Too Many Chiefs? Chief Bike Officer Is the Latest Addition

Despite their important-sounding titles, many of the growing number of “chiefs” in government don't have much actual authority.
by | February 2016
Bikers in downtown Atlanta. (FlickrCC/TimothyJ)

Becky Katz has been pushing for bike-friendly policies in Atlanta for years. Now she can do that from inside city hall, as the city’s first chief bicycle officer.

The new position of chief bicycle officer signals two things. One is that thinking about what’s good for bicyclists is a priority for Mayor Kasim Reed. The other is that it’s starting to get a little crowded in the “C” suites. In Atlanta, as in places across the country, there’s a growing number of people in government with the word “chief” in their titles.

In addition to familiar titles such as chief finance officer, lots of cities and states have decided they need chief data officers, chief connection officers, chief privacy officers and, at least in Oregon, a chief electric vehicle officer. This proliferation of lofty-sounding titles is in keeping with contemporary culture’s “everybody gets a trophy” ethos, suggests Steve Tobak, a management consultant in California. “Reward comes not just in the form of compensation, but titles,” he says.

Title inflation has been running rampant in the private sector for years. In many cases, naming more people as chiefs and vice presidents has been a way of handing out prizes and in-house acclaim. The elevation of more government workers as “chiefs” is a lot like the federal-level fashion a couple of decades ago of naming a “czar” as the go-to person for dealing with a crisis or an issue that’s newly viewed as essential. “It’s a means to signal that this [policy] is a priority,” says Sean O’Keefe, a public management professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. It’s a way of saying, “This is something that we’re going to be paying attention to and will be more responsive to,” he says.

That seems to be the case in Atlanta, where Katz’s position is foundation-funded. She now works to remind a variety of departments -- public works, transportation and planning, among others -- to keep bikes in mind. She’ll try to make sure, for instance, that bike lanes through parks connect to streets, so that bikes can really be used for transportation and not just recreation. “The value of having a chief bike officer or bike czar is they’re the person who connects all the dots and makes sure the people in the various silos are working together,” says Brent Buice, executive director of Georgia Bikes, an advocacy group.

There’s one other advantage. Someone like Katz can act as an ombudsman, giving residents one person to call when they have any kind of issue having to do with bicycling, rather than being bounced around from department to department.

That’s an important role, but a limited one. Ultimately, a free-floating “chief” who tries to coordinate among various state and local agencies will have a constrained impact, assuming she doesn’t have budget authority or other real power over her partners. The worst-case scenario is that new chiefs come in and act as just one more person who can call meetings. By contrast, when Boston Mayor Marty Walsh created a chief streets officer last year, he invested that position with complete oversight of the transportation and public works departments.

When a new administration comes in with invariably different priorities, it might either eliminate some of the newly named chiefs -- or be unable to, if a chief’s constituents insist that the position be maintained. At that point, rather than cutting through the clutter, a toothless chief just adds to duplication and inefficiency.

“Organizational charts change a lot because they are easy to change. It can be done unilaterally by people at the top, and it looks like progress,” says Peter Cappelli, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “It is true, though, that simply changing the organizational chart does not necessarily change how organizations operate.”