Transforming Detroit into a city that (also) works

“Got a problem? You ought to know who to call.”

I heard Mike Duggan say that two summers ago when he was running for Detroit mayor. Although campaign rhetoric, it sounded like a simple and common-sense way to think about running a city.

But what I didn’t then understand was that he was hinting at what may be a very important structural reform for long-term progress in what is still Michigan’s largest city. It has to do with the consequences for Detroit residents who five years ago threw out the old system of electing at large all nine city council members at large.

Now, seven council members are elected by district, with two more at large. That system kicked in with the 2013 elections.

Seems simple and innocuous, doesn’t it?

But look at what Mayor Duggan has done with it. Through the Department of Neighborhoods, he has created a system of district managers who function as the powerful local face of the administration. Based on the new seven districts, there now is a new system in place for citizen input that is designed to make the city responsive to public need.

In addition to each district having a council member to look out for the welfare of residents in their domain, each has a district manager and an assistant district manager.

Got a problem with drug dealing at the run-down house next door? Call the district manager. He or she’ll call the blight busters at the Property Maintenance Division of the Department of Buildings, Safety Engineering, Engineering and Environmental and start the process of tearing the house down.
Can’t get a streetlight to work in front of your house? Call the DM, who’ll buzz the head guy at the Department of Public Lighting and get it fixed – or at least find out when it’s supposed to be fixed.

Why won’t such nitty-gritty problems get swallowed up in the city’s inefficient bureaucracy, as they were in the past? Because once a week the mayor meets with his district managers and asks about outstanding problems. District manager mentions the on-going problem with the street lights. Duggan picks up the phone and calls the head guy at the lighting department. Either the problem gets fixed … or there’s trouble with Mr. Big.

The city’s web page contains a key: “Here is how you can reach your district manager.” For each district, there’s the name of the manager and assistant manager, their pictures, and cell phone numbers. Residents with problems now know who to call.

And that’s important, for the district managers, either alone or with the clout of the mayor, are tasked with getting things done.

What city does that remind you of? Sure. It’s Chicago, known as “The City That Works.” OK, it’s also famous for, um, elements of corruption. But the Chicago system of executive and political governance is one big reason the city works so well.

Got a problem in Chicago? You know who to call: Your ward’s alderman, one of 50. Alderman calls mayor. Mayor comes down on bureaucracy. Problem fixed.

That’s a simplistic version of the Chicago system, one that in this outline ignores the many opportunities for financial and political payoffs up and down the system, shakedowns and other varieties of municipal corruption. But it seems to work pretty well.

Detroit’s new system seems to me to be a simpler, more accountable version of the governmental structure that makes Chicago function. Detroit citizen sees problem. Citizen knows who to call. District manager leans on bureaucracy. If that doesn’t work, district manager leans on the district city council member.

If that doesn’t work, district manager reports to Mayor Duggan. Duggan calls department head. Things get fixed.

Prior to last year, what happened was that electing common council members at large meant that everybody in authority was responsible for everything, which is a sure recipe for nobody being responsible for anything. Faced with a problem, an ordinary Detroit citizen had no idea of who to call to get things done.

Any complaints citizens did make were almost certain to be swallowed in bureaucratic ooze and muddle.
In the last few days, any sounds of skepticism about Detroit’s future were drowned out in the orgy of self-congratulation that followed U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’s decision to accept the city’s plan of adjustment and exit bankruptcy.

Essentially, the skeptics say that, true, Duggan may be just great, and for once, the council seems to have mostly sensible and forward-looking members. But times will change; politicians come and go, and after a while things will (depressingly) return to the way they used to be.

Maybe so. But my big hope has to do with having a better managerial structure, one durable enough to trump any one particular office holder. I figure the structure of governance now in place in Detroit – a structure that directly links citizens with problems with the institutions of power – will prove more durable, powerful and influential than the constantly changing cast of elected officials.

Will it work? Time will tell. But the new structure seems to be a powerful tool, one that may stand the test of time.

Got a problem? Detroiters now know who to call to get it fixed. It’s simple, and it just might make for a peaceful revolution.

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Tue, 11/18/2014 - 2:49pm
I agree electing representatives by district instead of at large is a step in the right direction. One of the biggest problems to solve, however, will be what to do with the miles and miles of sprawling infrastructure (i.e. sewer, water, streets, lighting, etc.) originally created to serve three times the present population. This all still has to be maintained even though the existing population cannot support it. Blocks and blocks of neighborhoods with only a few occupied homes is a is a serious issue from an infrastructure standpoint. What can be done if anything to consilidate these neighborhoods and shrink the city into a manageable geographic area? Perhaps nothing without stepping on individual rights. making this a very difficult problem to solve.
Judy Barker
Tue, 11/18/2014 - 3:05pm
The more " simple and innocuous" the better, giving it a chance to succeed without interference. Let's see -- improved communication, accountability and responsiveness; just imagine if that model started a whole new trend?
Tue, 11/18/2014 - 4:31pm
Below the district manager is needed a neighborhood watch person for each neighborhood section. A network of neighborhood watchers could track escape vehicles or persons from a crime scene. The watcher would communicate with emergency management who communicates with police dispatcher.