Thursday, May 28, 2009

When City Employees Care

This morning I happened to see the parking meters outside my Silver Spring office being emptied. I was literally stunned by the efficiency with which this operation took place. Sure, this is not exactly rocket science. But having dealt with DC city employees for so many years, and generally been apalled with the priority they place on talking on their cell phones or to their coworkers instead of attending to their duties, it was a bit of a shock. Oh yes. I'm not in DC, I'm about 1000 feet north of there.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this. For example, one of the services in DC that I actually have been very happy with over the years is trash collection. I realize that some people have problems. Like this poor guy who's been unable to get DPW to pick up his trash in 4 months on Sherman Avenue. Of course, he is unfortunate enough to live in the only house on that block that receives city trash services. While there are certainly some issues, having watched the city employees pick up the trash behind my house on many occasions, they are actually extraordinarily efficient.

I know why that is. It's because they are not paid by the hour. They are paid to complete their route every day. The sooner they do it, the sooner they get to go home. If only the average DMV or OTR employee was paid by the job instead of by the hour.

Obviously, we can't have someone who works behind a desk be allowed to go home as soon as they finish serving some arbitrary number of customers, but certainly there should be ways to compensate people for working faster or more efficiently. Because the current system, whatever it may be, seems to encourage (or at least not punish) laziness. DC blogs are rife with stories of dealing with city employees over motor vehicle, tax, or any number of other issues. Something that should be resolvable with a single communication takes weeks or months with countless letters, calls, and in-person visits. Because the prevailing attitude seems to be one of "don't deal with the problem - just send back a screw-you form letter."

The end result of which, of course, is more work for the city, and endless frustration for the residents. In the end, you can usually get your problem solved through persistence. Or writing about your tales of woe in a public forum. But wouldn't it be better if the people at the other end of the phone actually had an incentive to get your problem figured out, rather than getting you out of their hair as quickly as possible?

This is nothing new. If you reward productivity, people will be more productive. In the case of trash collection, they are rewarded by getting off work sooner. For other types of city service providers, surely we can implement some kind of metric for how well they do their job. The number of cases a DMV employee handles each day, or the number of tax-issues that are resolved and closed over some time period.

I would really like to be impressed more often than I am disappointed by city services. I love living in DC. As long as you don't have to deal with the government, it's great. I wish I could remove that caveat.

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