Company: The City of Milwaukee
Location: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
He certainly doesn’t sound like a politician – least of all, like a Democrat. When John Norquist talks, he sounds exactly like a change agent: a man committed to cutting costs, improving productivity, adding value, and getting bureaucracy out of the way.
In fact, Norquist is a change agent who also happens to be both a Democrat and a politician — and a popular one at that. Now in his third four-year term as mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Norquist has made a career out of overturning conventional political thinking: For 10 years, he’s been forging a new way to run his city — faster, cheaper, and better. “You want to raise quality, not just spend money,” says Norquist, sitting behind his desk, a huge, drawerless library table in his second-floor office at City Hall. (“Things get lost in drawers,” he says.) “The goal is the success of the people of Milwaukee,” he says, “not the growth of government. The idea is for people to thrive. We organize our efforts to add value to people’s lives.”
Success, says Norquist, should be measured by outcomes. So by his own standard, how does Norquist measure up? Every year that he’s been in office, Norquist has cut the city’s tax rates — leaving more than $31 million in the hands of Milwaukee residents and local businesses. Over the last eight years, Norquist has reduced city spending by more than 20% in real dollars — with the city spending money at a rate at or below the rate of inflation (a budgetary tool dubbed “Norquist’s Law” by an admiring Michael Barone, formerly an editor at U.S. News and World Report). And since he took office, he’s cut the city payroll by 730 positions, a 10% reduction.
At the same time, the city’s unemployment rate has dropped to about 4.5%. Property values have risen citywide — including in low-income neighborhoods — by 7.5%. Crime is down to its lowest levels since the mid-1980s. And workers’ wages, measured in real terms, have increased at a rate that is three times as high as the national average.
The city itself has a certain buzz. Not the roar of Manhattan, to be sure, but a healthy midwestern hum. In the Third Ward, a historic warehouse district that’s home to a thriving arts community, eager buyers are snapping up loft spaces before renovation can even begin. Along the once-neglected shores of the Milwaukee River, which runs through the city’s downtown, a just-completed two-mile-long RiverWalk has drawn a mix of restaurants, businesses, and housing developments. “I believe that cities add value to civilization,” says Norquist, whose recent book, “The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life” (Addison Wesley, 1998), outlines a blueprint for revitalizing America’s urban centers. “I look at my job as being that of a facilitator. I try to put together the kind of vision that people want to have for the city.”
Norquist’s strategies require thinking outside the box — way outside the box. To start with, he’s broken with a 50-year tradition among U.S. mayors, who have tended to pin the health of their cities on the largesse of the federal government. For example, when the U.S. Conference of Mayors met in an emergency session after the 1992 Los Angeles riots over the Rodney King trial — and decided to use the occasion to press the federal government for more aid — Norquist didn’t agree. “For cities to associate themselves with that calamity was counterproductive,” he says. “Imagine that you’re a private-sector corporation, and you say, ‘We’re about to go out of business. It’s dangerous to be near us. We could explode into riots at any moment. Now send us money.’ We should reject this strategy of trying to build a city on fear and pity.”
But Norquist is not a big fan of federal money in the first place. From his perspective, federally funded highways and housing policies have led only to the decline of big cities — encouraging suburban sprawl at the expense of healthy urban centers. “If you look at the ways the federal government has tried to ‘help,’ ” he says, “you’ll almost always find that things get screwed up.”
Norquist’s key to success means doing more with less, trying to unlock the wealth of a city rather than to redistribute it. Unlike states and nations, he says, cities are “creations of a marketplace.” They spring up at crossroads of commerce — at places like a good port or the intersection of rail lines. And they thrive as the market thrives, with a ready supply of labor, a strong demand for goods, and a constant stream of creativity.
It’s a view of city government that means less bureaucracy and more enterprise. It also includes a mind-set that sees citizens as customers, “as people you want to please.” Some of his solutions may seem surprisingly simple. But at City Hall, Norquist’s ideas amount to a revolution. Here are some of his innovations.
As a free-market enthusiast, Norquist is out to end monopolies — including those inside city government. For example, “internal service agencies” — the in-house departments that provide other city agencies with basic services such as printing, maintenance, and technology — are a hotbed of bureaucratic and monopolistic practices in many cities. When Norquist asked city employees to give a “customer-satisfaction rating” to Milwaukee’s internal service agencies, he heard a host of complaints about high cost, low quality, and slow response.
