Case Study: Atlanta's Blue Ribbon Commission on Waste & Efficiency in Government Report, An Operational Excellence in Government Success Story

This resource is part of the Ash Center's Operational Excellence in Government Project.

In 2016, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School received funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to launch the Operational Excellence in Government Project. The goal of the project is to identify operational efficiency successes across state and local government, and to celebrate and publicize those successes via the project website at The site makes available for the first time from a single searchable portal 30 existing studies of government efficiency.

This case study of a broad-based set of operational efficiency successes in Atlanta is one of three created as part of the Operational Excellence in Government Project. The purpose of the case studies is to elevate and document the successes, and in doing so to provide a greater amount of detail than is typically available in write-ups about improving the operations of government. The case studies explain the implementation steps, the key challenges, and the driving factors for success. With this work, we hope to reduce the cost of identifying opportunities for efficiency and cost savings across all layers of government, and to accelerate the transfer and deployment of these successful cases. 

This case study describes how Atlanta identified $92 million in one-time savings and $25 million in annual savings by improving the efficiency of its operations. The Atlanta government efficiency report that identified these savings is highlighted by the Operational Excellence in Government Project for its excellence among existing efficiency studies, for the rigor of the process that created it, and for the strength of results achieved. This report stands out among others of this type for its reliance on data as a key component of the process and for its level of implementation detail. 

In 2014, Atlanta faced a $1 billion infrastructure backlog for bridge, street, sidewalk, and public facility repairs. The city is not alone in its infrastructure needs — the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated the cost of bringing America’s infrastructure to a state of good repair by 2020 at $3.3 trillion.[1] Mayor Kasim Reed wanted to fund infrastructure improvements without a tax increase, so he turned to operational efficiency, hoping to identify $15 million in annual savings, the amount needed to pay debt service for the bonds that could fund infrastructure repairs. 

He appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Waste & Efficiency in Government and charged them with identifying the savings. The commission included city council members, union representatives, and private-sector leaders. Private-sector CEOs on the commission offered advice based on their own successes, such as lowering employee health-care costs. Public-sector commissioners (who constituted the majority of commission members) provided perspective on how those ideas could be adapted for government. Over the course of three months, the commission studied the administrative and operational functions of city government and put forward 56 specific recommendations worth $199 million in one-time or recurring savings. An additional 102 ideas were generated and are included in the report.

Armed with the recommendations, the mayor tasked his deputy chief operating officer and his Office of Innovation and Performance with carrying out the work. They created cross-disciplinary implementation teams for each initiative, developed detailed workplans, and created a status reporting structure with a Project Management Office (PMO) to consistently monitor progress. Results to date have been impressive, including:

  • $92 million in one-time cost savings or additional revenue from the sale of excess city property
  • $4 million in reduced cost through health-care plan consolidation and optimization
  • $3.6 million in additional annual revenue from implementation of customer service and technology improvements related to the collection of fees and fines
  • $2.5 million in savings due to improved management of vacant positions and recruiting

Reflecting on this success, actions other cities can take include the following:

  • Review the real estate portfolio for excess property. Downsizing a state and local government’s real estate footprint creates both one-time revenue from the sale of the property and also ongoing savings due to the decreased maintenance and energy costs.
  • Use data early and often. The commission used data to estimate costs and benefits of potential recommendations and to help set priorities for which recommendations to put forward, and it shared the data in advance of meetings so that decisions could be based on the data. Data can help make assessments more objective and fact-based, and can help track results. 
  • Borrow expertise and ideas from the private sector. Atlanta used private-sector input to lower health-care costs, implement energy efficiency initiatives, and develop a plan for public-private partnerships spanning place-making, sponsorship, advertising, and city branding. Corporate, academic, or philanthropic partners can provide valuable outside perspective.
  • Look at government’s cost of providing a service. By comparing fees and fines to the actual cost of doing the work, and by comparing the rates to other jurisdictions, Atlanta was able to improve the fairness of the fees and fines it charged people, and to better align costs with revenue collected. 
  • Create a Project Management Office (PMO). The use of a PMO to collect progress data and share it with the chief executive and other stakeholders can help motivate those responsible for delivering results.

The pages that follow describe how Mayor Reed’s team accomplished these impressive results.

Download Full Case Study (PDF)

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