Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett learned on his first day in office in 2009 that his city needed to identify at least $10 million in cost savings to keep Tulsa up and running.
Mayor Bartlett's innovation allowed groups of employees to bid on projects and then share in additional cost savings. The strategy engaged city employees in city solutions, using competition to leverage employees’ insights to drive cost reductions.
Other cities have used managed competition to allow public sector employees to compete with independent contractors to deliver essential city services — but Mayor Bartlett didn’t stop where others had. He put his own twist on the existing strategy of managed competition. "Who else better to ask to come up with a way to save money for the city than those who are actually doing the work?" Mayor Bartlett asked in a recent interview.
When Mayor Bartlett coupled managed competition with gain sharing for city employees, he gave employees an opportunity to come out ahead as the city coped with the economic downturn.
The best way to understand the idea is to see it in practice.
Last year, Mayor Bartlett invited city workers and private contractors to bid on the electrical, mechanical, plumbing, and carpentry work at Tulsa City Hall. In the end, Tulsa’s existing public maintenance staff submitted a more competitive bid than the four private firms that competed, and won the contract.
The managed competition saved Tulsa more than $100,000 — but the cost cutting didn't stop there. The seven maintenance staffers who won the contract identified more than $100,000 in additional cost savings, above and beyond the reductions in their initial bid, and they each were able to take home nearly $4,000 in bonus cash payments.
"I think this is a great day," Mayor Bartlett said as he handed out the bonuses. "It shows what city employees can do and will do when given the opportunity."
Vital to successful implementation was setting up the necessary structures and processes. For example, Tulsa trained city workers on how to prepare bids for managed competitions so that they would be prepared to compete. The city also established a review office to weigh competing proposals.
The strategy already has helped Tulsa do more with less — and has provided an incentive that motivates city workers to come up with increasingly creative cost reduction strategies.
About 200 Tulsa government services ultimately can be handled through Mayor Bartlett’s competitive approach to cost cutting.
Cities across America are facing mounting fiscal pressure, which suggests a need for creative approaches like Tulsa's in cities across the country.
Plus, Tulsa's innovation didn't require large investments or specific, hard-to-find skills, making it ripe for replication in other cities. All it required was creativity, some courage, and a deep commitment to try a new approach.