Redesign city services to tackle urban blight

Planting an urban park

In 2011, the city of Memphis, Tennessee faced a backlog of 25,000 code enforcement cases and 40,000 complaints about overgrown lots. Like many cities recently, Memphis has a budget stretched thin by shrinking tax revenues due to the Great Recession and declining property tax revenues. How could the city ever catch up?

Two words: process redesign.

According to this article in the Fayetteville Observer, by simply changing how they work, city workers increased their ability to address overgrown lots nearly six-fold, from 6,800 to 38,000 complaints a year. No additional personnel, no budget increases.

Under the old process, city workers addressed complaints one at a time. Workers would address one problem at one address, and then leave to tackle a similar problem at another address that could be on the other side town. Any problems at or near the first address went uncorrected until the next city work came to work on their isolated complaint.

This method was inefficient and not aligned with other city work needing to be done.

Instead, city workers developed an approach that they called 25 Square Blocks. City inspectors began to proactively assess the city, one five-block by five-block area at a time. They documented whatever problems they found, and notified homeowners that they had five days to rectify the problems themselves. Otherwise, the city would do the work and bill them for it.

It wasn’t just code violations and overgrown lots. Other city departments concentrated their efforts in the same 25 square blocks at the same time. Street lights, potholes, sidewalks, and utilities also got inspected and repaired. The city could also hire some ex-felons to complete some of the work, providing jobs to those struggling to find work.

Residents would notice the concentrated efforts from city workers, and change their opinions about city services. They also took new pride in their homes and neighborhoods, once they saw that the city cared as well.

People in Fayetteville, about 250 miles east of Memphis, are studying Memphis’ process redesign for city services. Fayetteville workers are already making their own changes, increasing their code enforcement capacity from 5,000 to 13,000 cases year.

Maybe some similar processes redesign could handle other notorious government service backlogs like veteran’s disability claims and immigration cases.

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