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It’s performance oversight season in D.C., that special time every year when nearly every local government agency and office lines up in front of D.C. Council committees to describe their work over the past 12 months and answer hours of questions. Constituents provide their own feedback as well, often highlighting major issues that marred the agency in the past year.
D.C. agencies encountered plenty of scandals in 2021: The number of traffic fatalities and homicides surpassed the marks set in 2020, the crime lab lost its accreditation, and one of the city’s biggest agencies will be split in two by this time next year. That got us thinking: Which one is the worst? What if we were to compare them and attempt to determine a victor (or loser depending on your perspective) in a March Madness-style bracket? The timing, after all, is nearly perfect.
First, let us state the terms: This commentary, while based on serious information, is meant in jest. We’re comparing agencies and departments to show how policies become talking points and how problems arise and are or are not resolved. You may not agree with our rankings and that’s OK—share your reactions on social media or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
So who makes the tournament we’re calling the Big Dunce? After consulting with Wilson Building insiders and among ourselves, we seeded a field of eight agencies whose screwups and scandals earned them entry into this tournament to determine the worst of the worst. We also selected five “bubble” teams whose screwups were significant but slightly less bad, either because they caused less harm or shared blame with other agencies and departments. The eight teams in the tournament are ranked based on their budgets, with the biggest budgeted agency, the Metropolitan Police Department, as the top seed.
The information in these descriptions come from interviews with officials and onlookers, the prehearing questionnaires each agency is required to submit, and the hearings themselves. We watched more than 68 collective hours—yes, nearly three days—worth of hearings so you don’t have to. (They’re not the most scintillating things to sit through.) Consider this a more fun way to learn about how your government is working (or not working) and spending your tax dollars.
Who will get their “one shining moment”? Read on to find out. —Caroline Jones
On The Bubble
Department of Housing and Community Development
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $150.2 million
Director: Drew Hubbard (interim)
In a city where the rent is already too damn high, rents continue to climb year after year. The efforts of DHCD affect nearly everyone in the city, though some argue that those with extremely low incomes are not prioritized.
In his opening testimony at the department’s oversight hearing in February, DHCD Interim Director Drew Hubbard highlighted the impact of the Housing Production Trust Fund, a tool established in 1988 to build and preserve affordable housing in the District. Hubbard says that since Mayor Muriel Bowser took office in 2015, there has been no less than $100 million worth of funding in the HPTF, which is more per capita than any other city in the country. The HPTF has produced more than 14,250 units of affordable housing with another 12,300 under construction or in the pipeline, and has preserved more than 1,500 units of existing affordable housing since Bowser took office, according to a September 2021 press release. That same month, Bowser announced a $400 million investment in the fund, bringing the total contribution to the HPTF during her tenure to $1 billion.
D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute analyst Eliana Golding says the investment in some ways makes D.C. “the envy of the country.” But, she adds, “I don’t think that we’ve gone far enough.” Golding says that households with incomes below 30 percent of the area median income don’t receive enough attention.
The Post reported in October the findings of a report from the Office of the Inspector General, which found that the District misspent nearly $82 million in HPTF dollars. While at least 50 percent of the HPTF is legally required to provide housing to households with incomes below 30 percent of AMI, most of that funding instead went to those at 50 percent AMI and above.
In DHCD’s written responses to the Council’s questions for the oversight hearing, Hubbard wrote that while “more needs to be done,” the “extremely ambitious” goal of dedicating at least half of the HPTF to those with extremely low incomes has potential risks, including “advancing residential segregation patterns” and “concentrating poverty.”
Golding is skeptical of these arguments. “The amount of affordable housing in areas like Ward 3 is just not nearly enough,” she says.
The method of choosing which proposals should receive HPTF funding is also suspect. A report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor from May 2019 found that five out of nine proposals awarded funding from the HPTF in the previous year were ranked by District staff evaluators in the bottom half of applications. This selection resulted in a loss of 353 affordable housing units and 95 units designed for the poorest District households.
While DHCD has claimed that there are no conflict of interest issues, a whistleblower identified potential political favoritism in the selection process for housing development projects in late 2019. —Michelle Goldchain
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $282.3 million
Director: Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt
In case you haven’t heard, we’re in a bit of a health pickle. The pandemic was at the center of DC Health’s work in 2021, and directly and indirectly affected everything in their purview. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Relatively speaking, DC Health’s handling of the pandemic in 2021 was a success (emphasis on relatively).
