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."

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Miami Vice

Local governments have become battlegrounds between entrenched economic interests (like hotel owners and taxi cab companies) and participants in the sharing economy.

This is a policy issue where city/county administrators should inform the discussion without putting a finger on the scales.  One of our responsibilities is to encourage robust public participation.  This is why I read a recent Miami Herald news article with a mix of concern and alarm.

The lede:

“We are now on notice for people who did come here and notify us in public and challenge us in public,” said City Manager Daniel Alfonso. “I will be duly bound to request our personnel to enforce the city code.”

Read more here:

Unless I am misreading this news story, the City of Miami plans to use information provided by citizens engaged in the democratic process to target enforcement.  How would Mr. Alfonso feel if he complained about a particular tax policy and found himself the subject of an IRS audit?  Yes, there might be a delicious moment of schadenfreude hearing an IRS agent tell him, "I was duly bound to enforce the tax code," but it would be wrong.

Public hearings are an opportunity for civic engagement and civil discourse... not data collection.  A person testifying in favor of an urban chicken ordinance shouldn't have to worry about a code enforcement officer peeking over his or her backyard fence the following day.  Whatever the public interest in the specific code or ordinance, I'm confident there is a larger interest in protecting a cornerstone of the democratic process.

Monday, March 27, 2017

CAO - Cultural Advocacy Officer

Gonzaga University men's basketball team earned its first "Final Four" berth.  As a proud alumnus, I enjoyed seeing the Bulldogs finally break through.  In the aftermath, coach Mark Few said,

“This was a culture win, a culture statement, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

Few is a remarkably successful basketball coach.  More importantly, he is a leader who understands the importance of culture to organizational success.  What we do is a reflection of who we are.  Who we are begins with who we think we are.  And who we think we are can and does change over time.

One of my most important responsibilities as a chief administrative officer (CAO) in a local government is cultural.  And one of the first tasks is actually using words like "culture, "milieu," and "ethos" in management discussions.

Responsible leaders need to do more than simply exist within a given culture; they must shape it to better achieve the goals of the mission... whether that mission is winning basketball games or providing core public services.

Almost every organizational (and social) culture has some positives.  The journey begins with recognizing the positives.  The work comes in identifying and changing elements where we need to evolve.

Congratulations to Mark Few and the Gonzaga Bulldogs for figuring out how to do more than just win basketball games.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

International Women's Day

Thank you to the countless women who gave our granddaughters a better future.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Jonathon Turley testimony regarding the Chevon Doctrine

Professor Turley's testimony before Congress on the Chevron Doctrine is super wonky, the kind of subject normally interesting to only the geekiest of public administration geeks.  Turley's comments are certainly more restrained and cerebral than breathy conspiratorial whispering about "The Deep State."

The vast and intractable administrative state is a problem.  But equally so is the abdication of power by the judicial and legislative branches.  Most know from 7th grade social studies that the Founding Fathers created three branches of government (arguably two, with the third emerging in the aftermath of Marbury v. Madison). 

The "checks-and-balances" of this system have always been imperfect, but never so flawed as the last half century.  There has been a massive shift of power to the executive branch and its administrative agencies, beyond the wildest dreams of even the most imperial former presidents.  Federal agencies create de facto laws (in the form of regulations), enforce them, and adjudicate them, often with no meaningful public or legislative oversight.

In his testimony, Turley said:

"I come to this issue as someone who often agrees and supports the work of federal agencies.  Indeed, law professors have a natural affinity toward agencies, which are usually directed by people with advanced degrees and public service values. The work of federal agencies is critical to the preservation of our health and security as a nation.  This is not a debate about the importance of the work of the agencies, but rather the accountability of agencies in carrying out that work.  The agreement with the work of agencies – or for that matter with this Administration as a whole – should not blind us to the implications of the growing influence and independence of federal agencies."

I like this.  Public service is honorable work; public servants are usually honorable people.  Supporting the work and the individuals, however, should not allow public administrators to turn a blind eye to the dangers posed by the leviathan administrative state and a debasement of the separation of powers.

Mother should I trust the government

On my office wall is a Pink Floyd concert poster.  The poster art is a graffiti-covered section of the Berlin Wall, fitting since the concert occurred on July 4, 1988, in West Berlin.

The most prominent piece of graffiti on the poster is a Pink Floyd lyric, "Mother, should I trust the government." A new staff member noticed the poster and asked if I was a Pink Floyd fan.  "I am," I said, "but I also really like the irony."

One of the single most important (and disturbing) trends in American public administration is the public's loss of trust in government.  The Pew Research Center has charted this long decline.  Quoting from the PRC,

"Fewer than three-in-ten Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted since July 2007 – the longest period of low trust in government in more than 50 years. In 1958, when the American National Election Study first asked this question, 73% said they could trust the government just about always or most of the time."

