To spend a day on the job with the city's new managing director, Camille Cates Barnett, is to pull your chair up to some of the cleanest, most paper-free desks and conference tables in all of North American municipal government.
This is a woman who takes no notes.
"I can remember what I need to know," says Barnett, 59.
All day, her cell phone rings maybe one time, and it's the movers. She takes one crisis call, about Wi-Fi, and appoints a youngster to deal with it.
Her handpicked performance management team keeps the details, a group of clean-cut wonkish youngsters who skate around her all day with charts and reports and solutions.
Her chief of staff, an openly gay former Army interrogator who speaks fluent Korean and Haitian Creole - yes, this is the kind of person you want on your team - runs interference. He's the one who can put a paper before her and expect a signature.
Before an array of city departments and deputies at various meetings, Doc Barnett - her Ph.D. is in public administration - is a withering presence, skewering, chiding, poking at flab, interrupting.
"Do we have a plan?"
"What are we doing about it?"
"Tom, what are you going to do to clean up the city?"
As you watch some of the city's most legendarily dysfunctional deparments bounce up against the cut-to-the-chase Doc Barnett, this leads to some interesting moments.
To watch, say, the streets commissioner or the acting head of aviation try to produce the data required by Barnett's think-tank-honed philosophy of municipal fitness makes you feel, well, just a little nervous for us.
Are we and our most cherished and bloated municipal traditions ready for Barnett and her team?
Can we handle it? Can we really produce statistics on stuff like snow and leaf removal and pothole repair rates and airport efficiency and, you know, city services, that are anything other than comical?
Can our data-driven reports on say, leaf removal, be anything other than ironic?
Can our city government become as streamlined as her day?
Come to grips with this, Philadelphia: Barnett and her intelligent, no-nonsense, metrics- and goal-driven people are on our team now.
Fresh from a think tank, a veteran, and in some cases a casualty, of three other city governments, Doc Barnett - not once in 12 hours a "call me Camille," even her doorman calls her Doc - has arrived in town from Washington, D.C., to whip our city, its 24,000 employees and nearly $4 billion budget into shape.
Mayor Nutter wanted her intelligence, her theories of efficient government, her skewering abilities. She was the one he wanted for this job.
But even as Barnett glides through her day, her not-quite-cooperating hair pretty much the only source of anxiety, there is another force at work that has drastically altered the chemistry of her experience in Philadelphia.
It is grief, a condition complicated by the continual waves of sympathy she receives all day from strangers, from colleagues, from Mayor Nutter, for the tragedy that first brought her into sharp focus before the public: her husband's death in a traffic accident on his way up for the inauguration in January.
Jim Barnett, her affable, bohemian, psychoanalyst husband of 35 years - the self-described caboose to his wife's runaway train, a man 17 years her senior with four children from a first marriage, whom Barnett married when she was 23 - was killed in an auto accident on his way to Philly from D.C. for the mayor's swearing-in in January. She came to work here anyway.
Now, strangers figure out who she is as she walks her two little Yorkshire terriers on the Parkway and immediately connect the dots and tell her how sorry they are about her husband.
Grieving families of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty take notice of the grief in her voice as she presides over a memorial service for them, a duty she inherited as managing director. They notice how she wipes away a tear or two as she sits back down, how her face darkens every now and then, a pensive cloud moving across her face momentarily, how she keeps her composure and moves the long ceremony forward, editing words from the script as she goes, pushing on in the midday sun.
Philadelphia - and this is how she still sees us, every person, every encounter, every new revelation completing her picture of the whole - comes up to her afterward, police officers, even, putting aside piercing feelings about the black ribbons around their own badges and makes sure she knows that we know she is still hurting.
For her birthday April 29, her performance team got her a moon lapel pin because they were worried that there was nobody to help her celebrate her birthday. She was still wearing it two weeks later.
To spend the day with Barnett is to see how genuinely bad people in Philadelphia feel about what happened to her as a result of her agreeing to come and try to clean up our mess.
Can you stop jaywalking, Philadelphia? It's driving Doc Barnett crazy.
And law department, can you find something better to do than to quibble about whether her renaming a particular city department to clarify its function somehow violates the City Charter? Come on, people.
"That's ridiculous," Barnett says. "I don't need them to advise me on this stuff. I don't want to, so the answer is no, no, no."
Ridiculous? Don't need? Doc, here in Philadelphia, parsing bureaucratic formalities through arcane charter provisions with a series of back-and-forth memos before we reach a compromise on language and legal technicalities - that's like practically our civic duty! Don't make us give that up!
"Why is this pink?" she says, referring to the cover of the monthly manager's report she has inherited.
"It was the paper they had left?" offers her budget director, Stephen Agostini.
"It's the color of my people," quips Steven Kennebeck, Barnett's handpicked chief of staff, who served in that capacity when she ran things as chief management officer in Washington. (The daughter of a career Chamber of Commerce head who bounced from city to city, Barnett has also run city governments in Austin and Houston.)
