Working toward a Sustainable Future for San Francisco







San Francisco Government Reform Is Long Overdue

by Beryl Magilavy

For decades, in developed countries around the world, high taxes combined with shoddy public services created a pervasive public feeling of anger and disillusionment with government. Prodded by elected officials, public sector managers have created new ways of working that vastly improve the delivery of public services. In the last twenty years, there has been a growing body of successful government work in the areas of management and performance improvement, information technology and e-government, civil service reform and optimization of human resources, procurement and contracting, and minimizing the environmental impact of government operations. The federal government, a latecomer to the game in 1993, has made tremendous progress with a huge bureaucracy as resistant to change as any.

Where is San Francisco in this global effort to serve the public better? Nowhere. In all these areas, it is outperformed by nearly every large city in the country. One reason for this is that in San Francisco, overall responsibility for the effective delivery of city services is in nobody’s job description. Another is that the techniques of modern municipal management threaten the practice of political patronage and in a one-party town, no one wants to rock this boat. Finally, the effect of this patronage system has been to deprive the city of the management expertise it needs to perform even to an average level among US cities, to say nothing of the superior performance that would be justified by the size of its revenue base and the willingness of its public to support an activist public sector.

In other large cities, there is a strategic management planning function in the executive branch that is responsible for objectively measuring the performance of city services and making changes in policies and programs to better meet public goals and to prepare for projected challenges. People in this agency work with department heads, who are responsible for ensuring that the right programs are developed and evaluated, that the city staff reporting to them are properly trained and compensated, that they work as a team to evenhandedly enforce laws on the books and to serve the needs of the public, and that they not only have constant feedback as to the progress of their efforts, but make that information available to the public.

A look at the organization of the City and County of San Francisco illustrates one reason this does not happen in San Francisco. What other large organization has ever operated with such a structure? How, one might ask, are performance data collection systems or improved management techniques set up in all these parallel agencies? The answer is, They aren’t. How do these agencies avoid overlap, collaborate and share resources? They don’t. Who does municipal strategic planning, ensures government accountability and does oversight evaluation of departmental efforts to serve the public—such as whether the fire department spends too much on fire response to the detriment of fire prevention? Nobody.



Supervisor Gavin Newsom chairs a working group made up of a few city agencies whose directors have volunteered to work toward systematically applying modern management techniques to their operations. This is a job for an administrator, not a legislator, but there is no one in the executive branch who considers it his or her role.

Recently, the Recreation and Park Department announced the availability for public comment of its draft strategic plan for bringing the city’s parks and recreation facilities back up to an acceptable level. Such planning is almost never performed by city agencies. The plan resulted from a Newsom-and-citizen-sponsored initiative passed in 1999, which required strategic planning as part of a bond measure. The new Municipal Transportation Agency, uniquely among city agencies, now publishes a broad range of performance measures and plans to achieve specific milestones for improvement on a published timeline. This, too, was the result of a citizen initiative process. The city’s sustainability plan, created at the impetus of private citizens and passed by the Board of Supervisors in 1997, contains a broad range of long-term goals and near-term objectives, with performance measures. It is not being implemented.

Responsible internal management practice and transparency of a government agency’s performance are not the sort of issues that generally get the public out en masse with burning torches. Yet in this wealthy, highly participatory city, surrounded by prestigious graduate management schools and in the center of the digital revolution, it has taken "outside agitation" to push even the tiniest beginning of municipal administrative reform. This is very odd.

For an organizational structure as unwieldy as that of San Francisco’s to have persisted, indeed to have been continually augmented, there must be some advantage in it to someone. Several things spring to one’s attention with even a cursory glance at the organization chart.

The most striking thing about the chart, usually printed in a compressed layout that veils its true structure, is the remarkable multitude of top-level city agencies. 37 independent departments and commissions are on the right branch immediately reporting to the mayor, five more report to the mayor nominally through the City Administrator, and 13, on the left branch of the chart, are in the mayor’s office itself, making a total of 55 essentially autonomous agencies. The 37 on the department branch all (except the Zoo) have governing commissions, the members of which are appointed by the mayor. Most of these commission appointments, in this and most administrations, are the mayor’s supporters and representatives of supporting interest groups. San Francisco’s city structure may not work from an operational standpoint, but from the point of view of this political benefit, it is terrific.

