Earning public trust one action at a time

One year ago, shortly after Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed tasked me to reform the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency, theThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board said: “Fix it. Or shutter it … a succession of Atlanta mayors and a host of city councils have not been able to conquer the problems of this profoundly dysfunctional agency.”

I took that opinion seriously as a candid critique of a historically plagued agency and a challenge to avoid superficial changes. I resolved to implement systemic and cultural changes that would put the agency on a path to success beyond my tenure.

In 2013, the city auditor reported to the mayor and city council that the agency was beyond repair and recommended its closure. In 2014, an AJC investigative team uncovered fraud and misallocation of funds. In that same year, state monitors cited the agency with multiple findings that included lack of a budget and a cost allocation plan.

I knew that what I inherited would be difficult to repair and reform. I also knew those difficulties paled in comparison to the individuals who were jobless, broke and struggling to find employment resources. Work needed to be done.

Uncertain about where to start, I took small steps. I talked with workforce experts, studied best-practices, read highly-acclaimed management books such as Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” and David Aesch’s “Driving Excellence.”

I knew that I could not do it on my own, and so I took the advice of Jim Collins, “First who, then what.”

Step by step, I made personnel decisions until the right team was in place to transform the culture and perform true reform.

Dedicated to improving lives, we rewrote the mission, established five pillars and reorganized the structure of the agency — from a system of operating to meet mechanical performance measures to one dedicated to helping every customer regardless of circumstances.

Ten months later, we resolved all audit findings from the state’s 2013-2014 monitoring report and had no repeat findings during the next audit. We built a budget, established a cost-allocation plan and a business division and brought in a labor market analyst so training efforts aligned with business needs.

This year, we have placed more than 154 individuals into employment, 268 into training, 534 into work experience and provided more than 115 students with college scholarships to pursue their dreams.

Agency reform is far from over. But a year later, we are improved, changing lives every day and refusing to declare victory until every person in Atlanta that wants a job has one.

If you met individuals like Army veteran Alcedric Jackson, who we helped to upgrade his avionics maintenance skills or 19-year-old Cameron Brysdon, who was homeless but is now attaining his automotive technology degree, then you would understand that the work of this agency is vital to the fabric of Atlanta.

We will continue to earn it every day: earn the public’s trust and earn opportunities for people every single day.

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Michael T. Sterling is executive director of the Atlanta Workforce Development Agency.