Monday, September 25, 2017

Why do natural disasters often bring out the best in people...

and the worst in local governments?

Another dispatch from the post-Hurricane Irma mess comes from Green Cove Springs, Florida.  According to Clay Today, city officials rousted a food truck driver who wanted to provide food including FREE meals for anyone in a utility vehicle.

Why?  Someone apparently complained and Mayor Mitch Timberlake agreed saying that the food truck operator should have asked the City first.

In response, I cannot improve on the account artfully provided by Clay Today:

"Had Roundtree decided to press his case at City Hall, he would have been greeted with a sign that read: “Due to Hurricane Irma, City Hall offices and services will re-open on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017.”

Local attorney John Whiteman happened to take a photograph of the sign on the glass door, fully reflecting the blue skies-sunshiny day. “Not the best message because it gives the impression that no one's working when I'm certain that wasn't true,” Whiteman said, speculating that the city’s administrative leaders were ensconced in the security of the police station for the duration of the emergency, thus avoiding having to communicate with the general public about things such as food truck permits."

In the aftermath of a major storm in a community where the local McDonald's ran out of food at 2 p.m., city officials found the time to dispatch law enforcement to give the bum's rush to a small business meeting a community need.  I can only imagine what might have happened to an enterprising 10-year-old who opened a lemonade stand.  I presume nothing less than the SWAT team in full tactical gear would have sufficed to protect the interests of the local beverage industry.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A lemonade stand by any other name...

According to News &7 Miami, code enforcement officers in Miami-Dade County began issuing warning citations to property owners only hours after Hurricane Irma passed.

The report quotes Celso Perez saying:

“At the time this officer was out here, we didn’t have power, we didn’t have food, we didn’t have ice. He is crazy, ridiculous. The mayor said that the county would help us recover from the storm and were there to help us. Before the county picks up the debris, the code enforcement guy will beat them to it and some for having my fence down, write me a ticket or something. I’m mad, very upset about this.”

Perez' response is not surprising or unusual.  It is the same reaction one sees when local authorities declare war on a lemonade stand.  The issue became pervasive enough to wind up on the pages of the National Review.

What is it that causes local government officials to apparently lose any semblance of common sense?  Is it as simple as NR's Kevin D. Williamson concluding, "We are ruled by power-mad buffoons."

Having known many well-intended (though occasionally ham-handed) enforcement officials, I don't think this is the Madness of King George.  Part of the problem is incentives.  Success in code enforcement is normally measured by the metric of "fixing problems."  This incentivizes seeing things as problems.

There are time when an incentive is financial.  In Delaware, local jurisdictions keep the money from traffic citations.  In Maryland, the fines are remitted to the state government.  Where do you think it is more likely to be let off with warning?  Incentives matter.  Always.

Incentives also can be cultural.  Harkening back to the Miami-Dade example, what do code enforcement officers do?  They enforce codes.  What if the job title was changed to "Regulation Navigators"?  What if building inspectors became construction facilitators?  What if the focus shifted from enforcing a set of rules towards helping residents accomplish goals within a structure?

Until we figure this out, we'll continue to see lemonade stands shut down by overzealous officials.  And with every heartbroken four-year-old, the public trust in local government will further diminish.

From Judge Learned Hand's "Spirit of Liberty" speech

"I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Intellectual Honesty

One of the most important qualities a city manager or county administrator can possess is intellectual honesty.  For a broader perspective, this list of "ten signs of intellectual honesty" may be useful.

To be intellectually honest, we have to admit 1) we exist within a culture; 2) this culture influences us; 3) we don't know how the culture influences us; 4) we all are guilty of confirmation bias.

In my experience, the vast majority of city managers and county administrators are devoted public servants.  We all strive to lead local governments that are engaged, responsive, transparent, and ethical.  We believe in the power of government to do good and stand prepared for the moments a community sees a problem and decides, "We must do something!" 

We rally.  We inspire.  We support.  We agree that something must be done and to dedicate ourselves to doing it!

The danger for local government leaders is failing to recognize that the "something" may be worse than doing nothing.  Working shoulder-to-shoulder with kind, caring, and dedicated public employees can be terrifically exciting, meaningful, and fulfilling.  With so many intelligent and devoted people working so selflessly... how could we possibly fail?

And yet local government often does.

Intellectual honesty requires us to ask tough questions and not be content with the "echo chamber" answers we often receive from our fellow professionals (or professional associations).  As a profession, public administration would benefit by asking "Why?" far more often, and exploring the possible answers without so many preconceived notions (including that of our own nobility).

It's a tough time for intellectual honesty in America.  Public discourse is dominated by hyper-partisan rhetoric.  Far too many individuals in positions of responsibility--in government and the Fourth Estate--seem to have abandoned even a passing commitment to facts or truth.  There is a palpable sense that large swaths of the body politic have simply given up on expecting intellectual honesty from anyone in power.