The left branch holds a striking number of operating agencies—often with responsibilities that overlap those of various departments—in the mayor’s office itself. Policy-level staff in these agencies serve at the mayor’s pleasure, outside the civil service system. These can be, and often are, places to put more supporters and sons and daughters of supporters, regardless of professional skills. The Redevelopment Agency, the Port Authority, the Treasure Island Development Authority and the Housing Authority (highlighted with a dashed-line box on the chart), governed by commissions appointed by the mayor, similarly have flexible hiring potential outside the city’s civil service system. They are not city agencies, but instead are federal or state agencies, over the day-to-day operations of which the mayor’s office has considerable control. All these agencies represent opportunities for patronage placements, and that has been San Francisco’s longstanding practice. In addition, spots in these federal and state agencies have often served as consolation prizes for staff people who for one reason or another needed to be moved from positions at City Hall. Rarely would this reason have been superb performance. The effect of this practice on the performance of these agencies over the years has been the subject of widespread dismay to insiders and occasional press reports. However, nothing is ever done about it.

A unique feature of the current administration has been the expansion of patronage staff appointments to the departments themselves, long the nearly exclusive purview of the civil service system. With the five-fold increase in the number of special assistants—a senior level position outside civil service—since the Jordan administration, the opportunity for patronage has increased greatly. In particular, the Solid Waste Management Program and the Airport, with its enormous public works construction activity, have seen numbers of staff people whose professional qualifications are not immediately obvious. Additionally, a surprising number of the department heads appointed in the current administration have little or no previous management experience in the area for which they have been given executive responsibility. Some of them are rarely seen in the office.

The result is that along with many well-qualified, dedicated civil servants, San Francisco employs a large number of people, particularly in more senior positions, who are simply not sufficiently skilled, experienced or motivated to pursue improved government performance. They report to commissioners who usually have little background in the function of the agency for which they have ultimate policy authority. And no one ever asks them to make these measurable performance improvements, anyway.

With this understanding, San Francisco’s failure to pursue management reform; its inadequate human resources support; its limited, scattershot approach to providing public information and responding to the concerns of the public; its lack of innovation and transparency in handling contracts and purchasing; and its failure to implement local sustainable development planning become less surprising.

San Francisco clearly has reached a point at which it must embrace fundamental government reform if it is even to begin the difficult task of bringing its management systems into the modern era. The responsibility for managing government operations rests solely with the office of the mayor. However, experience has shown this administration to be highly unlikely to embrace a reform agenda. On the contrary, it has led the city in precisely the wrong direction.

Given these circumstances, reform must come from a public fed up with the way things are now, from the Board of Supervisors and the ballot. Other cities have faced and solved similar problems. Following is a seven-point agenda that will get the wheels turning toward accountable, responsive government.

  1. Renew and Codify Government’s Commitment to Ethical Standards: The City Charter already sets out prohibitions against appointments to the public service as a reward for political activity and for friends and family. However, longstanding practice has taken the edge of this prohibition and fostered an attitude of "this is the way it’s always been done." It is time that appointing officers make an explicit pledge that they will neither perpetuate nor tolerate this practice. More generally, among employees in many agencies there is not always a shared definition of what constitutes ethical behavior within government service. The Board should pass an ordinance requiring every agency, including itself and the Mayor’s office, to discuss, adopt, and make an ongoing commitment to an appropriate code of ethics, such as those of numerous professional societies or the standards for ethical conduct for employees of the federal executive branch, and to ensure that all staff are cognizant of the contents and agree to operate by the guidelines.

Such guidelines would make it clear, for instance, that it is inappropriate for building inspectors to have sideline work as real estate investors, that Supervisors should not carry legislation assisting an industry in which they are employed or vote on a permit appeal where a spouse stands to make a profit, and that city employees have an obligation to report misuse of public resources that come to their attention.

The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions has collected over 850 codes of ethics for various fields. Implementation might be monitored by the Ethics Commission, with ongoing reporting to the public.

  1. Create a Commitment to Efficient, Public-Service-Oriented, Accountable City Management: San Francisco has made no realistic commitment to establishing sound government management practice that provides the best service to the public for the least cost to the taxpayers, while fairly considering the needs of people employed in government service. This may be because existing patronage relationships are threatened by this level of accountability. It may be due to simple lack of leadership and institutional resistance to change. Whatever the reason it has not happened in the past, the public should insist upon it now. An efficient, well-managed government is key to being able to get the most public service the local economy can afford. An investment in resources in public management will pay off many-fold in the future.