An estimated 73.1 percent of District residents are fully vaccinated (DC Health defines fully vaccinated as having completed one vaccine regimen; this does not reflect the number of residents who have received booster doses). That puts D.C. ahead of the national rate (65 percent), and in the No. 10 spot when ranking by state. Strict COVID protocols, vaccination drives, and accessible testing kept positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths down for much of the year. But relaxed protocols led cases to skyrocket in December, as the omicron variant infected an unprecedented number of residents, and made D.C. one of the country’s worst COVID hot spots.
That surge led Mayor Bowser, following DC Health guidance, to reinstate a mask mandate and instate a vaccine mandate—both of which she swiftly revoked a month later, with DC Health’s blessing. “We follow DC Health’s advice,” the mayor stated at the Feb. 14 press conference where she announced the relaxed protocols, with department director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt at her side. The decision riled critics, including Ward 1 Councilmember Nadeau. “It defies logic. It defies science. It’s a terrible move,” she told City Paper at the time.
The mandate roller coaster wasn’t DOH’s only fumble in the past year. In November, the department announced it had hired Dr. Thomas Farley as a senior official. That didn’t go over too well after Black Lives Matter DC brought to light that this was the same Thomas Farley who had been asked to step down as Philadelphia’s health commissioner. Why? He’d ordered the cremation and disposal of victims of the 1985 MOVE police bombing without notifying their families. Farley is still with DC Health.
A nationwide school nursing shortage has not spared D.C. There’s only one nurse to go around the entire KIPP DC Douglass Campus, one of the Anacostia charter school’s principals, Miriam Darby, said at DC Health’s oversight hearing. Martita Fleming, Washington Latin’s director of operations, said the Brightwood Park charter is only guaranteed a nurse on site for three days each week—and many weeks, they’re not even getting that. School officials have also been scratching their heads over why they’ve been told that their nurses can’t treat students exhibiting COVID symptoms, like a runny nose or a cough.
Another issue raised at the hearing: A range of medical professionals—from long-term care workers to dentists—described a slow and unresponsive licensing administration, which exacerbates already existing staff shortages. And WUSA9 reported that in 2021, more than 11,300 people called DC Health to complain about rats, a significant uptick from the 7,500 calls fielded in 2020.
Socioeconomic factors continue to determine health outcomes in the District. DC Health recently made a significant step toward amending that. On Feb. 18, the city broke ground on Cedar Hill Regional Medical Center in Congress Heights, which is slated to open in December 2024. Cedar Hill will replace the crumbling United Medical Center, the only hospital currently located in Ward 8. —Ella Feldman
District Department of Transportation
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $170 million
Director: Everett Lott
In 2021, 40 individuals died as a result of traffic fatalities in D.C. That statistic alone, which surpasses 2020’s total of 37 traffic fatalities, should move the District Department of Transportation into the running for worst performing government agency. Assigning blame is not that easy, of course—the Metropolitan Police Department investigates crashes in tandem with DDOT and ultimately charges those at fault. But paired with increased complaints about everything from curb cuts and streateries to bike lanes and old trees, the increased fatality numbers do not bathe DDOT in glory.
DDOT impacts the most residents and visitors every year—if you drive on the streets or step on the sidewalks of D.C., you’re on their turf. Its current director, Everett Lott, assumed his role over the summer and was confirmed by default in January, after the Council failed to vote on his appointment within the required timeline. In interviews and in the department’s performance oversight hearing, Lott espoused his commitment to equity, though the District’s Pedestrian Advisory Council, Bicycle Advisory Council, and Multimodal Accessibility Advisory Council. But members of the general public would beg to differ. Uneven sidewalks limit the mobility of those who use wheelchairs or other assistive devices, and 311 requests aren’t filled in a timely manner. Drivers hit children walking to school or fatally strike them in crosswalks, even as the executive branch repeats its commitment to ending traffic fatalities through its Vision Zero initiative. According to Lott, roughly 20 crossing guard roles were vacant as of mid-February.
The problem, as councilmembers and community members see it, stems from a lack of communication between DDOT and other agencies. In the performance oversight hearing, Lott lauded his colleagues for closing 1,137 traffic safety investigations in FY 2021 and 2022 after reviews, but those only communicate part of the story to MPD and the Department of Public Works, the more powerful agencies that can charge or ticket individuals who violate traffic laws. Even if a traffic investigation results in action, such as installing a four-way stop, DDOT has little incentive to act quickly—its installation deadline is longer than four months.
The department remains too reliant on MPD’s crash data, councilmembers and residents say. “It seems to me that DDOT’s approach to traffic safety is to wait for a crash to happen and then respond to those specific circumstances. It is reactive and not proactive,” Jessica Hart, a Ward 5 resident whose 5-year-old daughter, Allison, died after a vehicle struck her while she was bicycling in a crosswalk in September, testified. “Residents’ lived experiences are not given enough weight in traffic safety decisions.”
