Getting the Basics Right

When I became mayor of Washington in January 1999, I took over a government that was famously unable to deliver even basic services. While our financial picture had improved considerably since the worst days of our financial crisis, residents had lost faith that simple government services could be delivered in a timely and courteous manner. My first priority was to restore faith in government by demonstrating rapid, visible improvements in basic services.

I immediately challenged my cabinet to set an aggressive agenda that agencies would accomplish within one year or less. Over the year we completed 25 of 28 initiatives on schedule. But it was our earliest actions that captured the attention of residents.

Lengthy inspections of construction projects were a long-standing problem for the District’s business community. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) eliminated a four-month backlog of electrical inspections within six weeks and reduced its response time for new requests to within 48 hours. By the end of February, DCRA also established a Development Ambassadors program where one inspector expedites complex building reviews. Ninety-five percent of reviews that once took up to six months are now completed within 30 days.

A major irritant to residents was that published government phone numbers were frequently wrong. We committed to establish “One Number” for agencies and launched the Citywide Call Center in April 1999. The Call Center is at the heart of our commitment to improve customer service. Residents now have an easy-to-remember number?727-1000?and we track performance data on frequently requested services and how long it takes to resolve them.

Within months, citizens’ calls, letters, and e-mails evolved from disbelief to enthusiasm. We are now the victims of our earliest successes. Residents have learned to expect a “gold standard” of service and will call to complain if we miss our goal of filling every pothole within 72 hours. Such attention and high expectations are welcome. We made promises and expect to be held accountable.

Short-term initiatives are a down payment, building trust, confidence, and a little momentum. But ultimately our challenges go beyond processing permits or filling potholes.

In formulating my priorities for the rest of my administration, I decided to do something a little untraditional?empower citizens to set priorities for their government. I held a “Citizen Summit,” bringing together more than 3,000 residents.

We used their comments to develop a Citywide Strategic Plan, a blueprint for what this government will seek to achieve in the next few years. The plan has specific, measurable deadlines and goals, like putting 200 more cops on the street, reducing wait-times at the Department of Motor Vehicles to 30 minutes or less, resurfacing 150 blocks of streets and alleys, or beginning construction of 1,000 housing units.

Finally, to enable citizens to track our progress, we’ve created “scorecards” for each cabinet member and me?printed checklists of what we must achieve by a given date. The scorecards are on our website,, and we will pass them out at community meetings.

What have we learned? First, you have to start small. Small successes give you a mandate and credibility to do more. Second, we’ve learned that government alone can’t solve every problem. Ultimately, we must mobilize the entire community to work together. As they have in the past, our residents are responding to the call to action. This time around, they will have government as a reliable partner.