AFTER winning her historic third term as mayor of the nation’s capital and chief executive officer of the DC government, Muriel Bowser started throwing around terms like “transformation.” She is supposed to have a “big ideas” summit Dec. 3 (originally scheduled for Nov. 19).
If Bowser is serious about a radical change of course, which I rather doubt, the most transformational thing she can do is to propose a complete renovation of the DC government. While the District has a multibillion-dollar corporate budget these days, it essentially has the same infrastructure and delivery model it has had since gaining quasi-independence from Congress back in the mid-1970s.
The local government may seem like a quaint and seemingly functional old house. The pipes are rusted or corroded, however. The floorboards are rotting; the window frames are crumbling. There is a serious termite problem.
In some cases, additional rooms have been slapped onto the structure — one at the front, another at the back, something on the roof. The house has been rendered a kind of architectural hydra-head. You’ve seen something like it and perhaps cited it as an example of what not to do when you get the money to fix up your place.
Bowser and others have placed primary blame for the current ramshackle state of affairs on the pandemic and the federal government. She has gotten points from residents for her response to the unprecedented crisis caused by the coronavirus; for how she dealt with the buffoon who once occupied the White House; and for her handling of the uprising over racial injustice. Some political observers have asserted that were it not for that trifecta, Bowser might not have been reelected.
Truth be told, even before the 2020 arrival of COVID-19, the District was showing indisputable signs of deterioration, such as significant retail and office vacancies downtown. There was and remains a glaring need for re-creation — far beyond introducing a stream of human service programs and a smattering of paltry business grants.
In three years, we will have completed the first quarter of the 21st century. The DC government looks, feels and acts like a 20th-century relic.
That fact became clear to me during a recent visit to the city’s vital records office at 899 North Capitol St. NE. Standing on the sidewalk and looking into the square of buildings, I was taken back to the late 1990s and early aughts; it was once a bustling government center. Now, it’s an unquestionable has-been — much like Union Station, flaunting an eyesore exterior and a threadbare interior. There are plans by federal and private-sector leaders to do something about the historic transportation hub. Can that desire to do better spin off to DC?
“We have to go deep into the reality of what’s working and what’s not working,” said one of several management experts who spoke with me but requested their names be withheld. “Many times, government [officials want] to have reality conversations within the context of politics.”
But reality and politics don’t always share the same paradigm. That is to say, what’s needed isn’t always politically popular. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.
Bowser certainly has entered the transformation/big-ideas conversation through a political portal: her transition. She has brought in several people — former mayors Anthony Williams and Adrian Fenty, former city administrator Robert Bobb and former city planner Andy Altman, for example — who know a thing or three about government restoration and renovation, but sources told me it appears they are helping Bowser mostly by vetting potential cabinet-level appointees.
That assignment seems a waste of their expansive talent and expertise.
Don’t get me wrong, I have preached multiple times about the questionable quality of Bowser’s appointees. So, I agree fresh blood and dynamic personnel to manage the city’s massive and aging grid of government agencies is crucial. We need only consider as proof:
The damning recent report about DC’s public housing authority.
The disastrous and dangerous conditions under which working-class residents of River East at Grandview condominium in Southeast (a development subsidized in part by the DC Department of Housing and Community Development) have been forced to live.
The city’s mediocre education system — even with an expensive charter school program.
Nevertheless, transformation has to be more than a new group of individuals playing musical chairs to the sounds of a Chuck Brown go-go arrangement.
That is to say, making operational improvements and getting them to stick requires a comprehensive approach. Platitudes aren’t enough.
To quote the management expert: “The question has to include, ‘What are the systems and tools you need?’”
That question came to mind when a relative of mine replayed her recent experience at one of the Department of Motor Vehicles’ service centers. Her nondriver’s identification expired during the pandemic. She went to renew it. She was asked for an original birth certificate. I was baffled. When she received her initial identification in 2016, she presented that document; nothing had changed in the interim.
Back then, the DMV clerk scanned her certificate into the government system. “What happened to it?,” I asked. And couldn’t the DMV connect with DC Health’s Vital Records Division to confirm the birth, which had occurred in DC?
Curious, I asked these questions of Lucinda Babers, deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure. She pointed to federal regulations as the culprit. Missing my point, she then boasted that 92% of DC residents provided the requested birth certificate.
A copy of a birth certificate is $23 if you ask for it in person. Using one of the online providers listed on the agency’s website could cost another $15.95.
The federal government may be a hindrance. But the District is also responsible for its own abysmal performance.
Consider for example, the city does not have an integrated computer system key agencies can use to speak to each other, sharing important data while making it easier for District residents to interact with their government. That kind of network could also improve the government’s interaction with troubled families and individuals who simultaneously may be clients of the Department of Human Services, the DC Housing Authority, the Department of Behavioral Health, and the Child and Family Services Agency.
Someone just yelled privacy.
Another expert responded to that likely concern: “Protocols can be put in place. That should never be an impediment for making these systems talk to each other.”
Setting up an integrated system certainly could provide evidence for eliminating the all-too-many redundancies on display in the DC government. Often, these are perpetuated by political maneuvering — designed to placate one or more special-interest groups rather than to advance a broader mission of improving the quality of life for all residents.
Ironically, the person leading the city’s office of technology is serving as the policy director for Bowser’s transition team. Lindsey Parker also is the assistant city administrator.
Did I just mention redundancies?
The questions that Bowser should ask, and answer, are straightforward: “What can the government provide, what can’t the government provide, and what should it provide?” said another municipal expert. “A government cannot be all things to all people.”
Why does the District need a Housing Finance Agency and a Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD)? Why does it need a rent administrator within DHCD and an Office of the Tenant Advocate?
Why does it have a separate Department of Health and a Department of Health Care Finance? Why does it need an Office of the DC Auditor, an Office of the Inspector General and a DC Board of Ethics and Government Accountability — all operating separately?
Could residents have a better connection to city services by co-locating certain offices in neighborhood libraries or recreation centers?
Oh, let me not forget this one: Should the District seriously consider a moratorium on charter schools while perfecting a neighborhood-based, matter-of-right, equitable public education system?
The conversation that is needed can’t be completed in the mere 50-something days leading up to Bowser’s swearing-in ceremony. Much as a property owner might consider securing a design team for a complex home renovation, she may want to establish a diverse commission or task force that would study the current government and recommend changes. Some of these could be consistent with the statehood model for Douglass Commonwealth, including that constitution that has been lying around collecting dust.
Now that would be transformational — not just performative.
A version of this article was first published at TheDCLine.org