow too in the deeply troubled human-services department.

But in other departments, new lights of hope and reform are being lit, just as in Mr. DiBerardinis' recreation department. Philadelphia is also getting ready to launch a big strategic planning effort to move beyond fiscal crisis and focus on its big economic and social challenges.

The new ''reinvention'' principles don't get spread across whole governments quickly or easily; too often hidebound managers, civil service or union contract work rules stand in the way. But in times of doom and gloom about whether government can work at all, the reinvention experiments are beacons of new possibilities. We could use a lot more of them.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.