RVA Politics is a blog about politics in the state of Virginia And the capital city of Richmond.

The author is a political scientist. Please don't hold that against him.


Stoney's legacy: better governance?

Stoney's legacy: better governance?



Last week the administration of Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney did something pretty standard for a city government: it released a report. Entitled "Realizing One Richmond: A Roadmap for Organizational Change," the report highlights the changes the city is beginning to make in response to a comprehensive performance review conducted in May.

This report actually may be the most important moment of Stoney's tenure as Mayor. This report shows us, really, what might end up being Levar Stoney’s legacy for the City of Richmond.

And nobody noticed.

Fine, there was a news report or two. But among the city’s elites and political chattering class – or at least on Twitter and Facebook, which sometimes amounts to the same thing these days – there has been surprisingly little buzz, especially compared to the fanfare surrounding the Mayor’s call for proposals on developing the downtown area.

Why is this report so important? It reveals the behind-the-scenes work going on in RVA. City residents widely perceive City Hall to house a dysfunctional and bloated bureaucracy that does not meet the needs of its rising city. Richmond has, for years, failed to accomplish the main job of government: namely, governance, or the actual provision of services and implementation of laws.

And making the government work is what the city elected Stoney to do.

Stoney’s chief competitor in last fall’s mayoral race, Jack Berry, was a longtime administrator who promised to make city government work better. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch argued when it endorsed Berry, “Who has the strength and will to reform the city’s bureaucracy into one that works?”

The knock on Berry (and not exactly a fair one) was that he was an old white dude, representing the “old Richmond” from which the city was moving away. The younger and non-white Stoney pitched himself as someone who could bridge the gap between the city’s establishment, its beer-drinking millennials, and the poor minority neighborhoods that weren’t sharing in the city’s recent revival. But Stoney would not have been elected if many voters didn’t think he could also do the work of changing the city’s administration – of making the city work for its residents.

And so during his campaign, Stoney issued a 3-page memo, “Transforming City Hall & Improving Basic Services,” that laid out his plans for changing the city’s bureaucratic culture, and then followed through earlier this year by commissioning a performance review from Virginia Commonwealth University. And now he is actually responding to that review by making a number of small but significant changes in how the city operates.

A key figure in all this is University of Richmond professor Thad Williamson, who has been advising the Mayor since his campaign. During the administration of Stoney’s predecessor, Williamson had already done this kind of hard work by restructuring of city’s anti-poverty initiatives into the Office of Community Wealth Building. Almost every mayoral candidate pointed to this office as the kind of innovative imitative they wanted to implement. But only Stoney had the actual guy who helped form that office on his team.

Now Williamson is the principal author of this latest report, and is probably the chief architect of Stoney’s reform efforts. He and others are helping Stoney make a number of changes to how the city work, such as:

  • Creation of a unified department of transportation. Right now the city’s efforts are scattered across different divisions and departments.
  • Improved communication. The word “communication” appears 41 times in this report; Stoney and Williamson, like the rest of the city, recognize that city government is not good at explaining what’s going on, both to residents and internally between departments. (I once spoke to a member of City Council about the previous administration’s communication efforts; his eyes practically glazed over as he tried to control his rage. “Even when we do something right,” he moaned, “nobody knows about it.”)
  • Procurement. Because of bureaucratic obstacles, the city can’t do the basic work of buying the stuff its workers need. As just one example, Stoney wants to empower city workers to use purchasing cards for small items; this has been standard operating procedure for most organizations for years.

Of course, all of these changes need to be backed up by action, and the city needs a mayor committed to change -- and not eyeing a Senate seat. And the complaint about Stoney most often heard during his campaign was that he has always had his eye on higher office. He probably does. But now is not the time; what's more, I think Stoney knows this. No matter what his political ambition, it’s clear that Stoney wants to get something done here in RVA. He’s most likely planning to stick around for a triumphant re-election campaign in 2020. THEN we can worry about the next open Congressional or Senate seat, or whether he wants to challenge Attorney General Mark Herring for the top spot in state government.

See? Even I’m doing it: speculating about Stoney’s next campaign. That’s where we find the fun political junkie stuff, not in reorganizing departments and issuing payment cards. But again, these more boring efforts are the real work of governance. This work is not as splashy as big development deals, or as rife for speculation as campaign predictions. But it makes governance more efficient, more responsive, and better at helping people with city services. This is exactly the kind of thing municipal government, maybe ALL government, should be about.

Stoney’s report SHOULD be exciting to Richmonders, especially because he has a real chance of succeeding if he continues to put effort behind it. Stoney may not meet all of his lofty goals. But things are about to get better in RVA government.

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