Lent is known as the somber season. For Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the onset of Lent coincided perfectly with a real downer of a report on city government by The Public Strategies Group (PSG), which Landrieu hired to give him the down-and-dirty on just how dysfunctional City Hall has become.
So how dysfunctional is it?
Put it this way: Sackcloth and ashes feel like "Singin' in the Rain" after reading the PSG report. Landrieu called it "very sobering."
The report cited more than a dozen areas of official dysfunction — more than any other city PSG has seen. "The problems created by Katrina are well known, but they impacted a city government that was already suffering from incompetent leadership and widespread corruption," the report states.
The leading problem areas include "crisis management" (i.e., incessant crises that overwhelm any ability to focus on the big picture), a culture of corruption, poor management, a "hierarchical organization" that lacks clear lines of authority, low employee morale and performance, "woeful" technology systems, onerous red tape, a pathological lack of accountability, fragmentation of city services and weak customer service.
None of this is surprising, but Landrieu admits he was surprised by the degree of the city's pathology. "The relentless emergencies, constantly having to fix what's been broken for a long time, all surprise me," he said. "There is no more low-hanging fruit. ... This stuff is very, very deep and difficult."
Although the report has received widespread coverage for its negative portrait of city government, PSG also noted the city's strengths, including "vital, engaged civic groups" eager to work with City Hall, new leadership with a mandate for change and broad support citywide, lots of federal funds still flowing into town, and "a more positive racial climate than the city has experienced in a long time."
Those are the tools that Landrieu will need to make the transformational changes he wants to bring to City Hall. He has assigned individual staff members to tackle each problem area noted in the report, and he appears ready to take the kind of methodical approach necessary to make it all happen. "We will use this as a baseline for what we want to do," Landrieu says.
Make no mistake, this will be a long, difficult slog. City Hall's problems didn't linger for decades by accident. A lot of people are quite comfortable with the status quo. Landrieu will have to step on some toes to make the changes New Orleans needs, and he's going to take some punches in the process.
"Our aim is to recalibrate the whole mousetrap at City Hall," he says. "I really believe the people of New Orleans are smart. If you tell them the truth, they will rise to the occasion. We're all impatient, but I think people are behind the idea that we have to make dramatic change.
"Our challenge is not to get upset and defensive about all this. We're laying the foundation for whoever comes next. It's like putting bricks in the ground. Hopefully we'll get enough of them in the ground so that the folks who come after us have a fighting chance to really get good at things."
Most mayors aspire to leave physical monuments as their legacies — a new city hall, a park, a convention center. Landrieu aspires to leave a functioning city government. Based on the PSG report and knowing how change-averse many folks are at City Hall, erecting a new city hall building sounds a lot easier than changing the culture in the existing edifice.
Good luck, Mr. Mayor.