Thad Williamson is a professor, writer and civic activist teaching at the University of Richmond. His work focuses on the connection between theories of democracy and social justice and the practice of public policy and public administration.

Making Richmond City Government Work Better

Making Richmond City Government Work Better

The core purposes of Richmond city government are to provide and maintain the infrastructure required to sustain a modern city, provide educational and economic opportunities for residents, secure public safety, and sustain and improve neighborhood quality of life. 

None of this work can get done without a consistently responsive and reliable city government. Yet Richmond residents over the years have been consistently frustrated by many aspects of core city services. It’s frustrating when seemingly small things like uncut grass and potholes go unaddressed for months and months, and it’s maddening when it takes longer to get a permit than it does to actually complete a project.

I have seen the other side of the process—life as an employee inside City Hall. To consistently improve outcomes for residents—getting the grass cut and the streetlights fixed—will require improving how the City functions as an organization.

This is a complex topic, one that resists glittering generalizations and canned answers. It’s not simply a matter of asking agencies to be more efficient, and it’s not simply about expanding funding in under-resourced agencies. Nor is it simply about invoking buzzwords like “accountability” or “performance metrics.” 

Instead, what’s needed is a strategic approach based on detailed knowledge of the organization, both as it appears to employees and as it appears to residents.

This is hard work, but I am prepared to articulate some bold goals and a pathway forward. I start with five key steps. (Each of these statements are worthy of further elaboration, which I will provide in subsequent posts.)

1.     The City of Richmond will never meet the standard of consistently providing first-class services to residents if it cannot attract, retain, and advance first-class quality employees.  

2.     The City should be able to point to each employee and explain why their job is important - if it’s not important, it shouldn’t exist. The City of Richmond needs a strategic plan shared with all agencies that lays out clear goals and expectations. 

3.     City Council should be a full partner in the development and dissemination of that strategic plan, and should have opportunities to articulate priorities and pose questions on a regular basis throughout the year, not just during budget season. 

4.     The Administration has a responsibility to focus greater attention on supporting the new Performance Management Office, charged with assessing and evaluating not only agency performance but structural issues within city government, and City Council has the right and responsibility to demand frequent updates on its work and progress.

5.     The Administration and City Council simply must focus on five priority areas that are chronically under-staffed and in some cases under-performing: Human Resources, Procurement Services, the permitting unit within Planning and Development Review, Public Works, and the new Department of Citizen Service and Response. The performance and effectiveness of HR and Procurement impact government as a whole; adequate staffing of permitting and public works is critical to processing permits in a reasonable time frame and making sure common eyesores are attended to promptly; adequately staffing the Department of Citizen Service and Response is crucial to making the RVA 311 citizen request system work in a way that builds the community’s confidence.

Because of my previous roles, I am familiar with the functions, goals, and the challenges facing each City agency. At the same time, as a citizen I am familiar with the frustration Richmonders commonly experience when services are not delivered in a timely way and explanations are difficult to come by. 

As a City Council member, I will be a driving force for ongoing organizational reform and improvement, from day one—both in the big picture and in the critical details. That’s what the City of Richmond needs and what voters in the Fifth District deserve.

Stay tuned for further elaboration of these ideas in the weeks to come. 

Authorized by Thad Williamson for Richmond City Council

 

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