“What steps have you taken to improve the crash data DDOT uses to inform TSI analysis?” Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George asked Lott later in the hearing. That data only tells part of the story and doesn’t even consider potential crashes. At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson told Lott she was almost in an accident when she stepped out during the hearing, which lasted more than seven hours.
DDOT doesn’t make it to the Big Dance because it cannot solely assume the blame for all the traffic incidents in D.C. But as it approaches its 20th birthday, the organization doesn’t deserve pats on the back, it needs visionary action. The new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge might look great, but let’s not forget about the June collapse of the 295 overpass bridge. —Caroline Jones
Office of Unified Communications
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $55.4 million
Acting director: Karima Holmes
Karima Holmes will be returning to her old job as head of the Office of Unified Communications, the agency tasked with handling millions of nonemergency 311 and emergency 911 calls in the District. Dave Statter, a public safety advocate and former reporter who writes about public safety issues, broke the news that Holmes will replace interim director Cleo Subido.
Holmes previously served as the director of OUC from 2016 until her resignation in December of 2020, during which the agency faced an audit for allegedly mishandling emergency dispatches. Bowser recently praised Holmes for overhauling OUC’s “technical infrastructure and critical public safety programs.” But her nomination was immediately met with criticism and skepticism.
“I have concerns about seesawing in the leadership of such an important agency, because we can’t afford to backslide on the improvements OUC has been making recently in 911 and 311 service delivery,” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen tells City Paper in an email. “I’ll hold an open public hearing to give the nominee an honest opportunity to address concerns being raised, but the findings from the D.C. Auditor’s review—especially the problems of management and leadership—will weigh heavy on my mind and require strong answers.”
Last October, the D.C. Auditor released a 114-page report that details the problems impacting OUC, including inconsistent use of location determining technology tools, inadequate oversight, and a culture of “cliques” and “bullying.” These issues have led to delays in residents receiving help. In June of 2020, Sheila Shepperd suffered a heart attack, and her 13-year-old child called 911, but it would take nearly 21 minutes before first responders arrived because the dispatcher sent crews to the wrong address. Shepperd later died at the hospital. Five months later, Holmes apologized to the family in a statement to Fox 5.
In a Jan. 27 oversight hearing before the Committee on Public Safety and Justice, OUC call-taker Yolanda Geter described an agency struggling with severe staffing issues. “Right now we’re in a state of emergency,” Geter said. “I’m here to tell you, you have employees that work 12-hour shifts, and on their days off they’re working 12-hour shifts.” During her testimony, Subido, then the interim OUC director, said the agency is working with the National Association of Government Employees, the Department of Human Resources, and the Office of Labor Relations and Collective Bargaining “to implement a new shift schedule from 12-hour to 8-hour shifts for call takers and police dispatchers.” Subido also told the committee that there is a new class of 10 call center workers who were selected from an applicant pool of around 200 after basic testing and background checks. The low number of trained staff concerns Allen.
“OUC continues to struggle with staffing levels and ensuring call takers and dispatchers are adequately supported in their very demanding and intense jobs,” he says. “The agency needs to continue to work on resolving these staffing issues and their unsustainable reliance on overtime, as well as quality assurance, training, and technology improvements.” —Kelyn Soong
Department of Behavioral Health
Fiscal year 2022 budget:$356.1 million
Director: Barbara J. Bazron
With its gargantuan budget and support from city initiatives, you might expect great things from the Department of Behavioral Health, the agency charged with psychiatric and behavioral health services across the District. DBH also heads a recently expanded initiative that diverts 911 calls involving individuals with mental illness away from police and to crisis response services. But then you would have to divert your disappointment to a more helpful stance, like figuring out why “chaos” reigns at some behavioral health facilities, according to testimonies at the agency’s performance oversight hearing last month.
Advocates of patients with mental health disorders described overcrowding at mental health and psychiatric facilities, illegal involuntary discharges, and incidents where staff scream at each other and at patients, as the most common complaints their offices receive. These issues aren’t exactly conducive to improving mental health in individuals already facing instability. Neither is overall incompetency in deescalating situations and, when all else fails, overmedicating patients to calm the tempest. Katerina Semyonova of the Public Defender Service and Mark Miller of Legal Counsel for the Elderly attested to these frequent reports from patients at psychiatric facilities.
As one of the agency’s treatment support arms, Assertive Community Treatment teams are designed to reach folks not getting access to vital mental health services. But they’re failing at following up with psych center patients after discharges, according to Jaclyn Verner, staff attorney at Disability Rights DC. When DBH’s teams don’t respond to crises involving patients with mental illness, police step in instead—a path DBH is supposed to help the District move away from. Ward 4 Councilmember Lewis George has also cast doubt on the 911 diversion program, citing incidents in which police have responded first or exclusively at the scene and escalated situations involving folks with mental illness.