The Board should create a policy that it expects to receive regular performance measurement information from all city agencies, and that this information will be shared with the public in an accessible manner on the Worldwide web.

Government should create an integrated management function within the mayor’s office to guide management practice in all city agencies. If the mayor will not create such a office, the Board of Supervisors should propose a charter amendment to create one.

Such a body, staffed by professional civil servants working with consulting services as necessary, should study the best practices of other jurisdictions and put structures in place for citywide performance data collection, analysis and strategic planning. It should be held specifically accountable to 1) reform management practice; 2) analyze and negotiate civil service and human resources reform; 3) assist in establishing best practice in procurement and contracting; and 4) minimize the environmental impact of all government operations. The office should also make recommendations for consolidation of city functions into an organizational structure that might be able to function effectively.

Cities throughout the world work toward the international set of management quality standards called ISO9000 and ISO14000. San Francisco should join San Jose, Seattle, and many other well-managed cities in using this well-respected management systems framework.

For public accountability, dissemination of public information and ease of use of public services, the mayor, or if necessary, the Board, should quickly increase the use of information technology and e-government by expanding and directly funding the Department of Telecommunications to handle this activity citywide. Now scores of individual agencies are left to their own devices, with the inevitable highly varying results. Instead of providing useful information to the public, many department web-sites contain little more than the agency’s mission statement. A multilingual city with multilingual visitors as its major industry should not have a web site only in English. Most routine public transactions should be able to be done on-line. The voting records of members of the Board of Supervisors should be readily accessible and easy to analyze. The public should be able to find an agency’s budget, its record of performance and plans for improvement, and a summarized log of citizen complaints and how those complaints have been handled.

  1. Revive the City’s Commitment to a Professional Civil Service: The expansion of the special assistant category and the placement of inexperienced people in department-head positions drains resources from legitimate government activity, demoralizes competent staff, undercuts the ability of city agencies to manage their own programs, and sours the public’s perception of government. Legislation should vastly reduce the use of the special assistant job category to the few special occasions for which it was originally designed. The job qualifications and performance of incumbents in this category should be closely scrutinized, and appropriate staffing adjustments made. The mayor’s office should remove itself from the business of running operating programs with non-civil-service staff and combine these functions with the appropriate existing city departments, focusing its attention on "steering" instead of "rowing."

The public, the Board, and the editorial boards of the media should make clear to this and future mayors that they expect experienced professionals in department leadership positions, and apply the pressure of public opinion against the appointment of people who would be learning on the job. The Board of Supervisors has had a bad record of approving high-level staff and commission nominations of professionally under-qualified individuals for political reasons. It should stand up for the long-term public interest and decline to continue this practice.

Imperative to a revived commitment to civil service, as well as to achieving management excellence, is civil service reform and improvement of the human resources function. The Board must insist that this critical function be improved, and done so as quickly as possible. The Department of Human Resources should work with the Civil Service Commission, the mayor’s office, and worker’s representatives to do a citywide survey of program managers and rank and file staff people to identify areas in which the system is not meeting their needs. A strategy must be created to meet these needs, with progress toward implementation reported to the Board. In addition to other goals identified in the survey, the strategy should include reduction of the time it takes to fill vacant positions with well-qualified applicants; overhaul of the compensation system to provide flexibility for effective recruitment and retention; bringing the civil service testing schedules and content up to current needs; changes to the classification system to update class descriptions, reduce the number of classes, provide more flexibility for cross-training, and allow for the introduction of new job types without resorting to the use of the special assistant category; advancing performance-based government through individual employee performance plans and incentives; and investing in training and professional development of the city workforce. These are all areas in which San Francisco’s human resources support services need work.

  1. Establish a Formal Complaints System Run by an Elected Public Advocate: The public deserves responsiveness from local government, but it is not getting it. Government needs information from the public as to whether its services satisfy public needs, but it often acts as if it does not care. Complaints now often are handled by city agencies putting the complainant in an adversarial role with the program manager or employee complained of, with the responsible agency taking on the role of some sort of neutral arbitrator. This represents an abdication of the city’s overall responsibility for the satisfaction of members of the public with its services. No one keeps a central log of complaints and their disposition with which to improve staff training and as an early warning sign of structural problems, such as a lack of code enforcement.

