Lessons from the Dirty Streets of San Francisco

If you ask most people, the way the government is supposed to work is simple. The people identify a problem they want the government to fix. The government hires and deploys people to fix it, using tax dollars to pay them to get the job done. Problem solved!

Except that’s not what happens. More often than not, the problem doesn’t get fixed. Elected officials and bureaucrats will often claim that is because they don’t have enough tax dollars. They say if only they had more, they could hire more and better people to fix the problem. Then, the problem will be fixed. Problem solved!

Except that’s not what happens either. Writing at RealClearPolicy, Adam Andrzejewski of Open the Books described what happened when the people of San Francisco wanted the city government to clean up the problem of human feces being deposited on the streets of San Francisco:

In 2019, we highlighted a tripling in reported human waste in the public way. Citizens filed 10,644 complaints in 2014 and the number of complaints escalated to 30,996 cases by 2019.

Our auditors mapped 118,352 case reports of human waste on city streets – from 2011 to 2019.

The city government of San Francisco employs an entire department of public works. Among its many duties, it has long been tasked with keeping city streets and public sidewalks clean.

In one of America’s richest cities, it is not lacking for money. And yet, during these years, the problem the people wanted fixed got worse.

What’s wrong with this picture?

This picture ignores the incentives of the bureaucrats tasked with fixing the problems the people want solved. Many come to realize they can use their official positions in ways that make them richer. Many get generous raises and benefits for just doing their regular jobs. Others find ways to supplement their generous pay or to cut back on the work they do. Some do both, getting paid more for working less and also supplementing their pay.

Guess which scenario explains the dirty streets of San Francisco?

Mohammed Nuru, the public works director and self-titled @MrCleanSF, was in charge of keeping city streets clean and oversaw a $500 million budget. He was indicted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2020.

Nuru was charged with one count of alleged public corruption and is innocent until proven guilty. “The complaint describes a web of corruption involving bribery, kickbacks, and side deals by one of San Francisco’s highest-ranking city employees,” said U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson. “The public is entitled to honest work from public officials, free from manipulation for the official’s own personal benefit and profit.”

Nuru was well paid in his futile attempt to keep San Francisco streets clean. His total taxpayer-funded cash compensation in 2019 was $380,120, and his base salary had jumped by $65,000 over eight years. Our auditors at OpenTheBooks.com compiled Nuru’s pay based on Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the City of San Francisco.

It Didn’t Happen by Accident

Nuru did not get his job by accident. He was hired by other public officials seeking someone who shared their values. He was selected because they believe he shares their view of serving the public. And because he shares their view of the public.

By all accounts, he does. Bureaucrats are nothing if not very good at hiring who they want when they have jobs to fill. How they go on to perform in those jobs says a lot about how they see the public and their role as public servants.

The dirty streets of San Francisco are a testament to their beliefs. What other lessons should we take away from them?

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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