Burgess plans to change county's negative image
By Shannon Pettypiece
County Manager George Burgess wants to erase Miami-Dade government's negative reputation by increasing accountability.
A former county manager says Mr. Burgess has a lofty goal requiring character and leadership.
With six months in the job, Mr. Burgess said the county must move in new directions, operate more ethically and be more public-oriented.
"We are focusing on ethical, transparent government," he said. "We will be setting goals based on what residents want and expect."
He said he wants people to "trust that government is running efficiently."
In a Bendixen and Associates poll of 400 residents last summer, 20% of respondents said they had no trust in county government and 29% said they had very little.
Mr. Burgess wants the county to run as a business, in which success is measured by public satisfaction, not profits. He plans to solicit citizen feedback and make managers more receptive to public concerns.
The plan won't change the county's existing Ethics Commission, but support it, said county spokeswoman Alison Wealcatch.
Former county manager Merrett Stierheim said instilling faith in government is an ambitious goal.
"I'm highly in favor of and support what George is trying to do," he said, "but it is a daunting task. It can't be smoke and mirrors. It has got to be based on substance, but I am sure George is going to do that."
Mr. Stierheim said many county managers tackle the issue.
"Any manager worth his or her salt is always trying to build the public's confidence," Mr. Stierheim said. "Clearly, it is very hard to build pubic confidence and very easy to destroy it."
A company wouldn't stay in business long without knowing what its customers want, Mr. Burgess says, and the same applies for a government.
Following this philosophy, Mr. Burgess is pushing for change in the county culture to move toward a businesses-oriented, customer-focused style of management.
"We are in business like anyone else," he said. "Businesses succeed if they are responsive to their customers."
The county is seeking citizen feedback more frequently through surveys and in the new year plans to launch a call center to "make sure we understand what our customers want," he said.
Mr. Burgess envisions soliciting feedback through surveys from residents after they have encounters with county departments, he said.
Also in the works is a county hot line the public can call with questions or complaints that will be directed appropriate departments, he said.
Data collected will help direct tax dollars and identify areas that need to be improved, Mr. Burgess said.
"This starts to address what the public needs so we can direct tax dollars to those needs," he said.
The plans first was discussed with senior management during an October meeting where public-sector management expert Bob Stone told the room of administrators that their goal should be to listen to their "customers."
"It is really scary to listen to customers, but it is a lot more risky if you don't," Mr. Stone said.
County officials will meet again in January to further explore how to implement a more ethical, customer-focused government.
In the eyes of county schools superintendent Merrett Stierheim, a former Miami-Dade County manager, Mr. Burgess is on the right track but is challenging a fundamental skepticism of government.
"I commend his initiative. I think he is definitely on the right course," Mr. Stierheim said. "But let's face it, this county is just a microcosm of the country and there are pervasive feelings across the country of distrust in government."
Mr. Burgess became county manager June 12, re-entering county government after a nine-month stint as chief financial officer for Miami-Dade Public Schools.
Facing many obstacles and challenges ranging from balancing the county's budget to addressing construction flaws with the Greater Miami Performing Arts Center, Mr. Burgess said, he has turned each into an opportunity to restore the public's faith in government.
"A crisis is an opportunity," he said. "We've addressed the opportunities as they have arrived. ... It's been a fun six months, never a dull moment, and there have been a lot of opportunities."
Mr. Burgess credits himself with several successes during his first six months. Those include:
Finalized the county budget and created an emergency reserve planned to contain $100 million in seven years.
Helped launch a campaign for a general-obligation bond that would finance up to $1.6 billion in countywide projects.
Streamlined Miami-Dade County's transportation administration by eliminating some departments.
Worked on a transportation-expansion plan approved by voters last year by appointing a surface-transportation manager, an executive director to the watchdog group monitoring spending of revenue from a half-penny sales surtax revenue and helping draft a 30-year spending plan for the tax money.
Started putting together a financing plan for a new baseball stadium in Miami.