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A veteran of fighting bureaucracy tries to tame L.A.'s red tape

Bob Stone, an old hand at battling bureaucracy, tries to tame L.A.'s red tape
At City Hall, bureaucracy fighter Bob Stone takes on 19th century traditions

Bob Stone, 79, a professional bureaucracy buster, has been working at Los Angeles City Hall since last August, and he's still waiting to see his first paycheck.

"I have a contract and they told me I'd be getting $1 a year," the bespectacled Stone told me, "but I haven't seen it yet."

If that's because of a kink in the payroll department, Stone is liable to get to the bottom of it. His job, which was supposed to be half-time but often is closer to full-time, is to tame the bureaucratic beast and, if possible, save taxpayers money in the process.

For the genial grandfather and Westwood resident, this stuff is old hat. Stone, an MIT grad and former civil servant, headed Vice President Al Gore's campaign to reinvent government and wrote "Confessions of a Civil Servant: Lessons in Changing America's Government and Military."

When Mayor Eric Garcetti named Rick Cole to be his deputy for budget and innovation, Cole sent out an SOS to Stone, whom he worked with in Ventura and Azusa.

Cole said, "I've got a tiger by the tail here at City Hall. Are you available to help me out?" Stone recalled.

Sure, said Stone, who loves a challenge and was happy to all but volunteer. But the tiger, he quickly discovered, was a savage beast.

"After struggling and battling the federal bureaucracy for 30 years, I thought L.A. would be a pushover," Stone said. "But it's tougher than the federal bureaucracy."

I always suspected we had championship-level dysfunction, but this makes it official.

The problem is red tape, said Stone, and it isn't unique to Los Angeles. Any large organization, public or private, has dumb ways of doing things just because that's the way they have always been done. And at any given time, Stone suggested without irony or exaggeration, roughly one-third of all employees are impeding the work of the other two-thirds.

Does that mean there are too many employees, I asked? What it means, Stone countered, is that employees could get a lot more done if they weren't bound and gagged by red tape and managerial impediments.

I asked for examples.

"Every firefighter is entitled to two items of clothing every year," Stone said. A firefighter wanting, say, two pairs of pants would fill out a form "and submit it to his commander, and the commander would initial it and send it to a battalion chief, and it would get initialed there and sent on to supply and maintenance, and they would order it along with a bunch of other stuff from the vendor."

A big box then arrives at some point, and all the items have to then be schlepped across the city. So Fire Department employees, to Stone's delight, developed a system in which a firefighter goes directly to a vendor website and orders the items himself, cutting out a gaggle of middle men.

Stone found the same nest of snakes in the hiring process of various city departments, with burdensome paper-shuffling and chain-of-command requirements. Travel requests, he said, even for important city business, follow the same muddled process, with checkoffs required all the way up to the mayor's office.

"Two-thirds of what passes as management is interfering with workers getting their work done," Stone said, attributing the suffocating practice to a 19th century notion that "the way to manage is to control what people do."

Stone has so far visited eight or nine of the city's 35 departments and encouraged innovation units that enlist employees to contribute their own ideas for greater efficiency. In the Sanitation Department, drivers who do bulky pickup were wasting time digging through Thomas Guides and Fire Department maps until Sal Aguilar, a project manager, brought the service into the current century with map apps on smartphones.

To illustrate another new efficiency, Stone pulled a firetruck water pressure gauge out of a box. He explained that the fist-sized units were routinely breaking down, and the standard procedure was to replace them with new ones that cost $1,500 to $2,000 and took a month for delivery. In five years, about 60 of those units were purchased at a cost of roughly $100,000.

But when two employees at the maintenance and supply yard took one apart, they discovered that the common problem was the failure of a small device that can be quickly replaced for about $1, thereby keeping trucks in service that had been sidelined waiting for parts. Those employees, Derrick Tinsley and Tony Mastrolia, are part of a team that is now replacing the $1 pieces instead of buying new gauges.

Although that's a significant savings, it's not going to begin to address the billions needed to fix water mains, streets and sidewalks. So don't expect Garcetti's back-to-basics agenda to deliver big results anytime soon. But Garcetti told me he doesn't expect taxpayers to fork over more money before the city shows that it does a better job with existing revenues, and Stone's work is key to those efficiencies.

It's only fair to ask why it's taken so long to turn over all the rocks and step on the worms, when Garcetti and others have been at City Hall for years.

"Look, there are a hundred thousand things that the city could be doing better," Stone said.

You could look at that as a failure, he acknowledged, or as an opportunity for vast improvement.

"I think we can make a difference," he said. "That's why I'm here."

And well worth the $1, should the check ever make it through the bureaucracy.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

 

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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