Creating Culture Change at City Hall

2014.12.09 Lunch with a Leader - Doane Liu 023At the Bedrosian Center’s Lunch with a Leader program last week, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Doane Liu recalled with pride how he first got a taste for public service.

As a San Pedro resident, he helped broker a deal in the mid-1990s that turned surplus land in San Pedro left over from the closing of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard into a homeless facility, a high school, and part of the Port of Los Angeles complex.

“I worked with the congresswoman [Jane Harman] to come up with a three-way deal,” Liu said. “It was a win-win-win situation. The Port of L.A. got a key parcel of land, the school got a new site, and a local homeless shelter got $1.3 million. After that, I got the bug for politics.”

“We are starting to develop a culture where there’s no wrong door, no ‘It’s not my job.’  We are all responsible for how the city looks and performs.”

Impressed with his efforts to work out a solutions for many disparate groups, including contentious community groups, Harman persuaded Liu to step away from his lucrative position as a banker for a job as a district manager with her office. After his time with Harman, Liu went on to work with Jim Hahn in the city attorney’s office and then as a deputy mayor during Hahn’s term as Los Angeles mayor from 2001 to 2005. Afterward, Liu continued to work in city politics by serving as chief of staff to both Councilmember Janice Hahn (Jim’s sister) and current Councilmember Joe Buscaino before being tapped to serve as Deputy Mayor of City Services for current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in July 2013.

As Deputy Mayor of City Services, Liu oversees 15 city departments and bureaus, including the Department of Water and Power, transportation, public works, Recreation and Parks, and the library system, among others. During a program that gathered together faculty, students, and practitioners, Liu shared some of his lessons as an administrator managing change, his role in implementing Mayor Garcetti’s back to basics agenda, and how the City of Los Angeles hopes to change how we think about measuring the delivery of city services.

According to Liu, keeping the city running on a balanced budget is a challenge, especially when two of the city’s 36 departments receive the lion’s share of the budget.

“For every dollar that the city receives, 70 cents goes to the police department and fire department,” Liu said. “That’s where our money goes and it’s important. But with the rest of the thirty cents, we have to do everything else: pick up the trash, clean your water, operate your streetlights, take care of your streets, provide traffic officers, parks—the city operates 420 parks—and stuff like libraries.”

Repairing the city’s deteriorating streets is an area of critical need for Los Angeles. More than a third of city streets are rated as in the worst condition possible, but with limited funds, the city is focusing its efforts on repairing streets that represent quicker fixes. In an era of still-constrained budgets, Liu says that asking voters for more money is a tough sell unless city departments can show that they will spend that money well.

“We’re looking at other ways to raise revenue for streets,” Liu said. “I’ve been focused on finding efficiencies in our bureaus of street services. Last year, we resurfaced 2200 miles. This year’s budget has the same amount of money, and our goal is to do 2400 miles, just through efficiencies. The mayor’s point is that before we before we ask taxpayers to help us with this for problem, we better prove to them that we can do it efficiently.”

2014.12.09 Lunch with a Leader - Doane Liu 032Liu has been closely involved with the mayor’s efforts to increase efficiency and accountability throughout the city bureaucracy, a campaign that has tried to establish an ethic of performance through data-driven statistics. In recent years, many police departments have used the CompStat system to track crime statistics in real-time and to consider the speedy allocation of resources to address crime trends. Garcetti has instituted a similar system for all city departments.

“We are striving for a culture of data-driven performance,” Liu said. “We’re asking all of our departments to have provide statistics in real time, which they haven’t had to do before. How much water are we using? What’s our power mix? What percentage of power mix is renewable? How many streetlights were out yesterday? How many missed pickups did sanitation have? We’re not quite there yet in terms of providing all the information as open data, but we’re really close.”

Liu and other deputy mayors have received some pushback from bureaucrats about their Moneyball-inspired approach, but Liu senses the culture at City Hall is changing.

“The perception for some is that ‘We’ve been here for five mayors; we can wait you out,’” Liu said. “It’s a challenge. But having a 43-year old mayor who is tech-savvy and who talks about tech a lot helps. Firing 10 general managers has also helped a lot, too. Having monthly CompStat meetings has also been really great. ”

The city has recently instituted an innovation fund to encourage employee ideas about how the city can save money and run more smoothly. But Liu also points to efforts from the mayor’s office to encourage a new attitude among its public servants.

“Cultural change does not happen overnight, just because of civil servant protection,” he said. “But we are starting to develop a culture where there’s no wrong door, no ‘It’s not my job.’  We are all responsible for how the city looks and performs.”