Anaheim's Curt Pringle

Anaheim's mayor found a unique way to reap the benefits of competition to improve city services.
April 6, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

Most conversations about Mayor Curt Pringle's leadership in Anaheim, California, focus on how Pringle paved the way for a complete transformation of Anaheim's downtown area by creating a favorable environment for private developers. Since being elected in 2002, and reelected in 2006, Pringle has also encouraged growth through tax-free incentives for home and business owners, and is spearheading a large-scale transportation project.

Yet it is Pringle's approach to basic city services that caught my attention. Many of us who care about the quality of public services tackle internal reform utilizing a variety of performance measures, but few governments rigorously measure the most important indicator of performance -- citizen satisfaction. By nature, government is a rule-driven monopoly, so this important measure is often overlooked. However, Pringle's business-minded approach to city management left him uncomfortable with the status quo for city services.

In his 2008 State of the City Address, Pringle brought a new priority to the table for his second term: "You will sometimes hear the expression 'government should be run like a business.' And usually, what is meant ... is that government should be more efficient, and more prudent with the taxpayer's dollars, and in that I certainly agree. So you might be surprised to hear me say that I don't always agree with that statement. ... All businesses face competition. And it is that competition that drives businesses to focus on customer satisfaction. But because government generally does not face competition, customer satisfaction is not always a priority for government."

Pringle was determined to improve his city's performance by bringing a new level of transparency to government operations. He pursued this goal even though there was no public outcry over city services nor was he going to be eligible for reelection. But how do you identify and measure the drivers of customer satisfaction? This is much more subjective and complex than simply asking about response times to requests for city services. Pringle believed that bringing in J.D. Power and Associates and its unique methodology would allow the city to delve deeper than just surveying residents about their government.

How did this partnership come about? It hadn't been done before. In fact, J.D. Power had done very little work with municipalities up to this point. It happens that Mayor Pringle and Dave Power -- the founder of J.D. Power and Associates -- had met informally. During a subsequent conversation, Power described the frustrating process of obtaining approval for an addition on his house. This resonated with Pringle, who had similar concerns for Anaheim residents. He had previously enacted the city's first home-improvement tax holiday, which resulted in more than $28 million in new investment. And, as he told the public, his own recent home improvement project had been "an interesting and expensive exercise. We love our backyard -- now. But, in all honesty, the process was not all that positive." Mayor Pringle and Power decided that J.D. Power and Associates had something special to offer the city.

The company is best known for its automobile rankings, and had previously only dabbled in citizen satisfaction surveys -- and it had certainly never executed one at the level of detail that Pringle was after. Pringle asked the company to analyze the departments that residents and businesses interact with most frequently: the city-owned electric and water utility, the police department, and the planning department.

Understandably, not everyone in city government welcomed this new level of transparency with open arms. And some questioned why the city couldn't just conduct its own survey, as it had in the past. However, J.D. Power presented the city council with a plan that demonstrated how the company's in-depth approach would allow it not only to provide concrete recommendations to the city, but also to prioritize those recommendations. Because J.D. Power's methodology was developed to compare brands and products in the private sector, it had a highly refined arsenal of tools to identify and measure the drivers of customer satisfaction. Mayor Pringle felt that using these tools to shed light on the workings of the public sector, where competition is not normally a factor, would likely generate some healthy internal competition in Anaheim's government. In addition, the company's strong brand recognition meant that more people were likely to respond to the survey. The city council agreed that the initial investment in the survey would be regained, plus some, by the quality of the results the survey would be likely to yield.

Indeed, the insights that came from the survey proved immensely valuable to the city. The city now knew where it could find "big wins." City management and department heads were able to make targeted, informed decisions about how to allocate human, financial and technical resources. There was a clear demand for online transactions across all three departments. This provided the city with the mandate to invest in adding many new capabilities to its Website that were previously deemed a low priority. By getting on the list that banks maintain for online bill payment, the utility was able to both increase citizen satisfaction and reduce billing expenses. Utility customers can now establish service online without having to wait on the phone, reducing the burden on city staff. In addition, the answers to "frequently asked questions" identified for all three departments by the survey are now posted online. And the planning department is preparing information sheets for each type of process or permit -- customers are no longer expected to collect information from numerous departments and divisions for a single project. Streamlining these complex processes will save the city and citizens time and money.

The survey also revealed that some seemingly small actions had an enormous impact on citizen satisfaction. For example, when a building inspector did not offer a business card, satisfaction dropped. When more than one police officer responded to a non-emergency call, satisfaction actually went down. Citizens felt that the interaction was less personal. And a long-held suspicion was confirmed: The utility's two-month billing cycle -- implemented to curb billing costs -- created a perception among business customers that the utility's rates were higher than those of neighboring utility companies with monthly billing cycles. In fact, Anaheim had lower rates. In response, Anaheim's utility added rate comparisons to its bills.

The survey had a broader impact on Anaheim's government, though. In addition to the changes implemented in each department, a cultural shift in city government occurred. In fact, the utility began implementing service improvements as soon as the mayor announced the J.D. Power and Associates survey. The Planning department started working with the mayor on establishing priorities, and convened focus groups, before the survey's results were available. The increased scrutiny actually energized city employees because they felt that someone was taking an interest in their work. This generated a new level of professionalism and dedication. And knowing that other departments were being monitored inspired a positive, competitive atmosphere within city hall. Each department wanted to show the most improvement in their operations. Pringle had achieved his goal of reaping many of the benefits of competition normally found only in the private sector.

Jessica Engelman assisted in the research and writing for this article.

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