As a representative body independent of the executive branch and a central focus for people’s contact with the city, the Board of Supervisors should house this office of complaints, managed by an elected Public Advocate such as that in New York City. The Advocate serves as an ombudsman, or go-between, for the consumer of city services. He or she investigates and answers complaints about government, proposes new solutions to make service to the public more efficient, and helps people gain access to government agencies. The Public Advocate is responsible for reporting the failure of any city agency or official to comply with the city charter. The Advocate also monitors the effectiveness of city’s public information and education efforts.

A good complaints system will ensure that problems are resolved quickly as near to the source as possible and that there is a clear procedure for complaints that remain unresolved. It will entail a central place for complainants, or those acting on their behalf, to lodge their complaints; a procedure for investigation, including a means to have the investigation done by people outside the department complained of, if necessary; a means of keeping the complainant informed on progress and outcome; a means of redress for valid complaints; and a feedback mechanism for departments and elected officials so the results may be used in program reassessment. The identity of the complainant should be kept confidential throughout the process.

Creating a new elected official will require a charter amendment, but the Board could start getting the program in place by ordinance first.

  1. Protect the Confidentiality of Staff Reports to Investigators: Not only should government be responsive to the concerns of the public, but city staff people should have a safe conduit for reporting observations of shortcomings in government operations. While San Francisco needs new internal auditing functions, it does already have a number of agencies that more or less frequently investigate as part of their ongoing activities: the Controller, the City and District Attorneys, the Board’s Budget Analyst, the Civil Service and Ethics Commissions and the Civil Grand Jury. Immediately, a city ordinance should insure that the identity of any employee source and the confidentiality of the information provided, if it would compromise the source, will be protected scrupulously, which is not required now. There is whistle-blower protection, but by the time an employee has been discriminated against, damage to his or her career has already been done. This lack of confidentiality (and the widespread perception that current investigative agencies are not completely independent) has created a tremendous disincentive for city staff people to come forward with information on problems within their agencies.
  1. Create an Independent Public Auditor: There are many disadvantages to having organized political parties vying for public power, but one advantage that "nonpartisan" San Francisco lacks is partisan scrutiny of its government operations. In this situation, it is essential to have a robust internal audit function. An Independent Public Auditor looks for waste, fraud, and the abuse of public trust. It has a staff of investigators who not only look for the kind of malfeasance that might be referred for prosecution, but for examples of undue access to government resources and services by favored groups, such as instances of political pressure applied to purchasing and contracting decisions and to subsequent performance evaluation, agencies giving preferred treatment to private "expediters," private individuals participating in the hiring process for city staff, or "friends" committees which allow interests with a financial stake in agency decisions to make financial contributions to the agency’s operating budget. There are numerous examples of public auditing agencies around the world, often called auditors general; in the military, inspectors general; or at the US federal level, the General Accounting Office.

The Auditor General’s work would not replace the fiscal and performance audits now done by the Controller and the Budget Analyst. In fact, those audits should be expanded to ensure that all city agencies receive performance audits regularly. The Public Auditor would focus on areas that are known to be readily susceptible to corruption: procurement, revenue collection, law enforcement, licensing and permitting, the provision of services where there is a government monopoly (such as subsidized housing), construction permitting and land zoning, and government appointments. It looks for wrongdoing and the appearance of wrongdoing, which undercuts the public’s faith in government.

The key factors in a successful independent audit function are independence within the government structure, professionalism of staff, accountability of the audit function itself, and resources with which to operate. For independence from the executive branch, where most of the activity to be audited is located, the Auditor should report to the legislative branch, which in San Francisco is the Board of Supervisors. Having the internal auditor under the legislature is the common practice: for instance, the federal General Accounting Office reports to Congress, not to the President. The Independent Public Auditor would work closely with the Board’s budget analyst, who is an outside contractor. The agency’s work would be in addition to, not in replacement of, the fiscal and performance audits now conducted by the Controller and by the Budget Analyst at the request of the Board of Supervisors.

For independence from the politics of the legislature, the Auditor should be hired by and report to a joint legislative audit and review committee of respected community leaders, chosen by the full Board, not by supervisors individually. The Auditor should set his or her own audit agenda, be free to follow up on any reports received by the office, and have a high level of access to information. Referrals for prosecution should be given high priority by the District Attorney. Results of audits and recommendations for reform should be made easily accessible to the public, and the Controller should set up a system for following up on implementation of the Auditor’s recommendations.

