B&G Interview: Frank Fairbanks, former City Manager of Phoenix

A discussion with a veteran of local level public service.
 

Frank Fairbanks retired in November 2009 after a nearly 20-year stint as city manager of Phoenix — a city widely known as one of the best managed in the United States. We decided to catch up with him and see what he thought about recent turns in government management. Following are some excerpts from that conversation:

Fairbanks
Frank Fairbanks

Do you still have faith in competitive bidding — so that the public sector bids against the private sector for the ability to deliver certain services?

Competitive bidding works. I think it's still effective. ... The reason for using competitive bidding is to save money for the public. The unforeseen benefit was that the employee units that were involved in the bidding process started to put a strong focus on saving money as well. We tried a new area every year or two.

The places where it can work is where cost is the most important factor. We've done it for 30 years in garbage and it works in garbage and makes sense because the services and outcomes are well defined.

What do you think has changed most for city management since you started with Phoenix back in the 1970s?

One of the things I fear for the future is that newspapers are getting to be weaker and weaker. They've cut back their staff and the thoroughness of their analysis has declined so we get more of the drive by journalism where someone does a quick story. We don't see as much at the local level of in-depth discussion of real problems and issuers. Changing media is changing government and the pressures on government.

I've always been a huge believer in local newspapers. There's no stronger guarantor of honesty in government than quality newspapers that are willing to get out the truth and print the truth. Some of the newest media, either intentionally or unintentionally, put out false information and information gets out very quickly whether it's correct or incorrect.

Can you give us an example?

We had a problem where a church was bringing in homeless people into a neighborhood. One group said anything you do to feed the homeless is a good thing and the city shouldn't restrict feeding people in need. But people in the neighborhood said that among the homeless were criminals and mentally ill people. The church was bringing them into an area surrounded by single family homes. We worked hard with both groups to come up with an agreement, under which some services would be delivered in a way that didn't impact the neighborhood.

But negotiations were complicated because every time you put out a solution, someone would put it out on the Internet in a negative tone. It interfered and complicated the possibility of coming up with the agreement.

Are there any management techniques or theories that have been disappointing to you?

Going back to the 70s before I was manager, the city of Phoenix did a lot of work on measurement. We still do a lot of measurement. I think that's valuable, but I don't know that it can be used as broadly as it's used in the private sector. The private sector has such clear cut management to the bottom line but you cannot run government like a private sector business.

We tried one approach in which we held community forums and named a citizen commission and tried to develop a system of metrics that the public could relate to. The idea was to let the public define the metrics that were important. We didn't succeed at that. We couldn't get the community to agree on a set of metrics that they really valued and that we had any faith in or ability to collect.

What was the most difficult part of your career?

The hardest thing for me personally was there have been several recessions and in the Phoenix area we're heavily reliant on sales tax and it's very elastic so when the economy goes down sales tax revenues drop very quickly. There was a major recession in the early '90s and the one we're still struggling with now and by law, we have to have a balanced budget. We were forced to cut back staff in both of those. That was very difficult for me. We were able to do much of the cutting through retirements, but there were layoffs. Before this recession, Phoenix had 15,000 employees and now it has 13,000.

There's this attitude that the government is a machine, but this is a people business. The attitudes of the staff, their work ethic and commitment are the fundamental basis of your success. If you don't care about your employees, you aren't going to get them to care about the organization and the public?

Are you concerned about current attitudes to government and government workers?

I worry about hostility. I think some of it is politically based. I had a chance to talk with people in other countries. In some parts of the world, government jobs are seen as very high status and have a special respect in the community. I don't think that's true in the U.S. I don't think there's an inherent positive status in government jobs. I think there's a political polemic or rhetoric that somehow working for government is bad or that all employees are stupid or lazy. Some people push that. The government employees I know are mostly very dedicated and hard working people, but there's a bias against them.

In a recession, everybody sees the too-low salaries and benefits of the public employees as being excessive and there gets to be some jealousy. The pay and benefits in the private sector has declined and the public sector looks better so you get a little economic jealousy and people forget that in the good times governmental salaries tend to be flat or static. Right now, the city would get thousands of applicants. But back in 2004 and 2005, we had an economic boom and we were having trouble hiring people. We tried to pay fair wages, but we'd get few applicants because people wanted the private sector pay. We needed engineers so badly that we had to recruit in Asia and Africa.

Looking ahead, what are your major concerns?

I think government is under a lot of pressure. Culturally, we don't value government and government workers enough and there have been politicians that have reinforced this. I wish I knew a solution for that. But that's one of the challenges for our country. How do we make sure that we have an efficient and effective government and value the people in it?

Otherwise, how will you ever attract the people who want to make a difference?

If people assume that government workers are less intelligent or don't want to work hard, it can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If our nation thinks that only ineffective people work for government, that's what's going to happen.

There was a time in the 1960s that there was a value to giving your life to making your community and your way of life better. There was a reward and value. Today we don't see as much of that kind of value or commitment or psychological reward for making the community a better place to live and I think that's sad.

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