First Rule for Dog-Catchers: Get Up, Get Out of Bed, You Sleepy-Head

First Rule for Dog-Catchers: Get Up, Get Out of Bed, You Sleepy-Head
Shenho Hshieh

Maybe we need to read that loose dog report again, a little more closely this time. It could be read as a pretty good indictment of the entire system of government at City Hall.

An outside consultant was brought in to tell us what to do about loose dogs. Our vast professional city management staff knows how to pull off complicated real estate deals, run restaurants, turn car washes into Starbucks and spur economic development in poverty-blighted neighborhoods, but apparently dog-catching is beyond them.

Well, they’re busy being geniuses. Why should we expect them to catch dogs? But that seems to be the first thing the Boston Consulting Group noticed about them. They don’t catch the dogs.

Private sector philanthropists hired BCG to find out why people in Dallas are being eaten alive by vicious canine predators. The consultants took a first look and told us it was because we have 8,700 loose un-spayed dogs roaming the streets, almost all of them in poor neighborhoods in the city’s non-white sector. The professional city management staff had been unable to tell us that.

Then the consultant took a closer look to see if we had enough dog catchers. We do. We have 45 percent more animal control officers per population of the city than our peer cities. The problem is dog catchers here catch 20 percent fewer dogs than dog catchers in peer cities. How could that be? Maybe smarter dogs?

Maybe not. The consultant’s report (copy below) offered this clue: “According to the Dallas Animal Services employee interviews (carried out by the consultant),” the BCG report said, “animal service officers are able to miss work for extended periods of time without any consequences. One animal service officer pointed out that there are some officers ‘who refuse to work or come to work.’”

That could have something to do with it. Dog-catching is a hard job — probably impossible from your bed. You definitely have to get out of bed. And then you need to put your clothes on. And go to work. And do what you’re told.

Is that what I’m saying? People get eaten by dogs in Dallas because the dog catchers won’t get out of bed? Not entirely. I’m sure the dog-catchers-in-bed problem doesn’t help, but that still doesn’t get us down to the core of what the consultant had to say about us.

The consultants suggested some major organizational shifts — excavating the dog-catching operation from beneath multiple sedimentary layers of bureaucracy, making it a stand-alone department like water or police, up on ground-level where we can see it and hold it accountable. But you have to put all of that together with the slug-a-bed issue.

Stripped of all the proprieties, the BCG report really says this to us, and I paraphrase in my own words:

People are eaten by dogs in the non-white sector of your city because the loose dog problem there is totally out of control. You have all the dog-catchers you need, but they don’t catch dogs, in part at least because some of them don’t come to work.

More important, before we looked at this, nobody noticed. Nobody noticed or cared that the dog catchers weren’t coming to work. Nobody noticed or cared that vicious dogs were running rampant in the non-white sector of the city. Until it became a big story in the media, nobody noticed or cared that people were being eaten.

The proposed fix for all of this — lifting the dog-catching department up into a position of greater visibility — is a wing, a hope and a prayer; maybe by making the agency more visible, we may cause someone to take notice of what it does or does not do and perhaps even to care. Maybe.

But there’s a key element in the BCG report that has received surprisingly short shrift in most of the coverage I have seen so far. Shifting the bureaucratic deck chairs at City Hall, making dog-catching a stand-alone department, is only about half of what BCG thought about and considered carefully before making its recommendations.

A closer reading of their white paper shows that BCG spent a good deal of time thinking about taking dog-catching out of city government entirely and privatizing it.

Seems to me we’ve heard that somewhere before. In fact privatization is the go-to solution these days for dysfunctional city operations, from the Farmers Market to Fair Park.

In a comparison of possible strategies ranging from leaving dog-catching where it is now, moving it up the ladder as a department or turning it private, BCG saw an awful lot of plus signs for privatization. Making it private, BCG said, would make hiring easier (not to mention firing), improve funding (both city and private), tighten controls within the agency but give the agency itself greater freedom of movement and operation.

In other words, make it work.

