Madison City Council’s first-ever chief of staff Kwasi Obeng has a passion for policy and years of experience working in government.
“What really drove me to Madison was really wanting to improve people’s lives,” said Obeng, who started the job Jan. 8. “It’s all about addressing issues of equity, making sure the voiceless and low-income families are still receiving those services from government that, in my philosophical opinion, government is supposed to help provide.”
Obeng was born in Senegal and moved with his parents, who worked for the United Nations, to Ghana when he was 6 years old. Following boarding school in England, he majored in organizational development and psychology from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
Though he had plans to pursue a medical career, Obeng switched gears and earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in political science. He has also worked in local and state government in Atlanta’s Auditor’s Office and in Chicago’s Office of Inspector General, where he was chief performance analyst.
Mayor Paul Soglin previously vetoed the chief of staff position, objecting to the salary and the City Council's rising budget. The chief of staff position comes with a five-year contract and a $107,000 annual salary.
But the Council overrode the veto. Alders had previously argued the City Council needs additional staff to help them balance their heavy workload.
“I do want to be able to develop the capacity of the office to where you can have a robust constituent services section and a legislative research section and then to also be able to manage the administrative part of the office,” Obeng said.
How does Madison compare to other cities you’ve worked in?
I’m really impressed by how engaged the community is. People always talk about Madison being one of the most educated cities in the U.S., and I think it’s reflected not just in the engagement but in how people participate. Having so many constituents being on city committees and offering both their professional insights as residents is very valuable.
What is your role as chief of staff?
In the context of what the City Council is supposed to do, the two main responsibilities of the City Council are oversight and policy making. In my role as chief of staff, in the context of policy making, I try to give them as much information as possible to be able to make informed decisions. In the context of oversight, there’s also building relationships with department heads and engaging front-line staff and understanding what some of the challenges are.
It’s kind of like a back and forth dance. To some extent, I have to relay the concerns of alders to departments and kind of see how certain issues, whether it’s constituent issues, can be addressed, but also being able to communicate to alders.
From what you’ve seen so far, what are ways the chief of staff position can be effective?
A perfect example is the police oversight report that came out. Because of my experience being in Chicago where we had a Department of Justice report that had all these recommendations, as the city grows I’m able to put into perspective some of the requests that are being made in the report. ... (I can) engage the police and find out how practical some of those recommendations are and ... strike a balance between having oversight but not too much oversight.
Whenever an issue comes up, I think holistically and try to encourage departments not to operate in silos, but come up with comprehensive, operational policy decisions.
As the city is growing and there is more development, I really want to make sure as I enter the meetings... I can either communicate certain things to the department based on what I’ve heard other departments talking about or really just pose questions.
How is the learning curve going?
It’s still a challenge, and I’m realistic in realizing that the learning curve is probably going to take a few months. I’m not trying to rush it. But the benefit is that because my entire career having worked in government, I’m not just starting from ground zero. I have some context, and it’s just a matter of understanding how things actually get done in Madison. By doing performance audits, I speak the same language as some of the departments.
You’re the first person to have this job. What kind of mark do you want to leave on this position?
I do want to leave a mark in terms of the position, and hope that the office of the Council can actually grow a bit more and increase its capacity. I always tell people just by engaging the alders and seeing what they have to go through, being an alder in Madison is not easy. It’s almost like having three jobs because the alders are being very responsive to their constituents, but they also have to deal with their own full time jobs if they’re working and balancing that with their families.
As the Council are really embracing their role in government as being an equal part with the mayor’s office and staff, and being able to exercise appropriate and adequate oversight and develop sound policies, they really want someone who can help them synthesize information and kind of do the research and then be that liaison.