Colleagues often are quick to argue that public opinion of state and federal government is lower than that of local government.  That's a bit like a business saying Comcast and the IRS have lower customer satisfaction ratings.  Not being the worst doesn't make one good.

What does it say about the profession of public administration that during the past half century, we have come to a point where less than 20 percent of Americans think "the government is run for the benefit of all"?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

First Person Singular

During a recent meeting, I listened to two administrators talking about projects.  In that conversation, the first person singular pronoun "I" featured prominently therein.  "I installed new HVAC equipment on the building," or "I replaced the bridge."

The administrators in question were not on a roof turning wrenches or pouring concrete into a form for a bridge abutment.  They simply were engaging in a (disputed) Louis XIV moment, i.e., L'Etat, c'est moi.

Local government is a team sport.  Regardless of one's role on the team, we build bridges and we maintain buildings.  When giving credit, you.  When describing work, we.  When accepting responsibility for a failing, I.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Pension solutions

I wrote a brief essay for the Maryland Reporter about pensions.  I am reposting it here without the headlines inserted by the editors:

Potential solutions to Maryland’s looming pension crisis can be found in the one place the legislature would never think to look: Local governments.

Caroline County has its own pension system.  Five years ago, the County’s retirement plan was less than 65% funded.  Today, the funding level has increased to over 81% despite substantially lowering the expected rate of return on investments.  Caroline’s fund for retiree healthcare (“Other Post-Employment Benefits”) is over 100% funded.  The state of Maryland has almost nothing set aside to fund its generous retiree healthcare benefits.

How did one of Maryland’s poorest counties outperform state government?  The County Commissioners budgeted pension contributions first.  Our elected officials and employees accepted short-term sacrifices for long-term solvency When progress occurred and the “required annual contribution” shrank, we kept our employer payments at the same level.  The commissioners adopted comprehensive reforms and we radically restructured our pension investments to minimize management and administrative fees.  Perhaps most importantly, we focused on fixing the problem rather than fixing blame.

One interesting change the commissioners adopted was to move newly hired senior managers out of the pension system into a defined contribution (457b) plan, (the public sector equivalent of a 401(k) plan).  If promoted, an employee vested in the pension can remain in, but new directors are not eligible for the traditional pension plan.

When the county hires senior managers externally, many are mid- or late-career professionals.  A “thirty-years-and-a-gold watch” retirement benefit is rarely compelling to a person with less than 10 or 15 years left to work.  In our recent recruiting experience, Millennials also are not terribly enthusiastic about a benefit that takes 30 years to fully realize.  This is crucial because a retirement plan isn’t simply a way to enrich public employees; it is a tool for recruiting and retaining a quality workforce.

Gov. Hogan’s proposal for a defined contribution plan can be a starting point for a long overdue grown-up conversation about the state’s pensions and retiree healthcare benefits.  For a defined contribution plan to be a realistic option, however, Maryland should follow Caroline County’s lead and invest more than a modest 5% match, particularly since these plans shift all investment risk onto employees.  Our employer match for defined contribution plans is the same as the employer share paid into the pensions system, currently about 14%.

Maryland also should consider preserving the existing pension system for rank-and-file employees while moving more highly compensated managers (who are often better able to save for retirement) onto defined contribution plans.  In our experience, pension reform is more successful if the priority is making the retirement system solvent rather than using pension changes to balance the annual budget.

Maryland employees and taxpayers deserves better approach to pension obligations than, “Wait till next year!”  The state’s expected rates of return for pension investments are still too high (7.55%).  The level of funding into the plans is still too low.  Retiree healthcare funding has been ignored for far too long.  Some plans like Maryland’s Law Enforcement Officers Pension System (LEOPS) are simply too expensive.  The employer share for LEOPS participants in the coming year will exceed 39%.  Paying an additional 39 cents on every dollar of wages for any retirement plan simply is not sustainable.

Local governments have found some excellent models including hybrid systems that combine the best qualities of traditional pensions and defined contribution plans.  We have also recognized that the new generation of iPhone7 employees want more than a “rotary dial” retirement option.

The state of Maryland can afford to provide its employees with a financially sound pension system and additional retirement benefit options, but the state cannot afford to continue kicking this can down the road.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The first 400 people

The International City/County Manager's Association (ICMA) facilitates a scholarship (or two) every year for the Harvard Kennedy School Senior Executives in Local Government program.  I applied for the scholarship in 2010 but was not selected.

It probably didn't help my application that I made reference to the famous quote by William F. Buckley, "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."

After some deliberation, I decided to apply again this year.  Rather than invoking Buckley, I wrote, 

"Sustainability and citizen engagement are worthy topics, but they are the not the critical self-reflection our profession needs now more than ever." 

