Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Kenneth Burke, or someone he quoted, used to say that bureacracy is the worst form of tyranny because it's the rule of no one. A monarch can be deposed, elected legislators can be replaced, but bureaucracies are designed to resist change and live forever.

We saw bureaucracy at work in this Matier and Ross report yesterday.

The basic story is:

1) Mayor sees a filthy public park.
2) Mayor tells Park and Rec to fire the gardener assigned to that park.
3) Park and Rec tells Mayor the gardener can’t be fired.
4) Park and Rec tells Mayor many reasons why parks can’t be better maintained
5) Other public official expresses frustration.
6) Mayor asks for funky workaround to address the park the Mayor complained about.
7) Nothing more will be done.

The most pathetic part of the story is Mayor Newsom’s delusion that he could get a city gardener fired.

The other pathetic aspect of this story is that nothing will be done.

Getting a civil service department to perform effectively is not easy. All levels of employees need leadership from above. Civil service selects against people with leadership skills.

It’s easy to pass bullshit nanny laws. It’s not easy to reform a city department.

Managing bureaucracies is like disciplining strong-willed toddlers. It’s difficult but necessary. Failure to do so results in disaster.

Bureaucratic response is pathetically predictable: lack of resources, restrictive regulations, unrealistic expectations.

Rec and Park officials say they're scrambling to come up with a solution, but that they keep hitting a wall of bureaucratic regulations.

They wanted to hire a couple of extra workers to staff the park in the late afternoon and evenings. But under city rules, hiring the workers meant hiring a supervisor as well, which they can't afford.

As for the maintenance worker the mayor may or may not have wanted fired, the department says it has no grounds to get rid of him. And even if his bosses did want to can him, the city's complicated disciplinary process would make it unlikely. (Not to mention that the custodian was on his regular day off when Newsom showed up, according to a co-worker.)

It’s like, the head of Rec and Park has never sat down with the mayor to hammer out performance criteria, i.e., what level of service CAN we expect from Park and Rec given the level of resources and regulations.

Without such criteria, the Mayor continues to flail in the dark. Creating such criteria is basic to any manager’s job. Gavin really deserves the title, Boy Mayor.

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Anonymous said...

Not to disagree with your comments on city bureauracy but the horrible mess may not be all the fault of the worker. I worked at SF General and know that our bathroom was cleaned every day. Less than five minutes later it looked totally trashed because the public didn't have the manners of a hog in mud - kotex pads thrown on the floor, ditto paper towels, uneaten food, plastic bags (!!!), etc. If you had homeless to the mix, it's a lethal brew. Still, the points that you made about standards, etc, are valid ones.

nancy (namastenancyathotmaildotcom)

sfwillie said...

I agree. Sometimes there are bad workers, but most problems can be traced to poor supervision/management.

Thanks for commenting.

BTW: I have in mind to write something about "namaste."

sfmike said...

Good one. When I was out at the Golden Gate Park golf course yesterday, talking to the pleasant teenager running the pro shop and the barbeque food concession (it's really good, by the way), I asked him about the Rec & Park workers and if they were as terrible as the ones out at Lincoln Golf Course.

"There's one guy who's great and who works his ass off when he's here, but the rest don't bother showing up or don't do anything when they are here."

As you noted, that's the fault of bad management, turning not-very-good workers into just plain terrible ones.