Another focus on early and preventative behavioral intervention—school-based counseling—has been coming up short. Long wait lists for counseling and connection issues with the DBH access helpline and referral agencies are the core of the problem. While DBH Director Barbara J. Bazron has mentioned understaffing, it doesn’t lighten the load on children facing unprecedented trauma and isolation.
DBH is also in charge of Mayor Bowser’s pre-pandemic vow to cut opioid-related deaths in half. But a 46 percent surge of opioid overdose deaths in the District from 2019 to 2020—411 deaths—reflected a nationwide trend during COVID isolation and the proliferation of fentanyl. Pending 2021 overdose death rates look just as grim, with 344 overdose-related deaths reported as of October 2021, according to Bazron.
That means there are about twice as many overdose deaths as homicides, in a year when homicides are at a near 20-year high.
Officials and advocates are asking why DBH hasn’t done more to move the needle on the surge of substance use relapse and opioid overdoses. Its “LIVE. LONG. DC” strategy to target substance use, now in phase 2.0, shows some promise with its street and peer response teams and partnerships with D.C. influencers and faith leaders. But even Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, more prone these days to deal out kudos to agencies rather than dragging them, has wondered aloud about the lack of clear vision from DBH on how to reduce future opioid deaths. —Ambar Castillo
Top 8 Seeds
1. Metropolitan Police Department
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $516.8 million
Director: Chief Robert J. Contee
The Metropolitan Police Department is D.C.’s primary law enforcement agency. Chief Robert Contee was sworn in as top cop in January 2021, and he leads a force of about 3,500 sworn officers (though he’s asking for about 500 more), whose ultimate responsibility is to keep the District safe.
Contee ended his first year as chief with a devastating 226 homicides—the most in nearly 20 years—and slight increases in property crime and violent crime overall. His officers shot 16 people, killing five of them. That’s as many fatal shootings as the previous three years combined. All five people D.C. police killed in 2021 were Black men.
At the top of MPD’s oversight hearing in February, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen ran through a list of incidents that he calls “embarrassing at best, [and] in many cases illegal.”
Two officers are facing criminal charges for murder and obstruction in the death of Karon Hylton-Brown. Officer Terence Sutton and Lt. Andrew Zabavsky chased Hylton-Brown until he rode a moped into traffic and then tried to hide their involvement, prosecutors allege.
There are 21 current and former employees, most of whom are Black women, who filed multiple lawsuits alleging sexism, racism, and retaliation throughout multiple levels of the department.
D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson released two reports in 2021 revealing serious flaws in MPD’s investigations into its officers’ use of fatal force. The auditor found that MPD’s investigators mischaracterized evidence and failed to explore essential questions about potential policy violations. In one case, investigators collected so little evidence that auditors could not reach a conclusion. In another, investigators interviewed officers involved in a fatal shooting for less than 10 minutes.
Another former employee has come forward with details of corruption in MPD’s public records office. A recently filed lawsuit claims former MPD Chief Peter Newsham delayed and withheld public records from journalists and police critics. The suit says Contee has continued the practice. Both he and Newsham have denied the allegations.
And Lt. Shane Lamond was put on paid leave last month while he’s under investigation for improper communication with a member of the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group.
Weighing in MPD’s favor is the fact that homicides increased in most other major U.S. cities from 2020 to 2021 (though D.C.’s 14 percent increase is above the 5 to 6 percent average increase, according to analyses of crime in major cities).
And Patterson recently published a follow-up to her reports on failures in the department’s internal investigations. Most of the auditor’s recommendations are either complete or in process.
Contee touts his efforts at transparency by pointing to data on use of force, stops, and arrests published on MPD’s website. Disciplinary hearings are publicized online now, too. And MPD is contributing to the national index of terminated officers in order to prevent them from joining another department. Under Contee, D.C. officers receive active bystander training that teaches them how to intervene if they see misconduct from a fellow officer. That training didn’t prevent officers from drag racing in marked police cars, nor did it stop an officer from repeatedly punching a restrained man in the face. —Mitch Ryals
2. Department of General Services
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $493.5 million
Director: Keith Anderson
It might seem counterintuitive, but D.C.’s public school system doesn’t maintain its own buildings. And the agency that does can’t seem to get it right.
