Ernest Chrappah Takes Reins at DCRA at a Tumultuous Time
For the past six months, Ernest Chrappah has taken on the role of reforming Washington D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA)—one of the city’s most beleaguered government entities.
DCRA is responsible for regulating most of the city’s business, construction and housing activities such as doling out business licenses and permits, sending inspectors to commercial and residential sites and monitoring construction and housing violations. In September 2018, the agency made headlines when the Office of the D.C. Auditor released a report addressing the department’s delayed responses to housing code violation complaints at an affordable housing complex in Brookland.
Two months later, former director Melinda Bolling stepped down and Mayor Muriel Bowser tapped Chrappah to serve as the interim director of DCRA (in February 2019, the mayor nominated him take the helm as the permanent director).
Chrappah, 42, who lives in Cathedral Heights with his wife and two toddlers, is no stranger to the tribulations of government work. Before DCRA, he was the director for the Department of For-Hire Vehicles. Over the course of 10 years, he’s worked in agencies including the Child and Family Services Agency, the DC Taxicab Commission, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the Executive Office of the Mayor and the Office of the Chief Technology for D.C.
When Chrappah came on at DCRA, he immediately set out to hear firsthand the litany of gripes that District residents have fostered over the years, he told Commercial Observer in a recent interview. In 45 “listening sessions,” District residents raged over receiving poor customer service from DCRA employees and waiting 30 days or more for inspections, among other complaints.
In March, Chrappah proposed a plan to the D.C. council that’s being called the “Uber for Housing Inspectors,” which would allow D.C. residents to get licensed as inspectors who can provide on-demand services for residents and property owners.
Last week, DCRA released a map showing where reported housing code violations are taking place across the city and the rate in which landlords and property owners are making repairs.
“We’ve taken our datasets and made it something that is usable for the average person to make an informed decision about why would we want to live at this property if the landlord has a repair rate of 10 percent—or I’ll take my dollars to another property that has a 90 percent repair rate,” Chrappah explains. “We are not picking winners and losers but we are providing information for people to make informed decisions and that is what is actually exciting.”
Chrappah says the listening sessions ultimately led him to create a plan called Vision 2020: Roadmap To A Digital Transformation. It includes appropriately allocating the agency’s finances, reforming antiquated regulatory procedures, streamlining communication practices and improving technological processes, he told CO. Chrappah will expound on the vision as the keynote speaker at DCRA’s annual Build It In DC Conference, co-hosted by the Washington DC Economic Partnership, that’s taking place on Tuesday May 14 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
From why he descended upon D.C. to his innovative thinking, here’s more of our talk with Chrappah.
Commercial Observer: You left Ghana to attend American University in 1996. Why did you choose to come to D.C. for college?
Ernest Chrappah: When it was time for me to go to college the professors had been on strike for almost 10 months so I had to wait another year to go to college. So one, I didn’t want to wait. But more importantly, I saw an opportunity to get a global point of view.
I felt comfortable with D.C. because of its open environment and the international scene—that’s how I ended up at American University.
And you’re a co-founder the menswear brand Hugh & Crye?
Yes, I’m no longer involved but I still rock the shirts.
How was your experience establishing the company through DCRA?
That was my [first] real experience with DCRA because my co-founder and I had to develop the business from scratch. We were actively involved at looking at the cost of setting up a business, the resources that are available and how can we leverage those opportunities as a startup to build a business in D.C. So we have firsthand knowledge of what it takes to not only start a company that is very successful now but also how to navigate the bureaucracy in completing what is required.
Did you have any challenges with DCRA in that process?
It was straightforward and that was in part because we knew what we wanted to do. We were fortunate enough to know that it had to be an LLC. We were fortunate enough to know we had to have a business plan. And my partner was also very cognizant of the application processes. Our experience was good. At the same time, it gave us an opportunity to realize that if somebody doesn’t have a business plan and doesn’t know the corporate structure that they want to form, there is an opportunity [for DCRA] to provide some help in that regard so that their business is more likely to be successful.
You’ve worked in D.C. government for the past decade. How do you think those past roles have informed the work that you do now at DCRA?
It’s played a huge role. One, in terms of developing an affinity for helping people. The city government impacts the lives of so many people and what I’ve learned across the various agencies that I’ve worked at is we have an opportunity to make the lives of people better through policies and programs. And always pushing the envelope against the bureaucracy most often leads to good outcomes for residents and businesses.
So whether it’s helping children in foster care, residents who use ride sharing or taxi or children who go to school on the school bus, I’ve really enjoyed helping people—and that fundamental experience has equipped me to take on this challenge at DCRA, knowing very well that a good amount of innovation coupled with focusing on [servicing] our customers is going to create good outcome for everybody.
There’s a lot to tackle at DCRA. What was it like for you to come into an agency that’s plagued with so many issues?
