Reinventing city government

Greg Jones wants to make it “faster, better and smarter”

Photo By Thomas Del Brase

Greg Jones has been Chico’s city manager for only three months now, since January 1, but that’s been enough time for him to become familiar with Chico’s easygoing ways, especially when it comes to clothing. During our interview, for example, he is wearing a soft green cotton pullover and tan corduroy trousers, as if about to take a stroll in the park. Instead, he’s hard at work at City Hall, where he’s the CEO, in effect, of a $100-million-plus public corporation with more than 400 employees."I put on a tie sometimes, for public events, City Council meetings,” he says, laughing. “But I realized soon after arriving here that Chico was a casual town, and that’s fine with me!”

Our interview took place at the long conference table that dominates his third-floor office. His large walnut desk—the same one where his predecessor Tom Lando sat for 13 years—is at the south end of the room. From it he has a view of the City Council building next door and Main Street just beyond. A large, framed print of various Air Force planes is on the wall behind the desk.

By virtue of his position, Jones is now one of the most prominent—and, at $190,000 a year, highest-paid—public officials in Chico, but right now he doesn’t look the part. Indeed, he’s the picture of everyday ordinariness, an almost boyish-looking man in rumpled clothes whose easy laugh often comes out as a soft giggle.

Now 43, he has short, thinning brown hair and a brown beard with no signs of gray. His eyes, behind wire-rimmed glasses, are greenish-brown, the color of green tea with milk. If anything, he looks younger than his years, too young to have such an important job, a wunderkind who’s climbed very high very fast.

But looks are deceiving. He’s had a wealth of experience, both personally—he’s got three grown children, ranging in age from 20 to 23, from his first marriage—and professionally. In addition to the 14 years he spent in city government in Concord before coming to Chico, where he was hired as assistant city manager in October 2004, he also served six years as a U.S. military officer.

The airplanes on the wall behind his desk are a reminder of that stint. After graduating from college at the age of 20, already married and the father of a son, Jones enrolled in the Air Force, eventually becoming an in-flight aerial navigator with the rank of captain. The largest of the planes pictured, he explains, is a KC 135, which is a Boeing 707 retrofitted as an in-flight refueling plane. It’s the plane he navigated, guiding it from his station in the rear.

“My eyes weren’t good enough to be a pilot,” he says, “but it actually worked out great. Navigation is both an art and a science—we used everything from celestial navigation to computers to do it—and that really appealed to me.”

He says he hopes to apply that same balance between art and science to city management. The art, he says, has to do with fostering a sense of purpose, shared values and commitment to service among the people who work for the city. The science, he adds, has to do with the administrative systems that must be created to foster that sense of purpose.

Chico’s city government is exceptionally good, he says: “The citizens of Chico are very lucky to have such great people serving them.” His goal, he says, is to build on that. He believes he’s bringing something new to the city that will make it “faster, better and smarter.” He wants to create an environment in which every department and every employee wants to improve performance. The way to do that is to infuse the organization with entrepreneurial spirit, and the way to do that is to “change the culture so people are excited about their work.”

This isn’t mere wishful thinking. For decades, experts on public administration have been calling for governments to become more like their counterparts in the private sector: more responsive and efficient, more customer oriented, less sluggishly bureaucratic.

But it wasn’t until the publication in 1992 of Reinventing Government: How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector, by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, that public officials had a template for making public agencies more responsive (see sidebar, “Blueprint for change,” page 16).

One of the cities profiled in the book as an example of successful reinvention was Sunnyvale, which under longtime City Manager Tom Lewcock had developed a wide range of administrative systems that exemplified the recommendations Osborne and Gaebler made in their book.

Greg Jones sits at the desk manned by predecessor Tom Lando for 13 years.

Photo By Robert Speer

By coincidence, Greg Jones was working for the city of Concord in 1994 when its City Council hired Lewcock’s former assistant city manager, a man named Ed James, as its new city manager. James, who was thoroughly infused with “reinventing-government” concepts as well as practical knowledge of how to implement them, took Jones under his wing, making him assistant city manager and teaching him all he knew about reinventing city government. Jones calls James, who’s now retired, his “mentor” and says he continues to go to him for advice.

Jones’ path to city management was indirect, to say the least. He grew up in Ellensburg, Wash., the youngest of three children. His parents both worked at Central Washington University (CWU), which is located there. His father was a chemistry professor who went on to become a dean and then the assistant to the president, and his mother was director of alumni services. Jones attended local schools and then studied business administration on an ROTC scholarship at CWU. Right after graduation, he joined the Air Force.

Of his six years in the Air Force, three were spent stationed in England. He enjoyed flying, he says, and the opportunity to travel to many different places in the world.

He’d always been interested in government work. At one point his father, aware of this predilection, told him, “If you have to work in the public sector, work for a city. That’s where the rubber meets the road.” So after leaving the Air Force in 1990, Jones took a job with the fast-growing city of Concord in its personnel department as an analyst doing recruitment and selection. He had been looking for a position in management and organizational development, and the job fit the bill.

In Concord, Jones worked in all the various areas of personnel—employee training and development, organizational development, labor negotiations, employee relations, recruitment, benefits administration, risk management, retirement administration—"learning a ton about organizations,” he says. By the time James arrived, Jones had a good sense of what worked and, more important, what didn’t work in city government.

James showed him how to transform city government to make it more effective and responsive to the public. One thing James did, Jones says, was “push decision making down into the organization so that those directly providing services had the ability and flexibility to make decisions. … The community gets better served, people are paid to think rather than just take direction, and employees get a high level of satisfaction in performing their jobs.”