City managers and county administrators can be advocates for intellectual honesty, but only if we begin with our own profession.

A tough gig

Anyone who thinks serving as city manager or county administrator is "just another job" might benefit from reading this article from the Tacoma New Tribune.

One cannot blame the reporters--Derrick Nunnally and Candice Ruud--for the headline, " Will Tacoma’s next city manager be a downgrade?"  Unless something has changed since I studied journalism in the 80s, copy editors write headlines.

I will take Nunnally and Ruud to task for going with an "if it bleeds, it leads" approach to writing an article.  Particularly disappointing is the observation, "During the past three years, three of the four (finalists for the Tacoma city manager job) have applied to manage cities smaller than Tacoma and been passed over."

Neither Nunnally nor Ruud have any idea why a given candidate was not offered a position.  They did not participate in the interviews or the subsequent discussions.  They do not know who the competing candidates were (internal or external) or how those candidates performed in their interviews.  There are numerous reasons a person might be "passed over" for a job opportunity that have no bearing on a candidate's qualifications.

This is just another example of the tired bias--bigger is better.  I will cut Nunnally and Ruud a bit of slack because they exist in the world of journalism where writers aspire to larger media outlets.  As a profession, journalism tends to see working for the Washington Post or New York Times as superior to the Tacoma New Tribune.

Tenure in a larger organization--whether that is a newspaper or a local government--is not a reliable indicator of talent.  The hiring process is far to subjective to draw any conclusions.  This is particularly true for city managers and county administrators where elected officials make the final decision.  An unsuccessful candidacy should not be held against a person regardless of their field.

Read more here:

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

What the Great British Bake Off (GBBO) can teach us

I stumbled on the Great British Bake Off television show quite by accident.  The apparently legendary (in Britain) series is on Netflix.  Without shame, I admit to watching all three seasons and trying a Victoria sandwich, a lemon drizzle traybake, and even a kouign amann.

There is something quintessentially British about a "reality television" show where the contestants are polite, mutually supportive, and gracious.  Make no mistake--the home bakers are passionate  competitors.  The intensity shines through most clearly in the emotional moments caught on tape, though I suspect Mel and Sue keep the cameras from being too intrusive, a stark contrast with American television where every expression and comment is framed to maximize (or even invent) drama for the audience.

So what can public administrators learn from the Great British Bake Off?

There is something praiseworthy in every effort.  Some of the "bakes" fail rather spectacularly.  The inestimable Mary Berry may say that the decorations "look a bit sad," but she does so with unmistakable warmth.  She also invariably finds something kind and generous to say.

The other GBBO judge, Paul Hollywood, is more technical (and critical), but there's a sense among contestants and viewers that his critiques are fair.  Integrating two or more perspectives can be a valuable technique in delivering feedback.  There also is value in providing criticism with warmth and gentleness.

The sugar glue holding the show together are Mel and Sue, a duo who provide a wonderful example of humor and empathy.  Watching the show, I felt the two comedians genuinely care about the participants.  In an amusing episode, Sue accidentally leaned on a contestant's bake, crushing it.  She was aghast and took full responsibility before the judges.  A good-natured humility and a keen sense of humor are important ingredients for any successful manager.

In America, reality television generally has nothing to do with reality.  On the few occasions I have caught a glimpse of the "real housewives" from some place or other, I was left feeling that the collapse of civilization could not be far off.  Bake Off is an excellent antidote to the cynicism and manipulation we so often find on American TV... and in the American workplace.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Bill O'Reilly

Over the past few weeks, a great deal has been written about Bill O'Reilly's alleged sexual harassment at Fox News.  I'm using "allegedly," in no small part because O'Reilly was allegedly paid $25 million on his way at the door from Fox News and can clearly afford far more attorneys (real or alleged) than I can.

I'll take a slightly different tack on the scandal by referring to a statement O'Reilly allegedly made last year:

"If somebody is paying you a wage, you owe that person or company allegiance," said O'Reilly. "You don’t like what’s happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave."

For someone who has written multiple books about leaders, this statement demonstrates a stunning ignorance of how leadership works.

Loyalty is not something a company buys by handing out paychecks (no matter the size).  Leaders earn trust, and eventually loyalty, by treating employees fairly and by maintaining a safe and respectful working environment.  We earn loyalty when we lead well.

What happened at Fox News--from Roger Ailes to Bill O'Reilly--was more than alleged personal failings by outsized egos.  They failed as leaders.  Sexual harassment isn't a problem to be relegated to the HR department.  Leaders at every level in an organization must address toxicity--no matter its shape or size.  The feudal lord attitude of "adapt or die" didn't work in the Middles Ages and it doesn't work now.

I doubt O'Reilly will ever see this but on the off chance he does, I have a suggestion for his next book:

"Killing Fox News."

Why do natural disasters often bring out the best in people...

and the worst in local governments? Another dispatch from the post-Hurricane Irma mess comes from Green Cove Springs, Florida.  According...