Washington looks more like capital city now

July 13, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON -- Practically everyone now agrees: the nation's capital city is coming back.

Some of the improvements are in services: Potholes are getting filled, trash picked up, dead trees replaced. The drug problem is abating and crime is sinking. Decrepit schools are getting repaired. Vendors are being paid, tax refunds issued.

Then there's downtown Washington, on a dramatic upswing. A new MCI sports arena, new restaurants and shops are bringing back life, even on weekday nights. A business-financed improvement district providing sanitation services and extra security accounted for 82 tons of trash pickup and contributed to a 32 percent drop in crime in the district's first six months. Tourist flows are up sharply.

And of course there's government: Three years ago the city faced a yawning $335 million deficit; now it's solidly in the black. Major credit goes to a financial control board, imposed by the Republican Congress, which restored integrity and sound practices to a government Mayor Marion Barry and his cronies had used for spoils and let descend into horrific mismanagement.

Post-Barry era

Mr. Barry, stripped of most of his powers and now mostly a figurehead, has announced he won't run again this fall. A civil rights crusader in his early career, Mr. Barry showed real administrative skill in his first years as mayor. But he increasingly played the race card -- suggesting he could stick it to whites better than any other black leader. Four years ago he was returned to office even after conviction for cocaine use.

Mr. Barry's rule set up the capital city of the free world as an example of cynically corrupt black leadership. And abuse begets abuse: Again and again across America, one could hear Mr. Barry's misrule used to disparage all black leadership, a rationale for blatant white racism. Less noticed because their cities get less publicity than Washington, a fine new generation of highly competent black mayors was rising in cities across the country.

The exciting Washington development now, though, isn't Mr. Barry; it's how leadership -- and resource-rich Washington, blacks and whites working together, is making such a strong comeback.

Anthony Williams, a graduate of Yale, Harvard Law and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, became Washington's chief financial officer (appointed, ironically, by Barry, who thought Mr. Williams would help him avoid control board discipline).

Mr. Williams discovered a morass of contracts unprocessed, money unspent, tax returns shoved in boxes and left in back rooms unprocessed. He forced major reforms, department by department. Now Mr. Williams is running for mayor; if elected (which is no sure bet) he'd be Mr. Barry's polar opposite -- a no-nonsense black leader, given to self-effacing modesty, with a strong suit of highly professional management.

Last January the control board appointed Camille Cates Barnett -- a seasoned Texas municipal manager and national leader in the government reinvention movement -- as chief management officer of the district. Ms. Barnett has moved to instill a new

sense of confidence and mission in long-demoralized city departments. Her big goals are for customer service, performance management and engaging citizens in government decisions.

Civic report card

In fact, a citizen score card project -- frequently reported measurements of just how the city bureaucracy's performing on a dozen or so especially critical services -- is soon to be launched.

Ms. Barnett's role symbolizes another switch from Mr. Barry's highly personalized, one-man rule. Numerous women are now in key roles -- and not just Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's nonvoting delegate to Congress.

School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, for example, is making heads roll in a sluggish bureaucracy that hasn't even been able to produce a clear count on how many children it has enrolled. Ms. Ackerman won't take excuses for incompetence. She's insisting on significant gains in student performance.

Constance Newman, a top Smithsonian official, has been a leading control board member. And the new control board chair, replacing Andrew Brimmer, its somewhat autocratic but very effective first chief, will be Alice Rivlin, a respected scholar-manager who has headed both the congressional and presidential budget offices.

At last some of America's top talent -- always present in Washington, but rarely recruited for the city itself -- is being tapped. End goal of the process, Ms. Rivlin stresses, must be a return to full home rule.

First, though, some big pockets of deep trouble need to be addressed -- huge backlogs of unresolved police disciplinary cases, for example. And there are still a number of wildly deficient computer systems.

What's refreshing is how rapidly management attitudes are shifting. District government managers in past years were "oppressed and reactive, close to victimization," notes Gail Christopher, co-chairman of the Washington-based Alliance for Redesigning Government.

Healing a government

But it was radically different when 100 department heads and senior officials met June 29 for a strategic planning retreat, notes Ms. Christopher: "They talked of healing a fractured structure of government. They knew there are no fast fixes. But their talk was all about integrity, results. There was esprit de corps, high commitment to quality service and citizen engagement. Finally, our capital city has a government of hope."

Neal R. Peirce is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/13/98

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