By John Schaffner
Atlanta’s Chief Operating Officer Peter Aman claims the administration of Mayor Kasim Reed inherited a city government operation that was largely broken.
The city’s Code Compliance Office is one example Aman referred to as being “totally broken.”
An audit by the city found that, until recently, the office was so poorly managed that records often vanished, inspectors logged in jobs before they even visited the site, and response time on “highly hazardous” cases, reported to take an average of 14 days, averaged 170 days instead.
“There is no doubt that code compliance was massively broken,”said Aman. All of the old managers are gone, and the office was moved under the direct supervision of the Mayor’s Office and Deputy Chief Operating Officer Duriya Farooqui.
“There are numerous departments that have issues that need to be resolved,” Aman told about 50 neighborhood and business leaders attending a Sept. 15 meeting of the Northwest Community Alliance.
He said customer service is one of the areas in several city departments, including Watershed Management, “that simply hasn’t worked and we are working on fixing those.”
“The core of it is bringing in better talent to city government,” Aman said. “We have an active effort underway to hire senior level officials as commissioners in every department. Just as important, we have an effort underway to bring in deputy commissioners and directors and managers to improve the talent throughout city government.”
Aman said that over time, the city of Atlanta government “has not paid enough attention to the middle management,” he added. “In some ways, the biggest management challenge I have in my role is improving the middle management layer of the government.”
Aman said it is “comparatively easy to wipe out the top layer. It is 15 people and you can replace them. It is the next several hundred that is hard to attack, to retrain or replace if they can’t be retrained.”
He said it is the front line people “that actually keep things hanging together.”
He said there are some “amazing feats” accomplished, not only by our police and firemen,, “but by the sanitation workers and the folks at the field level at Watershed Management and elsewhere.”
“Our challenge from an operational perspective is to work on this mid-level management,” he stated.
“It is easy to fire people at the city until you get down to the civil service positions,” Aman said. “It is possible to hold people accountable. The problem is to get people to come into city government.”
Asked how you change the culture of city government, Aman responded, “The building blocks are setting examples, measurements and accountability.”
Aman was Asked if Dexter White, the new interim commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management, was initially hired as deputy director of the Department of Public Works with the idea of removing Rob Hunter as Watershed commissioner and moving White into that position.
Aman said, “No specific move was planned all along. What was quite intentional, and we are going to keep doing this, is bringing in a good strong number one and good strong number two who can be a number one in that department or in another department. We have done this at least three or four times where we have done a search and had three finalists and brought in two of them,” he added.
“We need a deeper bench,” Aman stated. “A good organization should be able to take a person in a number-two position and promote them to be number one. That is what corporations are built by,” he said.
“The city has not had the ability to do that to its detriment. It was locked in with only one guy who could do it,” the COO with a corporate background said. “Then you are stuck. You can’t make any changes and hold people accountable because they know there is no one else who can do it. It was very intentional to have a deeper bench and we are going to keep doing that,” he added.
Aman also was asked if he knows of any previous COO of the city of Atlanta that has had the power that he apparently has working for Mayor Reed.
“I am not sure I am in a position to answer that, having lived here only 15 years,” Aman responded. “I would say that Mayor Reed clearly has empowered me to make the changes that are consistent with his vision. And, he very much believes in the corporate structure of the government,” he continued.
“We have had by charter a chief operating officer,” he explained. “It is not completely clear that several past administrations used that as a company would. In a company, the chief operating officer is there to run the operation on a day-to-day basis and has significant authority to direct the departments.
“That is the way Mayor Reed and I operate the government,” he stated. “I don’t think previous administrations operated the government in that fashion. There is an intentional shift Mayor Reed has made.”
In introducing Aman, NCA President Michael Koblentz said, “Mayor Reed clearly was not interested in another business as usual approach to City Hall operations” when he hired Aman as COO to run the day-to-day operations of all the city’s departments.
Aman had spent 22 years with Bain & Company, a major consulting firm, and had produced the pro-bono turnaround plan for the city of Atlanta at the beginning of Mayor Shirley Franklin’s first term in 2002. Although some aspects of that plan were implemented, many were not.
Asked about what was implemented from the Bain study of the city’s operations between 2002 and 2005 and the effect of any recommendations implemented, Aman said one of the major changes was is the drop in number of city employees.
When he started the report, Atlanta had 22 to 37 percent more employees than other benchmark cities. Now Atlanta is well below the average cities—about 10 percent less and now even below Charlotte.
Aman said some area of the city operations “are very much more efficient.” He pointed to the fact that 55 people pick up the garbage for a city of 500,000 people. He said the permitting process was improved by executing Turnaround Plan proposals.