As new president Toni Preckwinkle pushes forward on her effort to trim Cook County spending, the county could learn a lot from Chicago's government, says a veteran insider.
Here's a summary of that experienced hand's observations:
During Mayor Daley's tenure, the city worked consistently to train middle managers, who in turn learned how to do a better job of developing an effective work force. Former Mayor Harold Washington's administration also did that, although not to the extent that Daley has.
But nothing like that has been going on in the County Building. As a result, it has continued to have ineffective middle managers and, by extension, a work force populated with many employees for whom efficiency is not exactly Job No. 1. Many of those people wound up working where they do after outside pressure was applied by someone with political power, including some "pretty awful people" who were put in Shakman-exempt positions.
Changing that takes time. Even if the workers are bumbling and slow, they mostly do something that somebody wants done. Preckwinkle will have to wrestle with a bureaucracy that will find ways to slow down change. And unions make it hard to get rid of employees.
That means saving money through efficiency will take a long time. But to get savings immediately - Preckwinkle wants the equivalent of a 16 percent cut for the full 2011 fiscal year - she will have to make significant trims in services. That won't be easy, because every service has its own constituency. But there's no other way to get big savings quickly.
But getting out the axe could bring unexpected costs. "All sorts of little work units" are dotted around county government whose value might only become clear after they are gone. And it might cost an unexpectedly large amount of money to patch up the holes once they become apparent.
In short, there's plenty of fat in county government. But squeezing it out won't be easy.
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