And further

"Public administrators cannot dismiss the political events of 2016, hiding behind the politics/administration dichotomy like a certain much-discussed wall.  With all due respect to ICMA, the slogan “Life Well Run” seems awfully self-congratulatory in the midst of historic populist discontent.  If we are doing so well, why do citizens think so poorly of the governments we manage?

I think that's a fair question and perhaps--contrary to Buckley--the folks at Harvard have some answers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Is local government the "high ground"?

I recently read a well-intended short essay entitled, "Is #localgov Part of 'The Swamp'?"  The article by Miranda Lutzow offered three ways local governments can differentiate themselves, "We're accountable.  We're accessible.  We care."

My initial response via LinkedIn:

"What we think--as mostly professional city/county administrators--is far less telling than what citizens think. While polls generally show folks more approving of local governments than state or federal, we have our share of highly visible failings.

Bell, California? Flint, Michigan? Ferguson, Missouri, where the local government's dependency on court-driven revenues contributed heavily to serious racial and policing issues. Pick any city in California where retired city administrators are earning $200k+/year in pension payments while municipal services are suffering.

It's easy to dismiss these as aberrations, but I think an argument can be made that they are systemic problems. And the not-so-pleasant truth is that our profession has fallen short in addressing them."

Ms. Lutzow generously responded, sharing her opinion that the examples I provided are indeed aberrations and asking, "If you believe mismanagement truly is systemic, how do you think we, as a profession, should go about addressing systemic failures?"

Active mismanagement is one kind of failure.  It's easy enough to focus on headlines like those coming out of Bell, California, in 2010.  The larger problem our profession's apparent inability to move the needle on transformational problems (rather than just nibbling on the incremental ones). 

Let's take public pensions as an example. State and local government pensions. The cumulative level of unfunded liabilities has been estimated at $5 trillion. Trillion. With a "T."
It's easy enough to blame the pension crisis on politicians, but that's a bit like blaming the owners of the White Star Lines for the Titanic.  Public administrators are at the helm of local (and state) governments.  It is our responsibility to manage beyond the election-to-election focus and lead ethical and financially sustainable organizations.

The amount of pension debt is staggering. And the "salt in the wound" is every story citizens read about pension spiking. I can understand why everyday folks feel like we're either not competent enough to stop the financial bleeding or are corrupt enough to take advantage of the system.  (And closing lemonade stands doesn't help us either.)

The meta-idea of Washington, D.C. as "the swamp" is about far more than individual corruption.  It is about the widespread perception that government cannot (or will not) solve the transformational problems we face from community to nation.  Local governments may be more highly regarded than state or federal bureaucracies but a high point in the swamp is still swampy.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Dignity Culture

Author Ron Bailey does a good job of summarizing a theme of an academic article by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning.  At the risk of oversimplifying, Campbell and Manning discuss the evolution of conflict and social control.  I will gloss over the "honor" model, to capture the "dignity" culture.
"But during the 19th century, most Western societies began the moral transition toward what the authors call dignity cultures, in which all citizens are legally endowed with equal and 'unalienable' rights. In such a culture, one's honor does not depend upon one's reputation. Having a thick skin and shrugging off slights thus come to be seen as virtues, because they help maintain social peace."

Of course, serious conflicts cannot always be resolved privately. In dignity cultures, when a person's rights are violated, he may as a last resort seek recourse from third parties, like courts and police, which are empowered to wield violence on victims' behalf. Still, because dignity cultures practice tolerance, they're much more peaceful than honor cultures."

Campbell and Manning observe the phenomena of microaggressions as an indicator of a movement to a third model of conflict and social control: victimhood.  I will lazily quote Bailey again,

"A victimhood culture combines an honor culture's quickness to take offense with an overdependence on the nonvoluntary institutions that serve as a dignity culture's last resort. If Campbell, Manning, and Horwitz are right about the direction American society is headed, we're in for an increase in social conflict, and an ever-larger and more intrusive government tasked with trying to suppress that social conflict, in years to come."

City managers and county administrators tend to be "apex predators" of activist local governments.  No matter what the problems, managers often try to solve them often without any contemplating the proper role of government or making an honest assessment if we might make the problem worse. 

Rarely does one hear a senior public manager opine that perhaps some residents just need to develop thicker skins.  And in perfect candor, that is precisely the message some citizens should hear.  Government should not be a cudgel or axe wielded against neighbors.  City and county leaders are in a strong position to to affirm the dignity culture, to encourage informal resolutions, and to promote tolerance.  For this to happen, public administrators need to go beyond the technical, narrow, and "safe" offerings of professional organizations like ICMA and engage in larger debates.

Government isn't always the answer... and holding that belief makes me the contrarian administrator.

Anthony Bourdain, RIP

According to the news this morning, Anthony Bourdain, 61, died in Paris today reportedly by his own hand.  He gave an interesting interview ...