From the number of firings and resignations in President Trump’s administration to the number of new head chefs at a once-popular restaurant, a common evaluator of organizational stability is the frequency of leadership change.
So Loose Lips took pause last week when Leif Dormsjo, director of the D.C. Department of Transportation, became merely the latest official to exit Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration. Dormsjo, whose departure comes two-and-a-half years after his appointment, is among more than a dozen agency heads who have left D.C. government during Bowser’s first two years, not including a copious number of executive-level communications officers who seem to come and go as often as a drummer for the fictional band Spinal Tap. (Irony alert: City Paper is about to get its fourth editor in as many years.)
Dormsjo was appointed in January 2015, arriving in D.C. from Maryland, where he was deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation. In addition to leading DDOT to its long-awaited, much-maligned streetcar launch, he represents D.C. on the Metro board and serves on the board of the Union Station Redevelopment Corp. “Having spent more than 15 years working in state and local government, I decided it was the right time to take on projects across a national and international platform,” says Dormsjo, who is joining a private engineering firm. “I’m very pleased with everything we’ve accomplished at DDOT and expect to see more great things from the agency.”
Also resigning last week was Ana Harvey, director of the Department of Small Local Business Development. But the departures of Harvey and Dormsjo are merely the latest in a long line of executive separations, including Christopher Weaver, who led the Department of General Services before resigning after being pressured to meddle in a contract award; Bill Howland, director of the Department of Public Works, who dates back to the Anthony Williams administration; and Deborah Carroll, director of the Department of Employment Services, who also served as a cabinet-level official under Vince Gray. (Last year’s departures of Cathy Lanier and Kaya Henderson, as police chief and schools chancellor, respectively, had long been anticipated.)
Attrition at the rank-and-file level on the police force and the stunning number of departures among teachers and school principals have been persistent themes under Bowser. But turnover at the executive level has gone largely unexamined—perhaps because its explanations are often less clear.
“In my experience, mayors don’t appreciate the value of continuity,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tells City Paper. “They are too quick—in the name of putting their own person in position—to replace good agency directors. Over the years, my observation has been that mayors don’t do enough to nurture and support agency directors to keep the good ones.” (Mendelson and Harvey are in a long-term relationship and live together.)
At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman says such exoduses are normal. “People don’t stay in these jobs forever,” she says.
The question is, how long is long enough to be effective? D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson cites an audit her office released earlier this year that found the D.C. Business Center, which is tasked with streamlining relations between entrepreneurs and regulators, was “hampered” by leadership turnover. “The toughest jobs in D.C. government are agency directors,” she says. “[We] have a number of agencies that don’t function well. It takes time, patience, and tenacity to turn them around. You can’t do it in six months or even a year.”
Patterson says retaining talent at high levels is clearly preferable to a constant leadership turnstile. A national study once found that school superintendents typically stay in their positions for an average of 18 months. Contrast that, she says, with the longevity of successful superintendents in Montgomery and Arlington counties.
Richard Greene, whose firm researches, analyzes, and writes about state and local governments, says cities and states struggle with “knowledge transfers” that are necessitated by changes at the top. “Someone has to know how to do that job before they get the job,” Greene says. “No matter how qualified that new person is, the work is going to slow down until they understand all the moving parts [of the organization.]”
One or two years go fast, says Greene, even if that’s a typical shelf life for executives. “The problem is when you look at how long it took to reach full capacity,” he says. “If you have turnover every two years, and it takes nine months to get comfortable in the job, then there’s just 15 months out of that time when you’re operating at full capacity.”
Loss of institutional knowledge or the time needed to acquire it aren’t the only factors that stunt progress, Greene adds. “Frequent leadership transitions also lead to a loss of relationships, which is what makes many high-ranking officials most effective. A sense of trust builds over time that helps people work together better. But when an official walks out the door, the relationships leave with them.”