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Re-Engineering the Ship to Go Sideways? 

Mayor Ray Nagin has announced a massive reorganization plan for City Hall with the stated goal of making government "more effective, efficient and customer friendly." I don't doubt the mayor's good intentions, but I can't help wondering if somewhere there's another agenda.

Like reorganizing City Hall to take power away from his own chief administrative officer.

Strictly from a management perspective, the new plan puzzles me. But first, a little background.

Nagin by profession is a CEO, and any good CEO knows you have to delegate decision-making authority so that you don't get overwhelmed by details. At the same time, you don't want to spread that authority too thinly. Ideally, a CEO has two or three top managers who in turn supervise a larger number of mid-level managers. The key is choosing the right top managers and delegating each the right (and the right amount) of authority.

New Orleans mayors for decades have had one top appointee, the chief administrative officer, who oversees all departments. By custom, mayors have brought key department heads into their inner circle -- typically the city attorney, the press secretary and various executive assistants -- along with the CAO.

But the CAO always stood at the top of the pecking order, just beneath the mayor.

Nagin's new plan changes that model significantly.

Instead of having one or two or three top-level managers, Nagin will have at least eight. That means, at any given time, he could have any (or any combination) of eight folks who need to see him right away. Equally troublesome, he will have to gather at least eight people to get a grasp of the big picture at City Hall -- instead of two or three.

Ask any CEO what's the biggest drain on his or her time and the answer likely will be "too many meetings with my managers," or "too many of my own folks lining up to see me." The solution of choice for successful CEOs is to pick no more than three top managers and meet with them almost exclusively -- thereby freeing the CEO to look at "big picture" items -- including ways to improve the company.

Nagin knows this as well as any CEO, because he was a good one at Cox Communications.

Which makes me wonder why he has chosen this somewhat diluted management model for city government. "Efficiency" is not the word that comes to mind, particularly when it comes to freeing up our city's CEO to "think big."

Instead, it looks as though Nagin has taken great pains to take authority away from his Chief Administrative Officer, Kimberly Williamson Butler. The new plan effectively strips her of all authority except that which the City Charter absolutely requires her office to have.


A lot of folks in and out of the administration have griped about Butler. They say that her style is, well, autocratic. And that's putting it mildly. It's an open secret that Nagin recently has steered authority away from Butler and toward other top aides. The reorganization plan announced last week sets that trend into concrete.

Nagin says the old plan put at least 35 departments and agencies under the CAO's supervision, which is unwieldy in the best of situations. He says his new plan spreads the burden in more appropriate ways.

I'm not so sure.

If Butler is a problem, the solution is to get rid of her. If she's not a problem, then why spread so much of her authority among seven additional managers?

In spite of all that's been said of the last administration, there were never any complaints of incompetence or gross mismanagement in the CAO's office. In fact, the City Council now includes a very successful CAO from that era -- Marlin Gusman. On his watch, the city hired a reform police chief and cut the murder rate almost in half.

Is that a problem?

Nagin appears to be re-engineering his entire ship of state because he doesn't like the course his first mate is taking. That's not the way a successful captain reaches his destination.

click to enlarge It looks as though Mayor Ray Nagin has taken great pains to take authority away from his chief administrative officer. Why? - DONN YOUNG
  • Donn Young
  • It looks as though Mayor Ray Nagin has taken great pains to take authority away from his chief administrative officer. Why?


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