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.

Stop signs

Talking about stop signs is public discourse in miniature.  Few things are more ubiquitous than the white-on-red octagonal signs.  To engine...