Kennebeck was one of many friends who encouraged Barnett to still take the Philly job, even as a new widow stunned by the loss of her partner of so long, a personable guy who cooked, gardened, and pretty much launched her out into the world every day. They were unable to have children of their own. With his four children grown, he was her family.
"He was a rock for her," said Kennebeck. "Having lost him has been very hard."
Just as in her no-nonsense approach to work, Barnett is direct and open when asked about her loss. "It makes everything more difficult," she says. "I'm always thinking about it."
During a 12-hour day, Barnett eats lunch only because her thoughtful aide Joann Gontarek thinks to get her a sandwich around 3 p.m. Her attire is functional, not tailored, only marginally coordinated, makeup minimal. In looks and style, she is more academic than corporate. Her deputies show off their quick wit and intelligence like they're on an all-day audition for 30 Rock or The Office. But there's an impatience.
"She's at the top of her game," Kennebeck says. "I think she's got it all figured out and she's just waiting for everyone to catch up. She doesn't suffer fools gladly."
So, Madam Streets Commissioner, why is it that the more block captains you seem to have in a neighborhood, the more litter there is?
The setting is the twice-weekly PhillyStat meetings, one of Barnett's chief initiatives, along with the 311 citizen help line. These meetings are a fascinating tableau of entrenched Philadelphia practices and procedures coming under the withering scrutiny of Barnett and her performance team. Televised on Channel 64, and soon to get a new studio in the Municipal Services Building near Barnett's office, the droning drama features city departments (Streets! Parking! Airport, oh my) trying to demonstrate Barnett-style goal-directed results with hard data.
It's a nail-biter.
Um, perhaps it's just like some crime statistics, suggests budget director Agostini, trying to be helpful. Agostini - whose previous job was chief financial officer for the Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce (is that a Barnett guy or what?) - will manage to say the opposite of what Barnett believes several times in the course of the day and live to tell the tale. That is, he ventures, the block captains are just reporting more litter.
"That may be going on, but that's not what the data supports," Barnett shoots back. "We need to move on."
When a department head refers to "L&I," Barnett objects. She does not do acronyms, even ones as storied as L&I, which may be better understood here than the full name, Licenses and Inspections.
She is not impressed with charts that show all is well, as the water guy tried to show. And if our water's so great, she scolded, why the bottled water at the meeting?
With no paper, no patience, no tolerance for anything but a straight line to a solution, or at least to a definable action plan, Barnett says at various times throughout the day:
"OK, so what's your point?"
"What do you think should be our objective?"
"Let me just break in here -"
"OK, getting back to topic!"
"So, Don, what do you need us to do for you today?"
"I need to wrap this up."
"We all know people at Brookings."
"OK, what else do you need. Don, what do you need?"
"OK, OK, OK, the meeting's over."
In other words, give her the data, but spare her the details. "If it's a detailed kind of discussion, I'm probably in the wrong meeting."
Longtime Doc devotee Kennebeck jokes that "now" is the most common expression in her lexicon. "At my interview she asked me if I was afraid of her. . . . The last three were shaking in their boots."
He has advised her staff how to deal with "the dragon lady." But she also seems to be a boss some people like to work for; Clarena Tolson, the streets commissioner chastised over litter and leaf-collection spreadsheets, said she appreciated Barnett's directness, the focus on concrete goals.
("Is there a way to do it so [the leaf collection] doesn't dip?" Barnett had asked Tolson.
"If we could guess when the leaves are going to fall . . ." tried Tolson, not getting far.)
At a weekly meeting of deputy mayors, performance team member Anuj Gupta delivered a report he'd written years ago at the Pennsylvania Economy League that linked the city's loss of population to a surprisingly mundane fact: too few direct flights to Philadelphia International Airport from immigrant countries.
Afterward, he told Barnett he'd been waiting seven years for the chance to deliver these findings to people who actually could decide policy.
Barnett moves through this day like a landscaper doing a spring cleaning, cutting and trimming the excess, thinking big picture, focus, end result.
After a trip to Italy - planned originally as a 35th anniversary trip - she will move from the Phoenix condos near City Hall to a rowhouse she has purchased on Waverly Street. She is keeping her home in D.C. for now, on the advice of a grief counselor.
This day, she sees the mayor twice, once at the memorial service and again for an evening budget meeting. They have two regular times they meet weekly; mostly, they go in their own orbits.
But it's clear they traverse the same territory. At the evening meeting, during a food break, Nutter leans over to her and praises her composure at the memorial in Franklin Square. "You were very good," he says. "I was going to say something [about her husband], but I didn't."
Barnett puts her hand over his on the conference table and leans over. "I'm glad you didn't," she says.
Then, with the same intimacy and urgency, she says: "I have some really astounding survey results to show you, one in particular."
From the look on his face, you know he cannot wait.
View additional Inquirer photos from Camille Cates Barnett's day at http://inquirer.philly.com/