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How Denver's City Workers Prevented a Bureaucratic Mess

When the city's marijuana-licensing program faced a crisis, a team trained in efficiency showed how nimble public employees can be.

Last year I wrote about a Denver program called Peak Performance that invests in municipal employees to give them the tools to make city government more efficient. In recent months, the city's implementation of a state law legalizing recreational marijuana and a city ordinance that allows retail marijuana establishments to open has shown that the city's workforce takes a backseat to none when it comes to efficiency.

To apply to open a retail marijuana store, some applicants had to be fully licensed by last Oct. 1. Those not licensed by that date would have to wait until 2016 to apply. But in September, the director of Denver's Department of Excise and Licenses resigned.

In most places, that might have thrown a licensing program already under intense deadline pressure into turmoil. But within a day, the city came up with a list of 15 employees -- identified as top performers thanks to the Peak Performance program -- to step in. In addition to Excise and Licenses, the workers were from agencies as disparate as the city attorney's office, public works, budget and human services.

Gretchen Hollrah, the city's deputy chief financial officer, was installed as acting manager of Excise and Licenses and Scotty Martin from the Budget and Management Office headed the new implementation team's day-to-day operations. The peak team's mission was not just to come up with a quick fix. Its members were expected to map out best practices for licensing and leave behind a structure that worked. A day after the group was assembled, it had developed a plan.

Perhaps the hardest part of the job was not to turn off existing workers whom the peak team would have to train in the new structure. The team had to be respectful and careful not to dismantle processes that worked -- and do it all with just 10 days to go until its first deadline.

Denver's level of immersion in Peak Performance, which trains employees to root out waste, helped build a spirit of collegiality. Most city employees have had some level of Peak Performance training. That included Excise and Licenses workers, who had recently taken part in two "rapid improvement" sessions that made them aware of the challenges they faced and more willing to work with the peak team.

By Dec. 31, the team had 317 applications from 149 business entities for four types of marijuana licenses and nearly 50 licenses had been issued (a process that includes application, public hearing and inspection). On Jan. 1 of this year, the first day marijuana stores were allowed, 19 opened. Today, 37 are doing business in Denver.

Hollrah credits her own Peak Performance training for teaching her how to integrate the new implementation team with existing Excise and Licenses employees, deploy the peak team and build effective processes. She calls it the most amazing experience of her career.

And it's not over yet. Although a new director of Excise and Licenses took over earlier this month, she will soon be out on maternity leave. Hollrah still spends 20 percent of her time on the agency and will continue to do so until May.

Denver's Peak Performance experience debunks the myth that public employees can't be as nimble and efficient as their private counterparts. Instead, it proves that when you value excellence and efficiency, communicate its importance to workers, and give them the tools and flexibility to achieve it, they can effectively tackle problems far outside the confines of their own job descriptions.

Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance
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