A visitor to the office of Anthony Williams, the District of Columbia's chief financial officer, can't help but notice a rather striking photograph. It looks like a postal warehouse that's been hit by a tornado. Tumble-down piles of tipped-over letter crates dominate the foreground, and scattered stacks of envelopes spill haphazardly onto the floor behind.
But the scene isn't the aftermath of any natural disaster. It is a picture of the "filing system" of the district's business tax bureau before Williams became D.C.'s CFO. As a metaphor for the condition of the district's financial management practices, it is not merely as good as any, it is almost perfect.
For more than a decade, the district has been a monument to budgeting and management hijinks that would best be described as hilarious if their consequences weren't so serious--notoriously lousy city services, dysfunctional departments and bottomless-pit budgets. After an alarming string of large budget deficits in the early 1990s, Congress finally decided in 1995 to appoint a fiscal oversight board to end the fiscal reign of error.
Under the terms of the congressional dictate, the district was required to create a new position of chief financial officer. The CFO would be hired by the mayor, but could only be removed by the oversight board. And so the trick for D.C. Mayor Marion Barry--never one to relinquish control gladly--was to hire somebody suitably compliant. In the fall of 1995, the mayor settled on a seemingly mousy, bow-tie-bedecked federal bureaucrat.
Barry should have researched Williams' background a little more carefully. As executive director for St. Louis's Community Development Agency in 1990, Williams had been beaten up by a couple of big (physically big, that is) city contractors who thought he was being overzealous in his contract oversight. As deputy comptroller for the state of Connecticut from 1991 to 1993, he blew the whistle on the governor for using delayed tax refunds to cover budget shortfalls. And just prior to taking the D.C. job, Williams learned all about Byzantine budgets and sprawling bureaucracies while CFO of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But it did not take the mayor long to learn that he'd made a mistake. Early in his tenure, Williams stated flatly and publicly that he was the new fiscal law in town. "It was at a press conference on who had control over vendor contracts," recalls Williams. "I basically said that my office was created as an autonomous, independent entity within the D.C. government and that the mayor's financial powers were transferred to me.... I also said that we had all these crappy contracts that just weren't going to be allowed to go through anymore."
So much for mousy. And it has been more of the same ever since. Working closely with the financial oversight board, Williams has consolidated his control over the city's budget and finance bureaucracy, ousting all of the city's top financial managers along with 300 laggard employees. Meanwhile, he has forced two consecutive real-world budgets on the district. He is also in the middle of trying to modernize all of the city's financial management systems, and he continues to scour the city's books in pursuit of an elusive "clean audit."
Indeed, it was while chasing that audit that one of Williams' top staffers stumbled on to the debris pile that was the city's business tax records. Which led to the other eye-catching photo that now sits in the CFO's office: Long, neat rows of file folders containing 74,000 sets of business tax records, all in their proper place in a department restored to order. For those who were skeptical that anybody might ever be able to put D.C.'s tumble-down financial house back in order, the two pictures speak volumes.
— Jonathan Walters
Photo by Walter P. Calahan