Kwasi Obeng Appointed the
Madison Common Council’s Chief of Staff
An Informed Presence
|Born in Dakar, Senegal in West Africa, Kwasi Obeng used his education
and professional experience in England and the U.S. to become the
Madison Common Council’s first Chief of Staff.
By Jonathan Gramling
Dr. Kwasi Obeng is used to being in positions of political tension, trying to bring
rationality to situations where political give and take and pressures are brought to
bear on the decision-making process. Obeng started his five-year tenure as the
Madison Common Council’s chief of staff on January 8th, a position opposed by
some alders and initially vetoed by the mayor. The Common Council basically wanted
an independent source of information and analysis to hold the executive branch
accountable and to make informed budgetary decisions.
But Kwasi is used to being the person that perhaps no one wants to see. He has
been involved in the auditing of government programs and services since switching
out of his chosen profession of psychology for which he earned a master’s and Ph.D.
Obeng was born in Senegal and spent his childhood in Ghana before heading to
England to attend high school in a boarding school because his parents, as U.N.
employees, were gone for extended periods of time. He then headed to the U.S. to
earn a bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt University and his master’s degree from the
Georgia School of Professional Psychology.
But while working with the Georgia Department of Family & Children’s Services
during a budget cutting period that Obeng became more interested in seeing how government works and making it work well for people. He decided to earn his
Ph.D. in public administration from Clark-Atlanta University and took a job with the city of Atlanta’s internal auditor’s office before heading to Chicago where he
really cut his teeth in the city of Chicago’s Inspector General’s Office. In a city know, deservedly or not, for its ward bosses and corruption, Obeng would work to
bring a rational, data-driven view to decision-making.
“The city of Chicago has a long history, but the Inspector General’s Office has done a lot to curb abuse and corruption,” Obeng said. “There were a couple of
lawsuits, Shakman vs. City of Chicago where aside from the department heads, which are political appointees from the mayor, usually there are positions that
have to be merit-based and not necessarily appointed by ward bosses or ward superintendents, basically political hacks. There was a section, the Hiring
Oversight Section, in our office that ensured compliance in terms of meeting the consent decree rules and making sure that hiring is fair and non-political. Our
section was evaluating the policies and procedures, operations and all of that. And then we had an investigative section aided by the legal section that looked at
bribery and ethics violations. It was the enforcement arm of the ethics board as well. For the number of people in our office, it was quite a bit of work. They are
still fighting the good fight.”
Obeng feels that this experience will bode him well in his new position as chief of staff.
“Not only did we evaluate the programs and operations of the departments, but there would also be instances where some of our reports would almost be an
advocate for more positions or assistance for the departments,” Obeng said. “For example, in Chicago, they had a shortage of building inspectors. We did a
performance audit that identified that the department may need more building inspectors. Usually we wouldn’t like to give recommendations that would say, ‘Give
them more money.’ We would ask questions like, ‘How do you conduct your staffing plan? Have you figured out if you do get the positions, exactly where you
would put them?’ I’m hoping to transfer some of those skills here to also be a listening ear to the departments in communicating to them whenever alders have
policy ideas, really having a conversation with the executive branch in figuring out how feasible it is, what kind of challenges they think that they would have.
We can also measure the expectations of city council members on what is possible and not possible. Anecdotally, some of what I’ve heard from members of
different departments are that they feel sometimes policies are made without necessarily getting input and letting alders know what is feasible and what is not. It’
s just, ‘We passed this, make it happen.’ There is miscommunication. Part of my work will be facilitating that communication and making sure that we are on the
same page and at the end of the day, also giving enough information to the alders to be able to give the departments the right resources and the right amount of
resources for them to be able to be effective enough for their constituents.”
Although he in essence has 20 bosses in the form of the Madison alders for whom he must address their needs and policy interests, Obeng is directly
supervised by the executive committee of the Common Council and in turn supervises three staff. And he must maintain good working relationships with
members of the executive branch in order to be effective.
“I’ve met with all of the deputy mayors and they have been very welcoming,” Obeng said. “We’ve talked about ways that I can help them communicate things to
alders and vice versa in terms of having a common language and not necessarily having personalities and egos clashing at meetings and communicating some
of that from the alders to the executive branch. I think it will be a healthy working relationship.”
Obeng must have inherited his diplomacy skills from his parents for he is very personable and has a sincere desire to make government work better.
“I’ve been having meetings with alders to try to flesh out exactly what the expectations are,” Obeng said. “My vision, considering city council members are part-
time, having myself be a liaison between the city council and the executive branch because I am going to be here during the working hours or a lot of times that
alders have concerns about certain city operations, want us to do research to find out if certain things that are working in other jurisdictions that I can get the
information on the ground from the city departments and relay that. I think there are a lot misconceptions as to the position and what the position is for. But if you
think about it in terms of the government structure, the city council is really supposed to be an equal branch to the executive branch. So when you have 20 part-
time alders, you really want someone who can help provide them with the right amount of information so that they can be an effective oversight body. This is a
small office. We don’t have a fully robust constituent services department or a legislative director or director of administration. In most cities like Chicago and
other places, you actually have each city council member having their own chief of staff and their own director of constituent services where concerns from the
constituents can actually come through their office. It’s a little different here. But what I’m trying to do is help build out the office’s capacity and be able to be the
voice where concerns from city departments to the alders can kind of funnel through this office and then also from constituents to the city departments will funnel
through this office as well.”
In some ways, Obeng will be walking a tightrope. He is beholden to the alders in carrying out their policy aims. But at the same time, he is committed to data-
driven decision-making that allows for the reconciliation of differences between the executive and legislative branches.
“If the council is supposed to be the people’s branch of government, then the council should also have someone of that stature who can also speak that
language and be on the same level,” Obeng said. “Part of it, considering a lot of times you may have interests from the executive branch that might be slightly
different from that of the Common Council, that you have someone who can be at the table to help reach a compromise and help figure out which policies can
bring the most impact and improve efficiencies. Sometimes policies from either the executive branch or the Common Council may have unintended
consequences. How exactly do we address those? Having someone with less of the emotions and being driven more by data and what the policy is. What I want
to see is the city moving more into having benchmarks and performance measures for departments so that the council can really fulfill its role as an oversight
body, not just having the power of the purse string in terms of the budget, but also ensuring that we’re not just throwing money at departments, but they are
actually yielding the products and outcomes and outputs that we actually want to see.”
Obeng is excited to be the individual chosen to bring the newly-created chief of staff position to fruition, to make it a reality.
“I feel real honored to be in this position,” Obeng said. “It is my goal to show the naysayers that this position is needed and will be a valued asset to the alders
and hopefully the position will help show how the Common Council can actually hold the executive branch more accountable to improve services and encourage
efficiency rather than having a lot of voices and information be anecdotal, really pushing substantive changes in government.”
Obeng stands ready to make a positive contribution to good government in Madison.