It was interesting in the sense that I wasn’t intimidated but I also recognized that there’s something real that I had to put my finger on quickly, which will become the foundation for our reform. So there was a bit of a concern that I had personally—how am I going to figure out what that one thing is.
I came in with a blank slate. I wasn’t going to use my experience with DCRA to judge DCRA and I wasn’t going to use everything that I read about DCRA to judge the people within and outside. Through the listening sessions, it became crystal clear to me that we had to make a shift from everything being about a building or an address to [focusing on] the customer. Historically, systems have been designed around a specific address. So if a customer has an issue, one of the first things we ask is what is the address, not paying attention to asking what is your name, tell me a little bit about your circumstance—the human component.
Since one of the major complaints that DCRA has received over the years is poor customer service, how are you investing in training and professional development?
Investment in people is the biggest line item in our broader approach to transforming DCRA and city service delivery at-large. The critical piece is securing our workforce to be part of the future in an environment where there’s increased automation and artificial intelligence.
One of the areas where we are making an investment is bringing on a corporate change firm to help us navigate [the waters] so that we can empower our employees. But it speaks to the broader notion that change is always going to be there and if we can empower people—be it employees or customers—we are more likely to be successful.
Some of the things that we’ve done over the last six months or so that folks have been shocked that we’ve been able to accomplish stems from the commitment of our employees. We’ve been able to deploy a customer relationship management model that puts our customers first and we emphasize that we will take them through a cycle that when you first interact with us, whether that’s on social, email, phone or in person, we streamline our responses to the same customers that allows us to measure the health of the customer and work aggressively toward making happy customers. That’s something that has been very well received from our employees.
Another area we’ve made an investment in our employees is in our inspectors’ tablets so that they can have access to real-time information from the field and they can be more productive when they are taking enforcement action or looking up information.
And the new customer relationship management model guarantees a response time of three business days or less, correct?
That’s correct. We started a baseline. In the past, folks have said DCRA is not responsive [so] we said we’re going to guarantee you that whether you have a question about permitting, inspection, licensing or enforcement, we will address it in three business days. It’s changed the dynamic between our customers and the agency where there’s a lot more transparency now and there’s reasonable service level expectation.
What was the average response time before you implemented this new strategy?
(laughs). This is the way I’ll put it: it was definitely not three business days. It was definitely not something that we could consistently measure, and one of the things I’ve learned over my time in the district government and private sector is if you can’t measure something, it is very difficult to improve.
In terms of transforming DCRA, how important is it for you to come up with innovative ideas versus tweaking procedures that already exist?
We will [eliminate] things that are not adding a whole lot of value so that we can make good use of government resources. Knowing that we are in an environment where it will be very difficult to get everything we need because city agencies have fiscal constraints, we believe in the value of innovation that allows us to move forward in a way that’s fiscally conservative and also practical. So by applying innovation, we can come up with 21st century solutions to problems that people have not been able to solve effectively.
An example is this idea of Uber for professional inspectors. We know that the demand for inspections is 150,000 [per year] and it’s not possible for our 68 inspectors plus third party inspectors to meet that demand. And we can’t depend solely on the thinking that we can hire our way to inspectors because the building industry in general [lacks] skilled workers so why don’t we take this problem and make something unique and create a solution out of that.
We are saying we will now create a pathway to economic prosperity by providing training for people to become professional, certified inspectors and once they cross that bar, we will put them on the platform and match them to job opportunities. So we innovate in the sense that we connect service requesters to people who deliver the service, and we give people delivering the service an opportunity to make more money. As an agency, we solve the resource constraints we have in completing timely and effective inspections.
What needs to happen in order for that program to come to fruition?
There are a number of things that need to happen—it touches on financial resources, communications, technology and customer input. We’ve already started those conversations and we are very excited that the budget that Mayor Bowser has proposed for the agency is an 11.3 percent increase and hopefully city council will see the value of that significant investment.
What we are doing in the meantime is building out our requirements for these platforms. We are also collecting data on the types of inspections that we do and the types of inspections that we have to do. We are doing potential designs but we see this as being put to some type of testing in 2020.
Are there are resources that DCRA provides that you think people are under informed about?
There are and that’s because we provide so much. One starts with data for people to make informed decisions. I mentioned the landlord map and the housing code information. We also provide information on permits and plans that we have issued.
The live streaming and training sessions that we provide to help people know their rights as a renter or homeowner could help people almost immediately but sometimes we’re not aware of it because of schedules. [The trainings] help people understand what they need for a permit and and licensing.
Outside of work, what do you like to do for fun?
I don’t do a whole lot but there are two things that I hang on to it and somebody will have to pry out of my cold dead hands. One, is running. I train and I prepare for half marathons and I coach people to do it. The second is going to church. I like that practice of sacred responsibilities, connecting with something bigger than yourself and sharing that experience with community and family.