Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Outrunning The Bear – Part 2

This is a post in three sections, roughly centered on these three themes:  Where We Are - How We Got Here; Why Nothing Will Change Soon; and Where We Should Be Going.

Part 2 – Nothing Will Change Soon.

[Caveat:  this post is not meant as negative criticism, just a statement of the facts.]

We have a city council with 6 new members and a mayor, who not only is in his first elected job, he’s in his first management position of a large organization.  For both the council and the mayor the learning curve is both steep and long.  There is a huge amount to be learned about the city departments, budgets, utilities, land use regulations, litigation in progress and how it is impacted by past law suits,  .  .  .  The list goes on and on.  The newly elected need to learn the relationships between different parts of the organization and how a change in one part precipitates consequences in another.  It takes at least a year to begin to become comfortable with the job as a whole, to see things for a second time and think:  “I’ve seen this before. I know something about it. I’m comfortable with it.”  And this is only at the 40,000 foot level.  It will take years more to learn how each part is put together, to understand each part’s details, to be able to be able to comprehend the issues and to question knowledgably the managers on their decisions.

After, or even while, learning both the principles and the details, the council and mayor must learn the people involved.  Sooner or later, as either a council member or mayor, one inevitably reaches a point where one concludes:  “I understand that manager’s job, I know or could learn the details of the department and what it takes; but I do not need to: I trust the manager’s judgment to make the correct decision.”  Learning the personnel and deciding which managers to trust, and which ones to hold to strict scrutiny, takes time.  As with all human relationships, it involves both logical and gut level decisions.

We are in the midst of a fundamental transformation of city government.  Employee morale is low, at best, and no city employee is willing to take any risks, to initiate any policy discussions, propose any ideas without explicit direction from above.  When there are public discussions about employees learning and respecting the chain of command it has a riveting effect on employees who have a family and a mortgage to pay.  Why should anyone take risks if it gets them fired? 

Finally, the City’s Strategic Plan is now many years old.  I had thought the mayor’s race might be used as a platform for outlining a new strategic plan and gaining the community’s buy-in on it.  This was not the case.  The dominant advertising was as much a statement of what Bach was not going to do as what he was going to do.  No tax increases.  No pay raises for city employees.  Since the election, neither the council nor the mayor has moved to amend, outline changes, adopt, create anew or even to talk about the city’s strategic plan.  As a consequence, there is no basis for any change to the city’s budget priorities.  One can see the city budget office preparing next year’s budget using a simple Microsoft Word “find and replace” edit, deleting “2011” and inserting “2012”.

Though they are learning, they uncertain as to where they are.  They have spent no time exploring where they want to go.  Let’s hope the strategic plan becomes their first priority.

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