Fairfax County is a place where residents receive two guides to summer fun--one from the county's Department of Recreation and another from the county's Park Authority. It's a place where government workers count on getting automatic raises. And its employees fill 700 job classifications, more than in any other Washington suburb.
A consultant once dubbed Fairfax a "belt and suspenders" government, referring to the bureaucracy's tendency to have more than one layer of workers performing the same functions.
All of that was supposed to change when County Executive Robert J. O'Neill Jr. arrived in the summer of 1997. Having been handed a broad mandate to reinvent Fairfax County's government by the 10-member Board of Supervisors, O'Neill was hailed as an "agent for change."
But nearly two years later, O'Neill has managed little reform in the county's 11,000-person bureaucracy. Some of his efforts have been blocked by political leaders responding to public pressure and complaint. Others have been met with wariness and even outright opposition by the county's longtime employees, who see change as a threat to their pocketbooks and their workloads.
O'Neill has had some success, such as merging the Department of Public Works and the Department of Environmental Services into what his supporters say is a leaner, more efficient agency. He also eliminated the practice of paying senior managers for compensatory time, and he has streamlined some internal procedures.
But even some of his advocates complain that he is moving at a glacial pace.
"He talked about innovation and how to do things differently," Supervisor Gerald E. Connolly (D-Providence) said, recalling O'Neill's first job interview. "It was clear to him that's what we wanted. I sense among us a growing impatience. Where are all those bold initiatives?"
Republican Supervisor Robert B. Dix Jr. (Hunter Mill), a frequent critic of O'Neill's, is more blunt.
"Look at the results," he said. "What was touted in making this hire was that this would be someone who would make Fairfax government more efficient and cost-effective. I haven't seen any evidence of that. To the contrary, we have done very little."
O'Neill defends the pace of his efforts, saying the wholesale changes supervisors want will not be successful if they are merely imposed from the fifth-floor suite of offices he occupies. So he works first to seek advice from employees and residents. He has appointed dozens of advisory task forces, on everything from the county's "mission statement" to "employee communications," to explore ideas for change.
Fairfax needs to change not because it has been performing poorly, he said, but because the world is changing. In the past, residents accepted a government that was open from 8 to 5. Now, in the era of a 24-hour Internet, he said, the county must meet a new set of expectations.
That may mean flexible hours for employees or new computer equipment to allow residents to pay their taxes or apply for a building permit round-the-clock. But such changes can't be made overnight or without consultation with county workers, he said.
"It isn't that things were bad before and you have to fix it," O'Neill said. "The idea ought to be reinforcing our ability to improve the service that we do provide."
Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) said O'Neill is doing what he needs to do, and at the right pace.
"Change is hard," she said. "It's a lot like gardening. You don't see the results immediately. You have to be willing to plant the seeds and let them grow."
O'Neill said his mission is to be a salesman: to convince county workers and residents that changing the way Fairfax does business is the right thing to do.
"You've got a dynamic where you have to build support, or it's not likely that any change will happen," he said.
Donald F. Kettl, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin and an expert in bureaucracies, agrees.
"These big battles over improving efficiencies end up reducing themselves to battles over power," he said. "You are not only doing something about efficiency, but you're also reshuffling the power. Any time you do that, you end up running afoul of the people who benefit from the current system."
O'Neill found himself in a power struggle a year ago, when he proposed merging the county's Park Authority, which manages parks and some recreation centers, with the county's Department of Recreation, which oversees youth sports and other recreational activities.
His proposal to combine the staffs of the departments under the Recreation Department was shot down by supervisors after parks advocates complained that the reorganization would shift the county's focus away from preserving open space.
Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) criticized O'Neill for not explaining why the change was worth the political cost.
"There weren't any savings, and he antagonized a significant political force for no reason," Frey said. "It's one thing to take on a significant political force if there is a demonstrable savings."
But O'Neill has been undeterred by that defeat.
This year, he launched a campaign for a "pay for performance" scheme that would reward workers who do exceptionally well.
He has moved slowly, appointing a task force of employees from all over the government. Their proposal: that Fairfax stop giving automatic cost-of-living raises and instead offer employees the chance for 3, 5 or 7 percent merit raises.
That proposal is unlikely to be implemented for months, if not years, because the board has referred the issue to two consultants for further study. Even so, workers are nervous.
"Employees are apprehensive," said Virginia Stanton, the chairman of the Employee Advisory Council, a group of county workers elected by their peers. "I don't want to call it paranoia; let's call it apprehensiveness about what's really on his mind."
Stanton said O'Neill's habit of attending Employee Advisory Council meetings is a welcome change from past county executives, who she said rarely took employee concerns seriously.
But some other employees said that O'Neill's openness doesn't change the fact that a new pay system linked to performance could be unfair.
One longtime worker, who asked not to be named because she said she fears retribution, said she and her colleagues think the county executive's frequent conversations with employees are merely part of a strategy to win them over to his way of thinking.
"To my knowledge, Fairfax County has been . . . held up as a model," she said. "What is broken here?"
Employees also recently forced O'Neill to abandon a measure that would have made it easier for him to change the county's job classifications without approval from supervisors. O'Neill said he wants to be able to simplify the system to make it more flexible and to respond to county needs.
The measure, he said, was an effort to keep routine tasks from wasting the board's time, but county workers disagreed. A public hearing on the idea scheduled for last month was put off at the last moment and rescheduled because supervisors wanted more time to review employees' concerns.
Kevin Kincaid, who represents the county's firefighters, said employees believed that O'Neill's proposal would have prevented them from lobbying the supervisors if they felt the classification changes were harmful to their interests.
"Employees have worked very, very hard to earn a seat at the table," Kincaid said.
O'Neill said the two sides have reached a compromise. He would notify the Employee Advisory Council in advance of proposed changes to the classification system. A public hearing on the changes has been rescheduled for today.
CAPTION: County Executive Robert J. O'Neill Jr. said changes in the way government runs won't work unless they take into account the views of workers and residents.
CAPTION: Robert J. O'Neill Jr. has been Fairfax County's top administrator for two years, overseeing 11,000 employees and a $1.97 billion budget.