You know those scenes of the big-city mayor's office you see on television? A supplicant climbs to the top floor of City Hall, appeals to a stony-eyed secretary for a session with Mayor Important, then gets deposited on a stiff sofa for a long, fidgety wait. Finally the massive wooden door swings open, the supplicant crosses a cavernous stateroom and stands meekly before His Honor, who is sitting as serious and confident as a king 10 feet away in his plush high-back behind an acre of a desk. The nervous supplicant clears his throat and begins: "Excuse me, sir . . . "
Well, not in Washington. Not now. Not under Adrian M. Fenty (D). Here's the new reality:
It's lunchtime. Fenty whizzes into his "executive office" carrying Caribbean takeout in a plastic container. This "executive office" is a cubicle. As in, Dilbert.
The cubicle is surrounded by 32 cubicles with 32 government officials and at least 35 BlackBerrys (of which Fenty has three).
This is the now-famous "bullpen," an architectural idea for fast, efficient government that the young maverick mayor stole from New York's older maverick mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.
Fenty, 36, glides into his seat and unpacks the takeout on his desk, which holds . . . almost nothing. There's a phone, a computer (not turned on), a printer and a sign that says "The Buck Stops Here." No in-box, no out-box, no documents, no Robert's Rules of Order, no Rolodex, no bust of his idol John F. Kennedy, not even a pencil sharpener. Because there's no pencil.
Before the lid's off the takeout, a line to the mayor forms like ants to a lollipop.
The scheduler gets there first. She wants to know if Fenty can make an afternoon appointment on Capitol Hill. She presents his calendar, and Fenty flips through. Yes. Scheduler dismissed.
Next, the communications director. Where does Fenty want to film a TV promo for a D.C. tourism group? "Bring them in here," he commands, sticking a plastic fork into his plantains. Dismissed.
The deputy chief of staff wants input on a candidate applying to head an agency. "What's the word on the street?" Fenty asks. "People like him, but they don't think he can do the job," the deputy replies. Keep looking. Dismissed.
One after another, Fenty dispatches people with rapid-fire decisions. Until he gets to legislative chief JoAnne Ginsberg. Someone groans. "JoAnne always has the longest list," gripes one aide.
Today her meeting may run extra long. The D.C. Council is holding a hearing on Fenty's proposal to seize control of the public school system -- 140 schools, 55,000 students and 4,000 teachers. The issue promises to be a titanic controversy that holds not only the fate of Fenty's reputation but also the fate of the city. Fenty and Ginsberg need to put their heads together and brainstorm.
Finally, Ginsberg gets up after what seems an eternity in this administration. About five minutes.
Fenty takes a bite of chicken. Next?
An Egalitarian StrategyInstant. Efficient.
Fenty's stated goal is to overhaul government and create an egalitarian environment that speeds up communication and decision-making. So for one of his first acts, he got the city to pay $134,000 to tear down walls on the third floor of the stodgy John A. Wilson Building, the District's city hall. Most of the building is gilded artwork, marble columns, old-fashioned globe lights. Inside the bullpen, though, are flat-screen plasma TVs, track lighting and mirrored glass. The waiting area consists of four chairs squeezed into a corner.
The effect can be jarring to those used to a more traditional mayor's office. Especially if they're wearing a coat. Even the closets have been stripped out. Staff workers and guests pile jackets onto a coat rack or onto empty desks, an awkward sight, considering Fenty hosts fellow mayors and members of Congress.
Fenty is pleased with his bullpen: "The efficiency is light-years ahead of how the traditional executive office works, where the chief executive is cordoned off and removed from the rest of the workers. You don't engage people that way."
Whether the Fenty administration produces better results than the previous administration of Anthony A. Williams remains to be seen. The wonky Williams (D) was criticized for being remote and taking too long, while Fenty -- with aides in his face and BlackBerrys on his belt -- is a blur of input and action.
But some residents are saying that he's moving too fast to take over the schools and that his team failed to adequately clear some streets during last week's snowstorm. Advisers have fretted that Fenty picked a new police chief too abruptly. And reporters are griping that the mayor is calling news conferences -- 10 in the first 30 days -- for announcements that are not particularly newsworthy.
The bullpen "is more about the control he's trying to have," said parent activist Cherita Whiting, who opposes Fenty's school-takeover plan and refers to his office as the "bullpit."
"Everybody he's hired is a 'yes person,' " Whiting said. "There's not anyone to challenge the decisions he has made."
The question is: Must speed and efficiency ever give way to patience, deliberation and caution?
Jumping on the StoryIt's shortly after 6 p.m. when a problem hits the bullpen: A teacher at Wilson High School has been jumped by students. Fenty and his deputies are huddled in his cubicle, getting the details on one of the two 60-inch plasma TVs.
"Has a statement gone out about this?" Fenty asks. Spokeswoman Mafara Hobson rushes over to assure him it has. Fenty turns to Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso. "Maybe you should call the principal," he suggests. Reinoso whips out a cellphone.