The Department of General Services has many functions that don’t draw much attention, such as managing the city’s real estate portfolio, but its school maintenance efforts have attracted complaints from parents, teachers, and students for years. Those issues have come under a particularly harsh spotlight during the pandemic, considering that air quality in schools is suddenly of paramount importance in order to keep kids healthy.
Even with students out of classrooms for long stretches of time, DGS failed to make many badly needed HVAC upgrades in time for the new school year. The agency told the Council last year that it managed to complete just 30 percent of all HVAC-related work orders by the time schools opened on Aug. 30. DGS had similar troubles on roofing issues, completing 64 percent by the time students returned, and on “fire and life safety” matters, with just a 39 percent completion rate.
“They had all of last year to do this,” says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who has been visiting a variety of schools to discuss the issue in recent weeks. “What were they doing all that time?”
DGS officials said during a September Council hearing on the matter that supply chain issues contributed to those delays, as has a recent spike in work orders. But parents are skeptical of those excuses, arguing that the agency has been promising improvements (and failing to deliver them) since long before COVID-19 emerged.
Certainly, schools all over the country have struggled with how best to manage air quality during the pandemic. Yet this lack of attentiveness seems particularly egregious to the agency’s critics when compared with other issues—teachers at several schools have reported coming to work to find blistering hot classrooms or leaky roofs.
“Our city has failed to take care of our children in places where they should be safe and healthy,” Ward 4 State Board of Education Rep. Frazier O’Leary told the Council in September. —Alex Koma
3. Department of Employment Services
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $226.5 million
Director: Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes
Think of the Department of Employment Services as the District’s little Department of Labor. The agency was thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic because it’s charged with administering the city’s unemployment insurance system. It has other responsibilities too, such as helping job seekers find work, career training opportunities, or apprenticeships. The agency is also supposed to ensure employees are protected from unsafe working conditions and wage theft.
If DOES was a restaurant, it would have a hard time attracting diners with its 1.9 star rating on Google. Most of the one-star reviews come from D.C. residents hungry for their unemployment benefits during the pandemic. They decry rude customer service, conflicting information, and phone calls that end in hang-ups.
While the agency, like its counterparts across the country, was pushed to the brink as it fielded more than 200,000 jobless claims tied to pandemic-related layoffs, many of those claimants and people with oversight of the agency describe DOES as a black hole; interacting with the agency is a nauseating vortex of confusion that comes with with major life consequences. Hundreds of claimants are still awaiting back pay.
“One month of delayed UI benefits means no rent, five months means being at risk of eviction, and a year later it means being on the brink of homelessness,” Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George said at a February oversight hearing while agency director Dr. Unique Morris-Hughes oscillated between preaching perseverance and deflecting blame. “It’s not just financial consequences—the mental and emotional health of residents is severely impacted.”
D.C. was doomed from the start. As At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman put it, “We need a new unemployment system that’s not from the era when disco was popular.” Parts of the website hosting the city’s unemployment system are more than 40 years old and contributed to why claimants went without benefits whenever there was a system update. In the budget lawmaking process, the D.C. Council set a September 2022 delivery date for a new website. Morris-Hughes says February 2023 is more realistic, leaving Silverman questioning aloud if there’s enough will and urgency to go around.
DOES even got an injection of $11 million a year ago to hire and train more employees, add a chatbot, and send text updates. Wait times seemed to improve, but whether that was money well spent is hard to evaluate as customer service complaints persisted once the tsunami of fraudulent unemployment claims surprised residents in the summer of 2021. DOES has received 13,000 reports of fraudulent claims.
Legal Aid of D.C. sued DOES in January 2022 for cutting off or denying people unemployment benefits without notice, but that’s not the only legal hot water DOES is simmering in. In October 2021, a former employee of the agency sued for hundreds of hours of missing overtime pay. “This is definitely one of the most ironic cases I’ve had to file over the last decade,” the plaintiff’s attorney tells City Paper. Since last fall, two additional plaintiffs from the unemployment insurance office joined the active lawsuit.
DOES was able to pull off something special during the pandemic, which Morris-Hughes will no doubt consider part of her legacy. D.C. joined only a handful of other states in offering paid family leave in July 2020. That meant Washingtonians were able to care for family members with serious health conditions or bond with a new child without fear of financial ruin should their private employer not offer similar benefits. In October 2021, the law was expanded to include more support, like two weeks of prenatal leave. Morris-Hughes says about 15,000 of those claims have been processed. —Laura Hayes
4. Child and Family Services Agency
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $220.2 million
Director: Robert L. Matthews
The Child and Family Services Agency is tasked with ensuring the safety, permanence, and well-being of D.C.’s abused and neglected children, as well as supporting and strengthening local families.
