Some mid-level managers in District agencies are angry, certain that Mayor Anthony A. Williams wants to make them scapegoats for a generation of D.C. government inefficiency, excess spending and failure to deliver basic services.
Others see something more sinister in the mayor's plan to reclassify about 900 managers so that they could be fired without explanation if they're found to be doing a poor job. They note that hundreds of the managers who could lose their jobs are black women--many of them single mothers--and say Williams's plan could increase racial tension and devastate some families in the majority-black city.
Then there are the believers, who are relieved that Williams is moving decisively to oust incompetent, unmotivated managers they say have undermined the city's work force for years. They welcome the increased scrutiny the mayor has promised.
In D.C. government offices across the city, Williams's plan to carve into the bureaucratic legacy of former mayor Marion Barry has hit like a shock wave, viewed through sentiments that range from betrayal to suspicion to hope.
"We are incensed over this issue. My career is being threatened and this brings me stress and anxiety," said one manager who has worked in the Department of Human Services for 24 years and, like other critics of Williams's plan, asked not to be identified. "We're mad as hell. We're trained professionals, and we all should not be lumped together as 'bad apples.' We're not sure the mayor is concerned about us as human beings; we think he's more interested in numbers."
Another manager, who is in the Department of Public Works, said many city workers have been braced for mass firings, noting that when Williams was the District's chief financial officer he ousted 165 government employees.
"It has a chilling, paralyzing effect on us," the manager said. "We've always been suspect of the mayor, and now we know why."
But Brenda Perkins, a manager in the Department of Human Services for 15 years, views the Williams plan as a challenge to do better work, adding that the mayor's critics in her agency simply refuse to embrace change.
"I think people are afraid of the unknown," Perkins said. "Not all change is bad, and the people who are committed to doing a good job have nothing to be concerned about. I think this will improve the performance of managers and, as a result, we will have a more effective and efficient work force and improved service delivery."
Among managers whose jobs are on the line, Williams's initiative also has spotlighted conflicting notions of just what D.C. government should be. In his 16 years as mayor, Barry inflated the city's payroll in part to provide economic opportunities to minorities. Williams, Barry's successor, believes that government's role should be more limited and that a streamlined operation delivering quality services will fuel economic growth--and opportunities for minorities--in the private sector.
The venomous reaction to Williams's plan by many mid-level managers is an indication that Barry's view of government--and his penchant for focusing on matters of race on certain issues--is alive and well in D.C. government.
"People are very afraid that black women will be fired," said one manager, referring to Williams's cuts as chief financial officer and the perception among some city employees that the mayor has pushed black administrators out the door and replaced them with whites. "The perception is that white men will be hired, and black women will be fired."
"We're women, we're women of color and heads of households," said another D.C. manager. "Because we're black women, we're expendable. We're just average citizens who are trying to teach our children the value of a dollar and that hard work pays off, and what do we get in return? We get kicked to the curb."
Privately, aides to Williams reject such criticism as race-baiting rhetoric that deflects attention from what they believe should be D.C. government's primary goal: improving services to residents. Publicly, the mayor says only that he is committed to a diverse work force and that the bottom line is quality.
"We need to look at our overall goal, and that is: We have a highly productive, capable work force," he said. "And I'd like to believe that we're not going to have all these draconian cuts because we're going to instill in people the confidence and resources to do a better job."
Under Williams's plan, managers in public works, human services, police, motor vehicles and other departments would be given raises to compensate them for the loss of their job protection under civil service laws. Those who refuse to participate would be demoted; those who accept the raises would be subject to increased scrutiny of their work--and fired if Williams's administration deems it unsatisfactory.
Williams has said that more than anything else he will do in office, the mid-level manager program--along with his efforts to force D.C. agencies to compete with the private sector for city contracts--will fundamentally change the way the 33,000-employee D.C. government does business.
The mayor's plan is allowed under a 1997 personnel law passed by the D.C. Council; the council is likely to vote on the pay raise portion of the plan next month.
Williams has told mid-level managers little about the details of his plan, and anxiety among some managers has led them to consider filing a class-action lawsuit to try to stop the initiative. Others are updating their resumes, expecting to be fired any day.
Jearline F. Williams, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, got so many questions about the plan that she sent a memo to supervisors in her agency saying that "we have been advised by various sources that there is no legal authority at this time to delay implementation."
One DHS manager questioned how the mayor and his staff would evaluate managers to determine who should be removed and said that workers who believe they will be fired might beat them to the punch and quit.
"We have a number of real concerns," said the manager, who has been with D.C. government for 29 years. "I've spoken with 100 people who are upset by this. Resumes are going out, and people are talking about leaving. I may jump ship myself.
"The perception is that we're all incompetent, but there are plenty of good, solid, hard-working people in this government who are delivering services to people in the District every day," the DHS manager added. "We are overworked and understaffed, and this is another slap in the face."
A 20-year DHS manager said that Williams "has to understand the ripple effect that each action causes to people who work for the District."
Williams said managers who are doing good work--and those who could, with some training, improve--will remain valued parts of the D.C. bureaucracy.
"What people will find is that we're going to be fair to our workers, that this is part of a comprehensive effort to support our workers and give them training and better working conditions," the mayor said. "We're going to have an objective basis for evaluation. In the event someone isn't performing and action is taken, it will be based on objective criteria, not whether I like someone or not."
That sounds just fine to some managers.
"If you're doing your job, this plan should not be a problem," said Karen Benefield, a manager in the traffic services bureau of the Department of Public Works who has worked in D.C. government for 31 years. "All managers should be responsible and held accountable."
"I am not afraid of being evaluated," said Peggi Graves, a DHS manager for 15 years. "I do my job. Why should I have anything to fear?"