City Administrator Dan Tangherlini begins to brief Fenty on the budget, but the mayor is still riveted to the TV like a kid in front of Saturday morning cartoons. The news anchor teases to a story about Fenty and schools chief Clifford B. Janey coming after a commercial break.
Reinoso closes his cell to report that the assaulted teacher is okay, but Fenty cuts him off: "Call Janey and tell him we had nothing to do with that story."
Reinoso begins to open his phone again, then pauses.
"Shouldn't we wait to hear what the story says first?" he asks.
The Experts' ViewMeddling. Micromanaging.
There are risks to creating such a fast-paced environment, and Fenty, a competitive triathlete whose staff is used to 12-hour days, needs to know when to slow down, management experts say.
Janet Crenshaw Smith, president of the Ivy Planning Group in Rockville, thinks the bullpen is a good idea because it "breaks down silos" among government agencies. On the flip side, she said, Fenty must be careful not to micromanage his staff.
Fenty, Smith speculated, must feed off input from others, "but that would drive a lot of people crazy. Even the most extroverted CEOs I know do not work that way."
Zia Khan, a principal at Katzenbach Partners in New York, said Fenty's style sounds like "air-traffic controller mode."
Employees "take cues from their leader," Khan said. "You're much more on display, and you have the chance to really reinforce your values and culture. But . . . if you need to think quietly and privately about major issues, it's kind of hard to do that."
Thus far, staff members in the bullpen profess to love their environment, huddling around one another's desks or using two small, doorless conference rooms. Memos are out; impromptu chats are in.
"In the time it would take to send five e-mails back and forth to talk about a situation, you can solve it with a short conversation," Ginsberg said.
There is some griping, but mostly about minor things. Although staff members are mostly in their 30s and early 40s, the dress code isn't Silicon Valley casual. Fenty, always in a suit, requires staff to look professional at all times. "I'm a jeans girl," lamented Hobson, 32, the stylish spokeswoman, who owns 15 pairs, mostly designer. She's wearing a gray pantsuit on a snowy day.
Tene Dolphin, Fenty's usually cheerful chief of staff, is the enforcer, shushing colleagues when they get too loud. She allows staffers to listen to D.C. political talk shows or council hearings on their computer headphones but asks them to keep one ear free, lest the mayor call.
Perhaps the biggest bugaboo: tiny trash cans the size of Thermoses, designed to encourage recycling.
"I thought there was candy in them," said Peter Nickles, Fenty's general counsel. He promptly violated bullpen law by sneaking in a large metal trash can.
Still, Nickles, the father figure at 68 who favors tweed three-piece suits, thumbs away on his BlackBerry and compares the bullpen to the way his staff prepared for trial in the private sector.
"We'd take over a conference room for six or eight weeks, and the trial team would spend time in there," he said. "Increasingly, in an e-mail age, we do not see each other or even talk about business or our private lives. It's good to know how each other is doing, if our families are okay. That creates a bond."
Tangherlini was a bullpen convert before joining Fenty. As chief financial officer of the D.C. police years ago, Tangherlini put his entire 50-person staff in one room after reading about the concept in the book "The Emperors of Chocolate," about competition between the Hershey and Mars companies.
"Hershey was the classic top-down power structure, and Mars was 50 people in a room in McLean," Tangherlini said. "And Mars is kicking Hershey's butt."
Constant BriefingsSome city officials say Fenty's bullpen is more style than substance. One sniped that much of the mayor's staff has additional office space elsewhere. So where's all of Fenty's paperwork? A peek into his file cabinets reveals little besides bags of peanuts and bottles of Vitamin Water.
Asked about his Spartan workspace, Fenty replied: "It would be the worst thing if I had stuff on my desk. My aides can file those things. Kennedy said you have to have advisers and the role of an executive is to make decisions. It's best if I spend my time making decisions or meeting with people, doing things only the mayor can do."
"I spend a lot of time visiting agencies, schools, community meetings," he said. "I view those things in the category of things only a mayor can do."
Over three days, Fenty did not appear to use his desk for writing or for reading. He logged onto his computer only once -- to watch a council hearing online. Neil Richardson, deputy chief of staff, said Fenty doesn't need to write things down because his memory is remarkable.
He describes working with Fenty as a series of "living conversations," during which he briefs the mayor on a topic repeatedly over time until Fenty arrives at a decision.
"Nothing they bring me am I hearing for the first time," Fenty explained. "In reality, it's probably more deliberate and careful than if my staff came in and briefed me all at once and I made a decision then, because this way I am part of the process as it develops."
In truth, Fenty has another office -- Williams's old suite. It sits mostly as Williams left it, waiting for the rare times Fenty needs privacy, such as for confidential meetings about personnel. The only decorations are two pictures of Fenty and his wife.
The study next door is filled with dozens of framed newspaper stories documenting Fenty's election triumph, pictures of him in triathlons and a glass bowl the council presented him.
Is this where he escapes for thinking time? Not likely. The mementos are strewed about haphazardly, as if dumped by someone rushing off to more important things.
So, the mayor is asked, when do you find time to be alone with your thoughts?
"That's when I run," Fenty replied. "It clears your mind."