Next Monday, September 26, Mayor McGinn will present a proposed 2012 budget in Full Council. It’s important to remember that the Mayor and Council have already endorsed a budget for 2012 a year ago (the City is on a 2-year budget cycle), but the Mayor will propose adjustments to meet changed financial and economic circumstances. Traditionally, these midterm adjustments have been relatively modest.
They’ll have to be more significant in 2012, as circumstances are not good. We have to craft a revised budget in light of the persistent malaise in the national economy, the apparent willingness of Congressional Republicans to run the economy into the ground for political advantage, and the dire situation of our state budget deficit. I expect that the proposed budget will contain additional reductions to departmental budgets and few new initiatives in programs or services.
However, this is not the time for simply hunkering down, tightening our belt even further, and proceeding with business as usual. Tough times call for creative new solutions and a willingness to take a risk and do things differently. Last year Council initiated a reinvention of our community centers in the wake of drastic cuts in hours and services proposed in the 2011 budget. We have completed that process and will ratify the new approach to community center operations in this year’s budget – an approach that focuses on lean management and matching operations to demand and need in our neighborhoods.
Community centers are not the only thing meriting comprehensive analysis and potential restructuring. The Department of Neighborhoods has long suffered deep budget cuts without a fundamental rethinking of how best to preserve its programs and services. Likewise, SDOT has fallen behind in its maintenance and operations targets, necessitating new revenues just to keep our roads and bridges in satisfactory condition.
Efficiencies are necessary, but not sufficient. Most departments are already stripped close to the bone; additional cuts without systematic rethinking will seriously harm their ability to deliver basic goods and services. Libraries closed for a week in order to avoid having to close branches. Many city employees have taken mandatory furloughs. These are not financially sustainable answers.
I will evaluate the mayor’s budget through a lens of preparing for a future where leanness is the new normal. That means focusing on outcomes, restructuring the way we do business, and matching management reform with flexibility and a continuous improvement model with oversight to make sure it works.
That’s not just jargon: it’s a demand for hard work and real management from the top on down. It may not be glamorous to reinvent the way we do business, but it is the only way we are going to be able to strengthen our community and build the confidence in the electorate that we will need to convince them when we ask for new resources. They will be rightly skeptical if we cannot demonstrate that we are making government work in this environment in which everyone is feeling the pinch.
So, Mayor McGinn, this is what I would like to see:
- A continued commitment to core services, like public safety, human services, and neighborhoods.
- A plan to overhaul the Department of Transportation and its budget, management, and accountability procedures.
- A reinvention strategy for the Department of Neighborhoods.
- Extending the community centers reinvention into other areas of the Parks Department.
- A strategy for overhauling the City’s hundreds of contracts for human services to ensure that we are targeting for outcomes, not just renewing existing arrangements – along the lines of outcomes measurements incorporated into the Family and Education Levy proposal.
- A clear explanation of how we are going to deliver on the neighborhood policing plan when we cannot fund the number of officers envisaged in the original approach.
- An investment in economic development that will bring new revenues and create new jobs.
Those are tall orders, and I don’t expect a package tied up with a bow that solves them. In fact, I’m looking for a set of strategies – like the community centers reinvention process – or a willingness to embark on them that involves the public and the Council as partners in pivoting over the next year to a new Seattle governmental model. We will all be called on for creativity, analytic thoughtfulness, and a certain amount of painful work. That’s what the Mayor should be telling us to do in 2012.