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Commentary: Maybe not Veolia, but city needs a way to evaluate departments

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Recently Mayor Slay’s administration sought to implement a contract with Veolia to evaluate the city’s water department. After protest, in part for Veolia’s work on the West Bank for the Israeli government, the firm withdrew its bid to work for St. Louis. However, this disjuncture should not negate the role of evaluation in enhancing effectiveness in local government.

A noted scholar, Aaron Wildavsky, made the point that evaluation and bureaucracy are not necessarily compatible. Bureaucracies prefer stability; evaluation implies change.

Bureaucrats are also wary of outsiders invading their bailiwick. They tend to be very protective of their standard operating procedures. Their rules replace overall and sometimes nebulous goals.

Heads of bureaus seek to protect their budget and staffing. That is how they judge their success. They have no product in the marketplace, no profit and loss statement.

The longer bureaus operate the more staid they become. They are turf protective and resist encroachment by other agencies. They seek outside support for their mission and their prerogatives. Bureaus take on a life of their own, separate from their employees. They handle complexity and large volume but there are dysfunctions as well.

Bureaucratic tasks need periodic examination to see whether goals are met in the most effective manner. This implies looking at rules and procedures that may have been in place for some time. Do yesterday’s practices meet tomorrow’s needs? Is the citizen well served?

A partial solution at least is to establish an evaluator unit within the city’s administration. It would be less threatening to the various bureaus and also have more knowledge of the city and its functions. Working together could make staff establish ownership for change and not view it as a threat. Or at least as much of a threat. What is suggested here is on-going evaluation, especially in times of revenue scarcity and technological change.

Citizens may not always differentiate the “county” offices from city government but they present an additional conundrum. The city does not control the functions of the county offices (such things as the collector of revenue, recorder of deeds, license collector) or always have total say over the revenues they collect.

As creatures of the state, they are subject to examination by the state auditor. The auditor often places emphasis on expenditures and revenue and ghost employees. Generally they provide little illumination of day-to-day work procedures. Yet, these offices, with independently elected officials at the head and patronage employees carrying out the tasks, need evaluation as much as regular city staff.

Evaluation is a means to achieving the nebulous concept of accountability. It provides information about daily workings, procedures and malfunctions. That presupposes that it is carried out properly and without bias. Citizens can be part of the process; they can be asked their opinion of transactions and whether service is carried out in a timely fashion.

Perhaps the Veolia contretemps can spark a discussion of how to better examine the workings of the water department and the rest of departments that serve St. Louisans. Turf protection will arise, particularly in the “county “ offices but arrangements made in 1876 bear examination in today’s light, too.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.