Magazine article Personnel Journal

City of Hampton: A Public Deployment of Corporate Tactics

Magazine article Personnel Journal

City of Hampton: A Public Deployment of Corporate Tactics

Article excerpt

On the evening of August 7, 1861, in an attempt to thwart the attack plans of Federals, Confederate forces set the city of Hampton, Virginia ablaze. All that remained of the sea-port town the following day were the charred walls of St. John's church. Despite the devastation, the city soon prospered again as new businesses--including the Langley Research Center, which later became the first NASA site--set up shop here at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

By 1984, however, the city's prosperity had dwindled. Businesses began moving to neighboring cities, population growth stagnated and federal aid slowed to a trickle. The city faced high real-estate tax rates, large annual debt payments and a small commercial tax base. But just as it had done more than a century before, the city of Hampton addressed its problems straight on. And today, as a result of a decade-long reengineering that has brought about such initiatives as employee empowerment and customer focus, and has won approval from such management experts as Tom Peters, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, the city is revitalized.

Reengineering began when the city council, led by City Manager Robert O'Neill, evaluated what makes an organization--either in the public or private sector--successful, and how the city stacked up. The council found that successful organizations share a few common traits. They all have clarity of purpose, a willingness to share power with employees and customers, and are fast and flexible. They also tend to be customer-driven, are willing to take risks and are focused on results rather than activities.

The council determined that Hampton itself had strong, competent department heads and a small capable work force going for it. But it also had a multilayered, inflexible structure that conflicted with what successful organizations demonstrated. So, the council set out to change that. Says Tharon Greene, director of human resources for the city of Hampton: "Out of that period of study and reflection came a series of initiatives that launched Hampton's city government from its position as a well-managed locality to a leadership role in experimentation with new ways of running the business of government."

The city developed a mission--"To establish Hampton as the most livable city in Virginia"---and a set of organizational values--"responsiveness to citizens, quality, integrity, teamwork, professionalism and innovation." Then it worked on the government's structure.

At the time, the management structure had departments aligned under three city managers. O'Neill took the assistant city managers out of line authority and focused their efforts on long-term strategic issues, such as quality of life, economic development and youth initiatives. He then gave department heads more authority by putting them on performance contracts tied to the organization's mission. Forming into operational task forces, the department heads began to run day-to-day operations of the city with little supervision from the city manager's office.

The city also began transitioning its employee base into self-directed work teams, starting within the human resources department. Now, in addition to these permanent work teams, more than 100 employee problem-solving groups, task forces and committees meet at any one time, involving as many as 1,500 of the city's 2,000 workers. These include voluntary groups that do community work. In 1993, for example nearly 1,400 workers participated in community projects. One such task force went to the state legislature and initiated a bill to get money for a youth-at-risk program. …

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