On June 1, the 32-year-old federal class action LaShawn A. v. Muriel Bowser was settled, ending decades of court oversight of the agency that has been frequently accused of closing cases inappropriately, overloading social workers, and retaliation. Such actions can and have led to the death of children.
Robert Matthews became CFSA’s director in July. Previously, he led the implementation of plans to help the agency end court oversight. Matthews wants to move CSFA from a child welfare agency to child well-being agency, with the goal of keeping families together and keeping more children with extended family if removed from their homes.
Of the 24,504 hotline calls received in fiscal year 2021, 4,308 resulted in an investigation. So far in fiscal year 2022, according to CSFA’s responses to the Council’s oversight questions, 7,144 calls have been received; 1,330 have led to open investigations.
In the calendar year 2021, five children with active in-home cases died: One died of natural causes and another was killed by a driver who ran a red light. The death of a 3-month-old has been identified as “Undetermined/Eutylone and Fentanyl intoxication.”
The backlog of CFSA investigations increased by nearly 600 percent in the last fiscal year. Matthews told the Committee on Human Services on Feb. 17 this is due to the “great resignation.” As of January, the agency had almost 30 vacancies, which creates a bottleneck. They’ve hired a recruiter to look for social workers across the country.
The D.C. Council is currently working to appoint the first ombudsperson for children, who will offer greater insight into the agency’s protection of children, which has improved greatly in the past few years, on paper at least. But metrics are hard to track without access to CFSA’s case management system, which councilmembers are legally blocked from seeing. An ombudsperson stationed inside the agency would provide full, comprehensive reports and ensure children are protected from abuse and neglect, especially in allegations of sexual and physical abuse, which can be difficult to substantiate.
Kinship diversion, an informal practice that keeps children with family members and out of the foster care system, remains an area of interest and concern. Research shows keeping kids with relatives is best for their short- and long-term well-being, but because it’s an informal practice, CFSA does not track diversion outcomes. Marla Spindel, executive director of DC KinCare Alliance, noted in the hearing that “there’s no methodology to determine whether the practice hurts or helps children because there are no outcome measures associated with it.” Spindel added that CFSA’s limited data tracking of diversions is deeply flawed. CFSA reported four diversions in fiscal year 2021, but Spindel’s organization is aware of at least five more, she said. —Sarah Marloff
5. Department of Public Works
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $206.8 million
Director: Michael Carter (interim)
The Department of Public Works is both backstage crew and center stage in its own garbage theater. Cleaning up after its everyday messes—constituent complaints that range from missed leaf collections and trash pickups to a failure to enforce against dangerous drivers—isn’t easy when you’re starting from the ground up with new leadership. It’s fitting that current Interim Director Michael Carter, who has previously overseen firefighters, is working in another department where he’ll be putting out fires. In January, Mayor Bowser withdrew her previous nominee, Christine Davis, from Council consideration.
The colossal failures don’t stop at delays in snow, leaf, and trash removal, though breaking a leg in the snow or ice and piled-up trash leading to rodent infestations is no joke. Neglect breeds potential for injury and disease. And D.C. residents’ 311 calls about rodents and bugs soared 15 percent from 2020 to 2021 and have climbed 130 percent since 2017.
In short, the agency, built more than any other on everyday public services and requests, has flopped, according to Ward 4 resident and ANC Commissioner Zach Israel. DPW spent its fall season parceling out misleading leaf collection information—and touting success rates of 96 percent collection completion while neighborhoods overflowed with abandoned leaves, as Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau pointed out at a DPW oversight hearing on Feb. 8.
DPW has also closed out unfulfilled service requests and missed a plethora of calls from residents concerned about traffic safety. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh has said the agency’s widespread failure to enforce against vehicles with multiple violations is a major contributing factor to the recent rises in traffic deaths and injuries in the District. Apart from Vision Zero neglect, DPW is enabling another crisis—climate change—by dragging its feet with curbside composting and other waste diversion plans.
But in every pile of trash there’s a chance to make some cash. Through a collaboration with the city’s violence reduction initiative, DPW hired residents at high risk of gun violence—many of them formerly incarcerated or from neighborhoods known for historic feuds—during the last leaf-collection season to collect leaves and fallen trees and help with odd public jobs like playground and streetlight repairs.
DPW may keep its vow to convert about 80 qualifying employees to full-time roles, but only kind of. The positions are term-limited up to the fiscal year 2025 grant period. Even if it fulfills this 80-person promise, the agency comes up short of its staffing needs: DPW has 290 staff vacancies, Carter confirmed at the Feb. 8 hearing.
