By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 31, 2007
In four D.C. neighborhoods, the public libraries sit shuttered behind ugly fences, each a symbol of the city that doesn't work.
In all too many city neighborhoods, the schools have bathrooms that don't work, fields littered with glass or a pool that hasn't been filled in years.
Despite decades of promises, Washington's schools, libraries and social services are seemingly impervious to reform. Money rolls in, and students drop out. The reputations of the schools and libraries have become so poisoned that high-quality people in those fields won't even think about coming to the city, which is how we ended up with a superintendent who was not even close to being first choice.
But hold on: The baseball stadium -- organized, designed and built by the city -- is on time and on budget. The new convention center similarly got done with an efficiency not associated with the D.C. government. There's even sudden movement to install artificial turf, lighting and other improvements on fields at five city high schools.
What those three examples have in common is Allen Lew, chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. He is running the stadium project, oversaw construction of the convention center and has just agreed to manage the high school sports effort.
While other D.C. agency heads whine about the difficulties of dealing with the city's legendarily plodding bureaucracy, Lew charges ahead.
He asked contractors at the stadium why they won't work for the city's school system. The answers, Lew says, went like this: " 'Well, they don't make decisions; you can't get an answer from them.' I asked my architect why he hasn't worked for the school system for 30 years, and he said, 'How do you expect people to bid on your work when you don't pay your bills?' "
The other day, when a community meeting about the new high school fields got bogged down in a long debate about different types of artificial turf, Lew told the audience, "I'm not going to come to another meeting to discuss this. Decide what you want now, and I will do it." This is not what you generally hear from D.C. officials.
What makes the difference between projects that get bogged down forever and those that get fast-tracked? Lew says it's all about bulling through the bureaucracy, hiring top-shelf contractors and paying bonuses for work done on time and on budget.
"People in government aren't used to this, but you pay for performance," he says. "No excuses, no weather delays."
But don't Lew's projects move faster because they are essential to big business interests that have direct access to politicians? "Sure, that's helpful," Lew says. "It's having an important constituency for the project." But he insists that the same management skills could slice through obstacles for less high-powered projects, as Mayor Adrian Fenty showed with his response to the fire at Eastern Market on Capitol Hill.
The flames were barely out when Fenty -- who goes to so many community meetings that he's a fair bet to show up at your next backyard barbecue -- gathered merchants and residents and cobbled together a deal to put up a temporary replacement building.
"Eastern Market is characteristic of where we want the entire government to go," City Administrator Dan Tangherlini says. "A lot of people in government are afraid of moving quickly and making mistakes and being called out. We're trying to impose a sense of urgency."
The city's library system director, Ginnie Cooper, arrived last year to find that four branches had been closed without any prospect of replacing them soon -- and that the system had reneged on its promise to open interim branches right away.
Cooper has managed to open two interim facilities, in Anacostia and Tenleytown, with two more coming next month. But there has been little movement on the permanent branches, and Cooper was frustrated by how long it took to get the interim libraries open.
"I came here prepared to change the culture of the organization," says Cooper, who previously ran the Brooklyn Public Library. "But things take much longer than I anticipated. The difficulty with almost every single system is daunting." She noted how difficult it is to obtain permits from the District's notorious Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
But Tangherlini says that blaming the bureaucracy isn't a valid excuse for inaction. "We don't want to hear that another agency is the impediment," he says. "That's not an acceptable answer."
Cooper agrees that she has to find ways around obstacles. "We'll learn a lot from the stadium construction," she says. She plans to adopt Lew's model for creating incentives for contractors to speed up their work.
"We lock horns with DCRA just like anybody else," Lew says. "They are often very taxing. But we keep pushing, even if we have to work nights and weekends."
Lew acknowledges rumors that Fenty will tap him to be construction czar for the city's decrepit schools.
That would be the ultimate test of whether he has succeeded more because the District aims to please big businesses or because he has found a way to make government move at the speed of the private sector.