Atlanta's Shirley Franklin

Indirect leadership is perhaps the most difficult to harness. But it can be done. Atlanta's mayor, Shirley Franklin, effectively used an indirect leadership strategy when she was determined to improve the services of the city's judicial system and eliminate wasteful practices in the organization.
July 14, 2008 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

In most American cities, the public institutions that are critical to urban stability and development operate independently from the mayor's office, making reforms difficult to achieve. The topic of the evolving mayoral role in education reform often dominates discussions at the local level. Judicial reform is another area where change makers frequently encounter resistance to reform. Such reforms try to address an array of issues, from the courts' general role in the administration of justice to their specific roles in such subjects as child welfare and crime.

Indirect leadership is perhaps the most difficult to harness. But it can be done. Atlanta's mayor, Shirley Franklin, effectively used an indirect leadership strategy when she was determined to improve the services of the city's judicial system and eliminate wasteful practices in the organization. By building support in the city's legal community and leveraging the expertise and influence of outside advocates to make a clear case for change, Mayor Franklin led the way to a series of critical municipal court reforms, despite her lack of direct authority.

When Mayor Franklin took office in 2002, Atlanta's court system was in need of a serious overhaul. Two separate city-level courts existed in Atlanta: the Traffic Court for parking tickets and moving violations and the Municipal Court that handled all other city code violations. This unnecessary duplication led to bloated budgets and entangled processes that frustrated citizens and wasted millions of taxpayer dollars.

On the surface, this was a management consultant's dream project. The system and its players tended to be underutilized, often working short days. Though judges handled about 13,000 cases annually, their caseloads were in fact light when compared to the national average. To clear the backlog, the city was forced to hire retired judges to the tune of about $600,000 per year. Atlanta's court staff doubled in 10 years, and the Traffic Court's budget grew by 33 percent in just three years.

Watch Stephen Goldsmith's interview with Mayor Franklin. More interviews are available on the Ash Institute YouTube Channel.

In a city that already had slashed budgets, raised taxes, laid off hundreds of employees and cut the mayor's salary by $40,000, Mayor Franklin saw the imperative for reform. She started by reaching out to allies of the court, forming a task force of prominent local litigators and law professors to conduct an initial study of the courts' management practices.

Staffing the initial review panel with trusted local authorities was a skillful maneuver. This ensured support for reform in the broader legal community. It also demonstrated the sincerity of Mayor Franklin's aim to improve service and save resources without compromising the courts' integrity. And, it provided critical guidance to the Boston Consulting Group (which worked pro bono on the project) and the National Council of State Courts to document the shortcomings of the courts and draft a comprehensive set of reform recommendations.

Predictably, these management reviews did not sit particularly well with the judges, who were part of an independent branch of government and therefore not responsible to the mayor or city council. The weight of the evidence, however, was tremendous. But, instead of using the data as a sledgehammer -- which would jeopardize the good faith Mayor Franklin had cultivated with Atlanta's legal community -- she met privately with the judges before releasing the findings publicly.

The studies revealed simple reforms that could dramatically reduce caseloads and save $7 million a year by consolidating the courts' operations and personnel. With the support Mayor Franklin had built in the legal community, these changes were endorsed by the public and implemented relatively easily. The incremental reforms improved customer service, realized millions in savings and made headlines on their own. But without structural changes, the old problems would likely just manifest themselves in new ways.

Mayor Franklin did have the authority to fold the Municipal Court into the Traffic Court. But while this route would have been easier, it would have further diminished the courts' accountability and potentially made matters worse. To make reform last, the state government would have to grant the city the authority to eliminate the Traffic Court. But the state government had created the Traffic Court 50 years earlier, and the court had even survived an earlier overhaul of the state constitution specifically designed to bring uniformity to the judicial system. In addition, the transition itself would be costly, raising the possibility that the benefits to taxpayers might not be realized for years. Eliminating the Traffic Court would be no easy sell.

Nevertheless, after months of tough negotiations with the state and county governments, the deal went through. The reforms went beyond incremental consolidation to true simplification by eliminating the offices of 12 elected judges and improving service, while slashing the city's court budget from $30 million to just $11 million.

Atlanta's residents now have a single, technology-driven, paperless court that achieves its core mission without wasting the public's valuable time or the city's limited resources. In this situation, any ambitious leader could have gotten impressive reforms through. But realizing fundamental reforms without direct authority is the feat of a remarkably effective and strategic leader.

By creating strategic alliances with local advocates and outside experts, communicating clearly with the public and refusing to exchange incremental improvements for transformative change, Mayor Franklin carried out a comprehensive reform that set the stage for further efforts in her own city and that is a model of indirect leadership.

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