It is essential that the Auditor be a highly qualified professional of scrupulous integrity, experienced in this type of auditing, with few or no ties to the local power structure (Benjamin Franklin recruited the nation’s first successful inspector general from Paris). For freedom from intimidation, like the Controller the Auditor should have a long term of office. The salary should be commensurate with that of a Superior Court Judge.

The Public Auditor’s office should itself be audited regularly by a independent public accountancy firm.

As has been mentioned, San Francisco does already have several investigative bodies, which either lack the complete independence from the executive branch necessary for an independent auditor, or are outside City/County government like the Civil Grand Jury. What they all lack is the budget to provide anything like serious ongoing oversight. Indeed, the Civil Grand Jury is essentially a volunteer organization. The Civil Service Commission has no staff of its own and the Ethics Commission has only one investigator. Creating these watchdog agencies but not funding them is worse than having none at all, since their existence deludes the public into thinking there is review of government activities. A public auditing function must be funded at a level commensurate with effective similar agencies elsewhere, with sufficient professional staff, or it will be another empty exercise. Its funding must be secured from potential retaliation as a result of the legitimate exercise of its mandate.

  1. Better Balance the Branches of Government: One reason for the growing excesses of San Francisco’s executive branch that its power isn’t balanced by an assertive legislature. Leaving aside the unusual recent situation in which the mayor was able to appoint so many of its members, the Board of Supervisors needs better resources to be able to represent the public interest. Two aides per Supervisor are not enough to handle ongoing committee work, constituent services and daily administration, and to leave any time for good policy development, responsible participation in regional government or the establishment of new district-based institutions. Handicapping public representatives only handicaps public service. The voters should rethink their opposition to staffing levels for Supervisors, putting effective service to themselves at a higher value than consistency with an ill-advised public commitment to cut staff.

It isn’t good practice to have elected officials employed in areas outside of government; it creates too much of a potential conflict of interest. Inadequate compensation for people who have control of public benefits creates a fertile field for payoff attempts from people who want things from government. Yet San Francisco voters pay Supervisors in one of the most expensive cities in the world—only London and Hong Kong are more costly—about $37,000 a year. No one familiar with the Supervisors’ work load could suggest that this is a part-time job. While the current salary is not much different from the city’s overall average, at least as of the mid-1990’s, it is very low for professionals, who in order to support their living expenses generally either need a private income or part-time work while serving on the Board. Or they serve at considerable financial loss. It has been fashionable for years to jeer at the Board, but at that salary, the voters are narrowing greatly the pool of people who are able to run for office. Out of a $4+ billion budget, this false economy achieves nothing but the humiliation of the people elected to represent the public interest, whose office staff make significantly more than they do.

The salary of Supervisors should be similar to levels of compensation of other county elected representatives in California, and automatically adjusted on a regular basis.

Like the mayor, Supervisors should not be allowed to hold outside jobs. These changes will require a modification of the Charter.

Where the Money Comes From: An expensive set of proposals? It has been reliably estimated that the overhead for people who are not qualified for the jobs, and not performing the work, in the small Solid Waste Management Program alone comes to something close to half a million dollars a year. There are well over 500 special assistants on the government payroll, most of them highly paid. Public money that could be spent on management and accountability is being spent elsewhere, and not in a way that serves the public. In addition, every audit done by the budget analyst has resulted in net savings to the city that have exceeded the cost of the audit. A big reason the private sector embraces modern management techniques and internal controls is that it doesn’t have the financial luxury not to do so.

Change is Possible: San Francisco needs fundamental reform, and while the challenge is significant, this is no time to give way to cynicism and despair. The Republicans may have won in Washington, but San Franciscans still want to have a government that works for all members of society, and is accountable to them, not to special interests. The united people of Czechoslovakia made a velvet revolution that toppled an entrenched dictatorship without firing a shot. The united voters of San Francisco have brought in a reform legislature, which can make some real changes in the way the city works if it will grasp the opportunity.


Beryl Magilavy has been an environmental advocate in San Francisco since 1987. She ran a nonprofit recycling center under city contract and as president of the nonprofit organization, Sustainable City, has collaborated extensively with numerous city agencies while creating the city’s sustainability plan. She served as the first director of the city’s Department of the Environment in 1997-98 and has been active in local politics since that time. Her discussions with many people connected with local government and her own observations have led her to believe that San Francisco cannot become a sustainable city without fundamental government reform.

None of the examples of bad practice in this essay are hypothetical.