Concord also implemented an extensive performance planning process that laid out goals and objectives for the coming year. Managers were then held accountable for achieving them. “What gets measured gets done,” Jones notes, “and when we are looking to do things more efficiently, that is very important.”

One of the most significant moves was to switch from line-item budgeting, with its rigid insistence that money be spent only as allocated, to what is known as outcome budgeting, which measures the actual costs of providing services and refocuses the budgeting process on achieving certain goals and results. Under this system, managers are given a pool of money to achieve a wide range of goals and are free to spend it at their discretion. Any money left over can be added to next year’s budget.

This encourages the kind of risk-taking that is common in the private sector but rare in government. Like James, Jones believes strongly in letting people take risks and that without risk-taking you get no innovation. “I won’t punish well-meant failures,” he promises. “My goal is to get managers to think in terms of outcomes, of achieving good results. Most managers are process oriented, not outcome oriented.”

One of the most important ways to focus on outcomes, he adds, is to agree about the organization’s central purposes. Just this week Jones implemented a task force called “Mission, Vision and Values.” It’s composed of one person from each department—Public Works, Community Services, Fire and Police, among others—and its purpose, he explains, is to ask such basic questions as “Why do you come to work?” and “Why do you perform your job?” Jones wants to tap into the original motivation that led people to work in government: a desire to serve the public, to help one’s community, to work with like-minded people.

But he can’t impose these values on people, he says. “It’s got to be something that’s grown within—with my leadership, because that’s my job—and then spread like gospel through the organization.”

Reinvention is not always easy. In Concord, he says, the process of getting the various program managers to figure out what their real purposes were and to define the outcomes they wanted to achieve took a full two years. “At least half of the organization didn’t understand what they were doing,” he says.

Jones acknowledges that change can be scary, especially for employees who are not accustomed to taking responsibility. In Concord, “previous conditions did not encourage risk-taking and decision-making, so it took time to develop trust within the organization. Some managers couldn’t make the shift or didn’t want to, so we experienced turnover in our management staff.”

Greg Jones, center, attends a news conference announcing a cooperative agreement between university and city police. Also pictured, from left: University Police officer John Rucker, Chico Police Sgt. Dave Barrow, Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty and University Police Chief Leslie Deniz.

Photo By Thomas Del Brase

In private business, he explains, employees well know what their primary mission is: to make a profit for the company. That’s a focal point for all that follows—efficient management, satisfying working conditions, making quality products, fostering esprit de corps.

Government, lacking the profit incentive, must find other ways to build entrepreneurial spirit, Jones says, and that’s what he’s trying to do in Chico. “You’ve got to let people do things,” he explains. “It’s a risk on my part, but that’s how you build internal capacity. I want employees who can respond to the community as soon as possible, who are confident in their ability to do that. … This place should be able to run just fine without me.”

Other task forces will follow. He wants to set up a “Process Improvement Task Force,” for example, that would “overhaul the burdensome, Byzantine processes [in city government] and overcome them.” He also wants to create a task force on outcome budgeting, another on organizational training and one on customer service.

As with the other task forces, the idea is for the employees themselves to generate fresh ideas and approaches and share information. That way they’re empowered, not just told what to do.

A number of people interviewed for this article, including Lando, pointed out that Jones already has started “pushing down responsibility to the departments.” Lando notes that Jones, in his 14 months as assistant manager, had time to become familiar with the city’s corporate culture without being “inculcated” by it. “In those areas where change is appropriate, he can jump in and try new things.”

City Councilman Dan Herbert says he’s noticed that Jones is “really defaulting to let staff speak up at council meetings.” He thinks that will only serve to make the employees better at their jobs. “Greg just keeps quiet. He listens, but he lets them put their foot in their mouth and then work it back out again.”

City staffers already are feeling the positive effect of Jones’ presence, Herbert adds. “I’ve had a number of employees come up to me and say, ‘Great job hiring Greg,'” he explains.

At those meetings he’s expected to run, Jones should be very effective, notes City Councilman Andy Holcombe. He recalls attending a meeting dealing with an arts-funding issue, back when Jones was still assistant city manager. Several arts groups were there, he continues, and all had different ideas on how the money should be spent.

In little time Jones, who was in charge of the meeting, had brought the groups together, leading them to “a good result in a very soft way,” Holcombe says. “They all expected it to be confrontational, but he didn’t. That left a very good impression with me. He was well prepared and skillful—people skills and management skills.”

For his part, Jones is happy to be in Chico. It’s a lot like Ellensburg, he says, a college town surrounded by farmland, so “it really feels like home here.”

His wife, Betty, works on-call for the school district with special-needs children. The couple met while they both were working for the city of Concord; both were divorced, and both had three children. For a while they had kids in the house, but now all six are grown and on their own, so it’s just the two of them, the family dog and two cats.

Betty’s granddaughter comes to visit regularly from the Bay Area, however. Jones explains that the child has special needs resulting from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which has rendered her close to legally blind after multiple surgeries on her eyes; Betty helps with her care.

Jones’ older son, who’s 23, is “an aspiring musician” in Atlanta. His daughter, 21, graduated from the University of Georgia and now lives in Baltimore, where she’s an accountant, and his younger son, who’s 20, is an AmeriCorps volunteer in Boston and will be attending college next year.

For all his career accomplishments, Jones says he is proudest of his children, “who have grown into independent, compassionate and contributing members of the communities in which they live. I am also proud of the ambition and belief in education instilled in them, whatever path they may follow in their lives.”

And he’s happy to be Chico’s city manager. “I love my job,” he says. “I’m excited every day to come to work. The diversity of the job is unbelievably rich.”