Phoenix Peels the Onion to the Core

In 2014, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, was grappling with declining resources, pension issues, and a reduced workforce (down 3,000 positions from the year 2008).

Oct 13, 2015 | ARTICLE
Phoenix, Arizona, staff members gathered for an internal meeting to discuss the city’s CORE process.

In spring 2014, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, was grappling with declining resources, pension issues, and a reduced workforce (down 3,000 positions from the year 2008). What’s more, management had implemented a number of institutionalized processes that frustrated employees. Though these conditions are not necessarily unique to Phoenix, this did not ease the tension they created in the workplace.

In April 2014, I joined the executive team as assistant city manager, working with the then new City Manager Ed Zuercher. My role: to function as the organization’s chief operating officer.

The first major project assignment I was presented with was to take a top-to-bottom operational assessment of the general fund departments. Manager Zuercher named it the Comprehensive Organizational Review Evaluation process or “CORE.”

The goal of what would certainly be a labor-intensive 2014 summer endeavor was to work with departments to rethink how they performed their work. The 3,000 positions from prerecession years would not be coming back, but performance expectations also were not waning.

In several areas, employee perception was that we were mired in paper and procedures to the detriment of cost cutting, efficiency, and results.






The Approach

The initial step towards executing CORE was preparation through communication. It was a topic at meetings and there was communication with elected officials regarding an organizational review process that would unfold over the summer.

Not only were people learning about what was coming, but they were also getting to know more about me as the new assistant city manager. A new process led by a new person naturally raised a lot of questions.

While that was taking place, the city’s communications office was working on branding the effort. A logo and template were created to make CORE immediately recognizable as the information flow continued. We wanted to take a long-term view that process improvement and working horizontally needed to become institutionalized. A traditional vertical focus would not be sufficient from an operational efficiency standpoint.

After all of the conversation about CORE, it was time to ignite. I developed a 90+ question assessment tool that was distributed to general fund department heads. We also added a few enterprise fund groups like convention center and aviation.

Through the outreach phase, it was made clear that completion of the CORE assessment was to be done in an inclusive manner involving as many employees as practically possible. It was not to be merely the impressions of a single director. Some departments really got into the full spirit of the collaborative approach, holding large meetings to gather input on the assessment questions.

As I reviewed each department’s assessment submittal, I sent out a series of follow-up inquiries. This all culminated with a meeting of each department director and his or her respective deputy city manager to walk through their responses. Among other things, we were zeroing in on these key areas:

  • Department-specific processes and practices that slowed productivity.
  • Problematic, organization-wide issues.
  • Examples of areas where “silo busting” needed to occur.
  • Outdated ordinances that were negatively affecting operations.
  • The use of metrics that are meaningful to the public.


Single Department Impacts

A city council presentation was made to give examples of issues that needed attention and to build additional support for the effort. Individual departments were given the green light to implement items they could unilaterally improve upon. Here are examples of things they “fixed”:

  • Reorganizing their structure so they had the right positions to execute their core mission and eliminating vacant positions that saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Transferring functions better handled by another department.
  • Implementing a lease purchase plan for fire pumpers projected to save $637,000 the first year.
  • Developing green initiatives to enhance sustainability.


System-wide Impacts

In order to systematically address the items that impacted the total organization, we needed to establish a group of champions. We formed a CORE implementation team composed of people from across the organization who were eager to roll up their sleeves and peel the onion back to its center.

These individual positions were under the director level, and the people were creative and poised to get things done. We met regularly to examine progress and to devise strategies to bring items to closure.

Here’s a glimpse at some system-wide improvements:

  • Developed a purchasing card system (basically, a credit card) for purchases.
  • Created a ballot initiative for a charter change to eliminate the requirement for paper warrants.
  • Eliminated a cumbersome Request-to-Fill process for hiring.
  • Developed the capacity to use e-signatures.
  • Developed a process to review space-use consolidating leases and putting the city in position to reduce real estate holdings.
  • Revamped city council agenda management procedures.
  • Supported the implementation of e-procurement.


Next Phase

Next, we launched the component that is focused on the development of metrics. We began with five departments, including water services, streets, planning, public works, and the convention center. Our key is using metrics the public cares about.

Cities don’t always do a good job of telling their story about being effective and efficient. The CORE metric initiative is helping our organization to strengthen its ability to do that in a strategic way. We plan to advance CORE through the organization, taking into account five departments at a time.

Silo busting, time saving, and cost reduction requires a consistent focus to realize tangible, sustainable results. CORE has been up and running for just over a year. With every success we earn, it serves as a motivator to move on to improve something else.

It is a team-driven model rather than a top-down edict. It unleashes creativity and supports innovation. We intend to stay with CORE as long as it’s giving us results to celebrate.



Here's a copy of the assessment tool Phoenix uses to assess department efficiency.


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