The only downsides to complete privatization, BCG said, were lack of “accountability to city … no clear organization today to fill this need immediately … heavy set-up effort.”

In other words: inertia.

There’s no way to read their report carefully and not come to the conclusion that the solution BCG suggested – the deck chairs – was a compromise. Their best idea for making it work clearly was complete privatization. But given the political realities of inertia, the deck chair thing was the wing and prayer they decided to go with.

All the more interesting, then, how the city manager, A.C. Gonzalez, reacted to the deck chairs. Not well.

The consultant saw many benefits in privatizing the city's dog-catching operation.
The consultant saw many benefits in privatizing the city's dog-catching operation.
Boston Consulting Group

When the BCG  report was briefed to the full council, it contained a substantial amount of private-side cooperation, specifically on issues of dog surrender, adoption and especially spay-neuter programs. But it also recommended the elevation of the dog-catching operation to the status of a full-on stand-alone city department to increase visibility and accountability.

Almost the entire City Council liked the idea of the stand-alone department. The entire council or even almost the entire council agreeing on anything is like the Hatfields and McCoys sharing a potluck dinner. It just does not happen.

This time it did. I don’t think anybody could read that report and miss the fact that the dog-catching operation is totally dysfunctional, accountable to no one and it's a major part of the reason why people get killed by dogs. Of course, elevating it to a full department and announcing that it’s taking full charge would make the department totally responsible next time someone gets killed.

Gonzalez knows that. He’s been around the block a few times. He is aware that visibility equals accountability. Therefore it’s all the more notable that he was the only one in the room who quailed at increased visibility for the dog-catcher.

Please understand me. I am not saying that A.C. Gonzalez wants the dog-catching operation to run poorly or wants people to be killed by dogs. As captain of the ship, what he wants is a smoothly running ship.

But there’s a difference between a ship that’s truly smooth-running (catches the dogs) and one that is merely insulated from external pressure (doesn’t catch the dogs but doesn’t get blamed for it because nobody can tell who’s supposed to catch the dogs or what to do about it).

In the serial march of privatization in Dallas in recent years – zoo, Farmers Market, soon Fair Park, maybe dog-catching eventually when even this fix doesn’t work – it’s easy to mistake what’s really going on for the hand of philosophy, as if somebody out there just doesn’t like democracy.

Well, I do know a few people who don’t like democracy, but I don’t believe anti-government philosophy is the overarching theme. In each of these instances, a constituency has formed that really cares urgently about making something work, preserving something, achieving a greater potential instead of giving in to waste and decay.

But that constituency, often after long terribly frustrating effort, becomes convinced that its goal cannot be achieved through the city manager system. When that system turns toward the outside world, the city managers are all suits, ties and scrubbed-up faces, but inside City Hall their culture is ingrown and defensive. They view the City Council as a bunch of know-nothing summer help and the public as barbarians at the gate.

The city manager doesn’t want to elevate the dog-catcher to a more visible and accountable position because he wants to protect the dog-catcher from the public. He should care only about protecting the public from the dogs.

That’s what’s wrong with the system. If we think these various agencies are immune from public pressure under the city manager system now, wait until they’re all private. Then we voters really won’t have any control. 

That’s the great irony of privatization: designed to make agencies more responsive, it actually pulls them away an inch at a time from the public’s reach.

We do suffer a chronic problem of poor performance and lack of accountability at Dallas City Hall, but there’s a much simpler solution than making every city operation its own private shop. Do it the old-fashioned way: strong mayor, strong City Council.

A handful of bad history made Texas in general and Dallas in particular fearful of clear constituency-driven democratic politics. We have a strong city manager system – weak mayor, weak council – because three-quarters of a century ago our forebears wanted to shield City Hall from politics. Now well into the 21st century, we need to realize the only thing City Hall is shielded from is us.

And that doesn’t work very well. The dog-catchers refuse to come to work? And nothing happens to them? Wow. At some point we need to back way off, take the long view, call time-out on the march of privatization and see if we can’t fix this mess by making our elected officials more accountable, not less.

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