Lessons from a front-row seat to Detroit's dysfunction

Then there was the obstructionism of the City Council. While I was at the DDOT, roughly 10% of bus-fare collection boxes were broken. In another city, getting a contract to buy spare parts to repair these boxes would be routine. The City Council publicly expressed outrage that we didn’t fix the fare boxes, since the city was losing an estimated $5 million a year in uncollected fares.

But the reason we couldn’t fix the fare boxes was that the contract for the necessary spare parts had been sitting, untouched, in the City Council’s offices for nine months. Due to past corruption, virtually every contract had to be approved by the council, resulting in months-long delays. Micromanagement by the council was endemic; I once sat for five hours waiting to discuss a minor transportation matter while City Council members debated whether to authorize the demolition of individual vacant and vandalized houses, one by one. There are over 40,000 vacant houses in Detroit.

Union and civil-service rules made it virtually impossible to fire anyone. A six-step disciplinary process provided job protection to anyone with a pulse, regardless of poor performance or bad behavior. Even the time-honored management technique of moving someone up or sideways where he would do less harm didn’t work in Detroit: Job descriptions and qualification requirements were so strict it was impossible for management to rearrange the organization chart. I was a manager with virtually no authority over personnel.

When the federal government got involved, it only made things worse.