“What we have is a management problem, a leadership problem, a vision problem,” Cheh said at the end of DPW’s performance oversight hearing. “It’s like a sleepy little last-century operation that doesn’t cut it anymore.” —Ambar Castillo
6. D.C. Housing Authority
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $175.2 million from the D.C. government, $606.5 million total
Director: Brenda Donald
The D.C. Housing Authority is experiencing a leadership crisis at a critical time. While federal funding for public housing has been in decline, local housing costs continue to rise. Delays, mismanagement, and internal conflict have hampered the agency, whose core mission is to house the District’s most vulnerable and lowest income residents.
Former DCHA Director Tyrone Garrett was ousted last May following a rocky three-and-a-half-year stint. He often clashed with staff and the 11-member board of commissioners, who act as his collective boss. Under his watch, hundreds of permanent housing voucher subsidies went unused due in part to delays in processing applications.
The agency also wasted $1.3 million on a “strategic plan” that it never received, according to an audit that his administration worked to keep secret. DCHA’s internal auditor later resigned amid allegations of intimidation and retaliation.
Garrett also failed to close on a deal to redevelop DCHA’s NoMa headquarters, a project that’s lingered for about seven years. But that shortcoming might end up counting as points in Garrett’s favor, as the deal included a “leaseback” agreement that would have DCHA paying millions to lease its own headquarters from the new owners. Critics also slammed the proposal for its lack of housing units reserved for the population of folks DCHA serves. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority recently announced a proposed 12-year lease with DCHA for up to 51,000 square feet of office space in its L’Enfant Plaza building. DCHA would pay $1 million per year, according to WMATA.
And Garrett made little progress on his signature 20-year plan to renovate thousands of uninhabitable public housing units. With that, he left behind an estimated $2.5 billion maintenance backlog for his successor, Brenda Donald, the consequences of which are a matter of life and death for some residents.
Adding to the leadership chaos is the resignation of former Board of Commissioners Chair Neil Albert in October after revelations that he approved contracts for his girlfriend, Paola Moya. Albert, Moya, and DCHA have received federal subpoenas, though the status of the investigation is unclear.
Bowser soon appointed a political ally, Dionne Bussey-Reeder, to replace Albert. Like Donald, Bussey-Reeder has no experience in affordable housing development. She was technically ineligible to serve on the board when Bowser appointed her. Shortly after taking over as chair, the Washington Post reported that she owed $15,000 in unpaid taxes, which disqualified her for the seat. Bussey-Reeder has since paid her debt, according to a DCHA spokesperson.
Donald, another Bowser buddy, has not said how she intends to approach the maintenance backlog but indicated she may not adopt Garrett’s approach of focusing on the 14 most decrepit properties.
Providing affordable housing is difficult enough. But when the people in charge are messy themselves, it becomes nearly impossible. —Mitch Ryals
7. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $90.7 million
Director: Ernest Chrappah
While D.C.’s other agencies may have their problems, only one is so bad that it won’t exist this time next year: the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
Lawmakers have been so persistently frustrated with the sprawling agency that they’re breaking it up, hoping to reshape a calcified bureaucracy that has often neglected tenants living in deplorable conditions and failed to protect others by sniffing out dangerous construction practices. By Oct. 1, a new Department of Buildings will handle the agency’s housing and construction inspection duties, and a Department of Licensing and Consumer Protection will take over its myriad permitting functions. But the problems at DCRA are so ingrained that many fear things will never really change.
Director Ernest Chrappah has earned some positive marks from business groups for his data-driven agenda, but otherwise, “there’s been no sense of any improvement,” even as the agency has faced the threat of a major reorganization, according to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, one of DCRA’s main antagonists over the years.
He can rattle off a list of vacant properties that have gone uninspected, costing D.C. tax dollars it could be earning on blighted land. Advocates observe that housing inspections haven’t been much better—out of 887 inspections where DCRA observed housing code violations in fiscal year 2022, the agency ensured landlords made required repairs in just 34 percent of cases, according to DCRA data. That’s down from 42 percent in fiscal year 2021 and 45 percent in FY 2020.
That failure can leave residents stuck living with mold or a rodent infestation. A botched inspection can even turn deadly: DCRA mishandled its assessment of an illegal Brightwood boarding house that later became the site of a fatal fire.
And Mendelson believes Mayor Bowser could be replicating DCRA’s existing problems based on her preliminary plans for the new agencies. She expects to maintain the same number of housing inspectors, for instance, even though DCRA can’t keep up with existing demand. —Alex Koma
8. Department of Forensic Sciences
Fiscal year 2022 budget: $36.2 million
Director: Anthony Crispino (interim)
Our blood boils when we hear of potentially innocent people locked away because of shoddy evidence, lab blunders, and what a national accreditation board has called “fraudulent behavior.”
