Reforming bureaucracy is - well, bureaucratic
Reforming the city bureaucracy to improve service is a very bureaucratic process — or, rather, several very bureaucratic processes, judging by a City Council work last week.
The Sept. 12 session was convened to authorize work on four projects involving multiple bureaus proposed by city employees. The discussion, aided by a PowerPoint presentation, was filled with jargon, however, including the need to "scope out" the reforms, establish "bureau stakeholder groups," develop "procedures and protocols," and "formalize the council's guidance."
Identified as Major City Projects, they involve building permits, customer service, construction contracting and employee recruitment. As explained by Chief Administrative Officer Tom Rinehart and other top managers, there is little doubt the reforms are needed. Because different bureaus are overseen by different members of the council, they frequently do not work together efficiently on the same issues. As a result:
• The issuing of construction permits can be delayed for months because up to 17 groups from six different bureaus must review them. This is even true for projects prioritized by the council, such as building more affordable housing. Because much of the permitting
process is not conducted online, employees spend a lot of time walking copies of the permit applications around.
• There is no single phone number of people seeking city services to call. Because of this, many people call the wrong bureaus and council offices for assistance — and also call overworked 9-1-1 operators for non-emergency information.
• There is no centralized oversight of city construction projects, even though they have grown more than 200 percent over the past four years and are scheduled to increase even more in coming years.
• It currently takes an average of 140 days to fill a vacant city position after the opening has been posted. That compares to less than 100 days in most similar cities, prompting many qualified applicants to take other jobs before the local hiring process is completed. This is making it even harder to meet the council's equity goals.
"As Portland continues to grow, the city's approach to intrabureau projects must change to meet the expectations of Portlanders," Mayor Ted Wheeler said at the beginning of the session, calling for a "stronger project management approach" to work involving multiple bureaus.
According to Rinehart, because city managers oversee all the bureaus in most cities, they typically coordinate their work, usually assisted by project management offices. Respecting Portland's unique form of government that voters have repeatedly refused to change, Rinehart said he was not prepared to advocate the creation of such an office at this time. Instead, he said bureau managers had agreed that they could create multi-agency teams that would meet regularly to enact the reforms sought by the council.
One example is the Development Directors Group that has begun meeting monthly. It includes the directors of the six bureaus involved in the construction permitting process. One thing they've realized is that staffing levels vary greatly between the bureaus, meaning some complete their work faster than others — and some delays are caused primarily by the slowest review group.
Nevertheless, Rebecca Esau, the new director of the Bureau of Development Services, says progress is being made to approve permits more quickly.
Two themes recurred throughout the session. First, reforming the bureaucracy is a slow process. The council has been talking about creating a centralized 3-1-1 number to answer all non-emergency calls for city services for many years. A consultant was hired to recommend a program in 2014. There is still no start date.
And second, reforming the bureaucracy apparently means increasing the bureaucracy. Most of those who talked about their projects mentioned the need to hire additional staff to carry them out, including Assistant Human Resources Director Serilda Summers-McGee. She said her bureau needs more employees to recruit qualified candidates for job openings, especially within minority communities. According to the presentation, around 40 percent of the city's existing employees will be eligible to retire over the next few years.
The council members present for the session agreed the proposed projects are needed. A fifth project, coordinating requests for funding through the Build Portland infrastrcuture maintenance initiative approved in the current city budget, was discussed at an Aug. 29 work session.
Because such cooperation potentially threatens the historic independence of bureaus, Commissioner Nick Fish proposed the council sign a joint declaration committing them to work together. Wheeler and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly agreed. Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman were absent.
Rinehart said the council will be presented with detailed plans for carrying out the projects when they are finalized in coming months.