The recent report by a consulting firm calling for a massive streamlining and reorganization of the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department(DWSD) is welcome news after thirty-five years of Federal Court oversight because of the department’s repeated violations of the Clean Water Act. What is especially encouraging about the report is that the set of recommendations put forth represent the first substantive steps for improving the efficiency of a system that for too long has fought change. The fact that DWSD, the Detroit Water Board and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing appear to have embraced the spirit of the recommendations is a very positive sign, which increases the plan’s chances for success.
It is my sincere hope the reorganization will end DWSD’s age old practice as a bloated and cumbersome bureaucracy that has not served the best interests of the 120 communities and 4.2 million citizens in the region who rely on the department for high quality water and first rate service.
As encouraged as I am by the substance of the report, it is essential that a second opinion be sought, as you or I would do when confronted by the prospect of major surgery. Before any drastic actions are taken to pare staffing or make other changes, it would be advisable for DWSD, the water board and Mayor Bing to seek input from other water/sewer system operators across the country that have undertaken reorganization plans of their own to improve efficiency and cost effectiveness to see what has worked and what hasn’t.
The DWSD study also recommended outsourcing selected services when it makes sense to do so and also involve the private sector to a greater degree by utilizing their technological expertise and experience to get Detroit back into compliance with federal law. Outsourcing opportunities might include contracting with a private sector firm for sludge disposal, an ongoing problem that has been a major source for DWSD’s repeated violations of the Clean Water Act.
In moving forward with the reorganization plan, all vested parties should take a calibrated, measured, light-handed and pragmatic approach rather than using broad-brush strokes to make changes in the system. That means involving employees as active participants in assessing their respective job functions and how those may or may not fit into the overall mission of the organization’s goals.
Speaking from personal experience, I know what it takes to create a high functioning and efficient organization. Early on in my administration I undertook one major department reorganization and two smaller ones to bring staffing up to the appropriate levels. Because of staff cutbacks, it became essential for our employees to be cross-trained in order to maintain high quality service for our customers.
DWSD reorganization will not be accomplished next week or even next year, but more than likely over a period of 5 to ten years. The reorganization will not result in reduced water rates since any potential savings will be put back into the underground infrastructure to make it more efficient. However, improvements made to the system could minimize any future rate increases.
We now stand at a crossroads, city and suburbs, in our relationship. What used to be the “we,” meaning the suburbs versus “they,” meaning the city attitude is starting to change. Those of us on either side of Eight Mile Road have begun to realize that we all want the same thing which is high quality water and sewer service at a low cost.
The “we” versus “they” mentality has become “us,” and that bodes well for the city, suburbs and southeast Michigan.