The latter charge was leveled at the D.C. crime lab in an April 2021 letter. The lab’s accreditation was revoked soon after, sparking demands for the review of potentially thousands of cases involving fingerprint and firearms evidence dating back to the mid-1990s.
How did a state-of-the-art forensic lab go from opening in 2012 with the promise of objective crime analysis to closing the bulk of its operations amid evidence that its entire existence might have been mired in failure?
In a 2015 homicide case, the DFS lab incorrectly linked two killings to the same gun. A 157-page report on the agency’s overall operations, ordered by Mayor Bowser and released in December, found failures in lab work, leadership, quality management, and a culture where employees feel unsafe disclosing problems. Another investigation, conducted by the D.C. Office of the Inspector General, identified finger-pointing and cover-ups as the crux of the problem. It’s not just that the department made huge mistakes, it’s that employees at every level were complicit in covering them up, according to the national accreditation board. Consider, for instance, the time the lab lost two vials of the bacteria that causes the bubonic plague and then the report of the incident suddenly went missing.
The ensuing agency leadership departures have included its former director, quality assurance manager, and head of the Firearms Examination Unit before the unit was disbanded in September. But the heavier consequences of the crime lab’s failures are for both potentially wrongful convictions and perpetrators going free in D.C., officials remind us. Without its accreditation, DFS is unable to do most of the forensic testing and data sharing necessary to link crimes and identify unknown offenders. More than nine months after the lab lost its status, the agency still had no concrete solution in place to get its crime lab operations running, a finding that “shocked” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen at the DFS oversight hearing on Jan. 20. In a letter Attorney General Karl Racine addressed to Allen last month, he wrote that “trust in DFS has been eviscerated.” —Ambar Castillo
Metropolitan Police Department vs. Department of Forensic Sciences
DFS is the victim of an unfortunate first round matchup. After a season of extraordinary fuckups, with revelations about grievous errors in its firearms and fingerprint testing that has the potential to upend years of criminal cases, the smaller agency was no match for the mighty MPD in the end.
Department of Employment Services vs. D.C. Housing Authority
DCHA’s scandals may be sexier—cronyism, internal dysfunction, and lucrative contracts handed to romantic partners—but those problems aren’t necessarily out of the ordinary for the housing agency. DOES’ failure in its newly urgent mission—providing unemployment benefits to tens of thousands of people during a pandemic—gives D.C.’s employment agency the edge. It’s a buzzer-beater, but DOES ekes out a victory to advance to the Final Four.
Department of General Services vs. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
One major complaint against DGS is its failure to prepare HVAC systems before students returned to the classroom. But there are many other factors that play into preventing the spread of COVID, starting with putting kids back in classrooms in the first place. DCRA’s chronically broken housing inspection system gives it the edge in this matchup. Consider the collapse of a five-story condo construction on Kennedy Street NW last July, in which several workers were injured and one was stuck under debris for more than an hour. In what is likely its last year of existence, DCRA and its specific failures to prevent harm top DGS’ wider portfolio of responsibilities.
Child and Family Services Agency vs. Department of Public Works
DPW draws an unfortunate matchup after a year in which leaf and snow removal—relatively menial but regular tasks for the agency—was so bad that Mayor Bowser yanked her preferred director from consideration before the Council could vote (Bowser hasn’t given a reason for her change of heart). Despite the blunder, the 600 percent increase in CFSA’s backlog of cases is enough for the win.
Metropolitan Police Department vs. Department of Employment Services
Two powerhouse agencies with a combined budget of about $1 billion face off in one of the most anticipated matchups of the tournament. In the end, DOES’ failure to keep people’s personal information secure, resulting in at least 13,000 reports of fraudulent claims, was no match for MPD’s own leak. Hackers lifted troves of data out of the department in a ransomware attack. The hacked information led to news reports about MPD’s flawed gang database and the 64 cops who the department’s own investigators concluded had committed crimes.
Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs vs. Child and Family Services Agency
Both of these agencies have long legacies of failure but very different missions. Although the stakes are higher for CFSA (child abuse versus building inspections, for example), DCRA wins. The family services agency just got out from under three decades of court oversight. On the other hand, DCRA’s failure to improve prompted legislation that will split the agency in two. DCRA was so bad, it will literally cease to exist.
Metropolitan Police Department vs. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
Anyone hoping for a competitive championship game is disappointed in this one. MPD continued its dominance with a victory over DCRA, and it wasn’t even close. DCRA can’t compete with MPD’s two cops on trial for murder and obstruction, criminal officers remaining on the force despite efforts to fire them, and the 16 people officers shot, five fatally, in 2021.