The answer? Competition: Let city departments shop around among private contractors. Let the fire department, for example, hire an outside bidder to paint its firehouses in the summer — when it’s least disruptive to fire services — instead of in the fall, when it’s most convenient for the city’s painters. (The fire department has implemented this plan successfully.)
The upshot, says Norquist, is that the city’s own agencies got the message: They not only began to provide better services, but some also became competitive enough to win outside accounts. The city’s MIS department, for instance, counts a local college and a sewage district among its clients.
The way Norquist sees things, the innate “wealth” of cities provides people with lots of choices — where to eat, what to buy, where to work, whom to hire. The one thing most city residents have virtually no choice in is schools. For parents with kids in grades K-12, there’s the public-school system and — unless you’re wealthy — nothing else. In other words, it’s another monopoly, one that Norquist is determined to end. A program called Milwaukee Parental Choice has put vouchers worth $5,400 in the hands of low-income parents, allowing them to send their children to the public or private school of their choice. This school year, about 6,000 children are participating.
Norquist’s advocacy of a choice program puts him smack in the middle of a national controversy over the best way to improve public education. But he’s convinced that competition will serve only to make public schools better. “In a city, when you have choice and competition, it stimulates quality and creativity,” he says. “When it comes to the schools, if you give parents — the customers — a little power, suddenly excellence starts to pop up.”
Norquist encourages his managers to ask such questions as, What is the purpose of this organization? The answer, he says, is simple: to add value to the lives of Milwaukee’s citizens. To make it easier for department heads to reach that goal, Norquist has redesigned the budget process: Gone is the traditional line-item budget that requires managers to justify every expense. Under Norquist’s system, department heads get a fixed sum of money — and more freedom to determine how to spend it to meet their goals.
“For example, we want Milwaukee to be a safe city,” says Norquist, referring to his negotiations with city council members over the police department’s budget. Instead of micromanaging the police department — asking how many cops will be assigned, and where and when — city officials now send a simple message: Reduce crime. “We don’t want to hear about community-oriented policing or other techniques,” Norquist says. “The police department used to have a three-page mission statement, and nobody could remember what its mission was. Now its mission is simple: to reduce crime and to improve the quality of life.” Success is measured by outcomes — and in the case of crime, it’s down from a peak of 94.6 crimes per 1,000 residents in 1990 to 76.6 crimes per 1,000 at the end of 1997.
Norquist’s unorthodox style of governing has won him many admirers — his name gets bounced around nationally as part of a new breed of “progressives” and “pragmatists” who are reforming government. It’s also earned him his fair share of enemies — the state’s powerful teachers’ union, for one, is angry with him over his support for school vouchers. And African-American leaders say he hasn’t done enough to work with their constituents.
As a fast mayor in the slow-to-change world of politics, Norquist pays another price: For the time being, he’s in political limbo, operating outside traditional party boundaries. But he isn’t complaining. “I’m already at a very high level as mayor of the seventeenth-largest city in America,” Norquist says. “And I have a forum where I can speak on national issues. I’m more ambitious about advancing ideas than I am about climbing up the political ladder. But I never rule anything out,” he says. “Opportunity knocks — you never know.”
As a change agent in a world that’s slow to change, John Norquist has one guiding proposition: It’s the ideology, stupid. If you’re out to shake things up in the world around you, make sure that you’ve thought through your own ideology. Know what you believe in — and know why you believe it. Rather than reacting to other people’s ideas, says Norquist, you need to come up with your own agenda, to state it clearly, and to pursue it single-mindedly.
“Outcomes, not inputs” is Norquist’s mantra. “Ideology matters a lot in the United States,” Norquist says. “A clear and strongly articulated ideology has been one of the strengths of the Republican surge, and it’s one of the biggest weaknesses that the Democratic party has right now. The U.S. political world seems to be stuck on ‘stupid’ — without the ideology.”
Sara Terry (email@example.com) has written about culture and society for the New York Times and Rolling Stone. You can reach John Norquist by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).