It's been a while since we've put an elected official on the cover of this magazine.
Graham Richard, mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., isn't there because he's a nice guy. His smiling face isn't under the PUBLIC WORKS logo because, after decades of working as an entrepreneur, he started working to attract high-tech and service businesses to replace the manufacturing base his hometown (like other Midwest cities) lost in the early 1980s.
While all this is true, Richard is on our cover because he gets infrastructure. Without his support, the Fort Wayne Division of Public Works and Utilities would not have risen to a level worthy of being named our third annual Department of the Year.
In 1999, after squeaking into office by 76 votes to become Fort Wayne's first Democratic mayor in 12 years, Richard wisely made it his top priority to tackle potholes, flooding, and all the other visible day-to-day manifestations of government service. But he's no tax-and-spend Democrat. Tax rates are the lowest in decades, and the public works and utilities departments are providing better service to more residents with roughly the same number of employees.
Fort Wayne's infrastructure managers accomplished this because Richard set them free to do their jobs. A devout advocate of process-improvement programs, he hired a former General Electric quality manager to guide managers and their employees through the process of identifying redundancies, eliminating waste, and extending asset life. Along the way, he talked up their efforts to council members, and to the city's customers at many of it's 450 neighborhood groups.
With the mayor pushing for improvement from above, the department drove change from the ground up. That, of course, was the hardest part. Rank-and-file employees were convinced they'd be punished when they revealed how they did their jobs.
That didn't happen, though. Instead, employees got certifications or other training that's enhancing their contribution to operations. What impressed this year's Department of the Year judges is how the department overcame the innate human resistance to change and blew out of the water the notion that a service organization can't evaluate and evolve its processes to save time and money.
Every public works department needs a well-placed champion who will throw his or her weight around on its behalf. Fort Wayne's Department of Public Works and Utilities is very lucky to have its mayor in that role. But as Richard will tell anyone who asks, the department's employees did the heavy lifting. Without their commitment, he wouldn't have so readily won a second term.
Every public works department needs a well-placed champion who will throw his or her weight around on its behalf.