Wednesday, November 5, 2014

We Are The Government, You and I.

 
“The government is us; we are the government, you and I.” —Theodore Roosevelt



The following post appeared first on the Emerging Local Government Leaders site.

Hi, everybody!  Since I’ve successfully avoided the hip introduction template on ELGL.org thus far, here’s an introduction to the person (Kitty Wooley) behind the voice in this new column.   Recently I retired after 19 years in Federal Government, the most recent 17 of which were spent as an analyst in Washington, DC.  Nowadays, I live in Colorado Springs and travel to both coasts.  Unlike many of you, I didn’t begin with a public administration degree, nor was I focused on public service or the greater good when I joined the U.S. Department of Education’s Region IX office in San Francisco as a student financial aid program reviewer in 1994.  I simply needed a job, having spent a total of nine months out of the prior 3 years in the unemployment line following a layoff and then a career school closure. 

However, it wasn’t long before those of us who started together – college financial aid directors, a college business officer, and an attorney – began to get into harness.  The harness was one of stewardship, of fiduciary responsibility to the people.  In our case, that meant ensuring that Title IV grants and loans were carefully administered on campuses in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii to make it possible for less affluent students to pay for college and graduate.  After my transfer to DC to help bring up a risk management system, the harness remained the same although the job description changed.  A few years later, one five-month period was consumed by long-distance handholding with courageous yet nervous university financial aid staffs and I.T. developers and some software vendors, the early adopters of a radically new system for processing Pell Grants and Direct Loans.  A few years later, I moved from Federal Student Aid to the Office of Management, a collection of important nuts-and-bolts functions such as HR, facilities and fleet management, building and personnel security, and so on.

You may be sensing a pattern.  As I cycled between external and internal focus, I realized that it was all us – that we really were the government, you and I.  And that it mattered a lot that we all did the very best we could.  We in local, state, and federal government and we in the neighborhood ­– human beings who want to go home at night to relax, to raise our children or take care of our parents or tend our gardens or serve on boards or run marathons or learn how to weld or speak another language or–.  We, together.  The Emerging Local Government Leaders network epitomizes that reality in a dynamic way.  In the next few months it will be my pleasure to offer what I hope will be useful support for your public service effort. 

To begin, I’d like to ask whether you’ve seen the op-ed David Brooks wrote last month, Goodbye Organization Man.  What struck me was the following:

“Now nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution. Post-Internet, many people assume that big problems can be solved by swarms of small, loosely networked nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Big hierarchical organizations are dinosaurs.  […]  When the boring tasks of governance are not performed, infrastructures don’t get built. Then, when epidemics strike, people die.”

After having experienced the mundane reality and sheer labor that goes into governance and building public infrastructure, most of us have a feel for how difficult it can be.  But, boy, is it critical not to have that ugly bridge that was too challenging to maintain fail while we’re driving across the river!  And, although we take FDIC insurance completely for granted, we would be devastated if a bank failed and our deposits were lost.  On the other hand, some structures and processes don’t work well enough any more, and when the situation is so entrenched that they can’t be shaken up or dismantled and rebuilt, things get worse and worse for customers and employees.  And, some government organizations have so many layers, or are so siloed (or both) that they damage employee morale through excessive constraint, kill internal innovation, discourage knowledge transfer and continuous improvement, and subject citizens to unnecessary bureaucratic torture rather than simply providing what they need and are due. 

David Brooks seems to be worried that the pendulum is swinging too far, too fast, and he fears that established governance infrastructure, if abandoned by the public, cannot be replaced by smaller ad hoc networks that don’t have the scale, experience, or ability to convene all stakeholders in the face of a large, threatening event and then carry out the tasks that will restore order.  Recent commentary by Silicon Valley analyst and founder Jeremiah Owyang shows that this is not an empty fear.  Although your current vantage point may not make it easy to see the collaborative economy that is coming in, it would be wise to add this phenomenon to your environmental scanning and consider where such disruption would be constructive, if painful – and where it would inflict permanent damage to the commons.  Mayors are sometimes blindsided, and even unseated, by voters over mundane issues such as unsatisfactory snow removal or unfilled potholes, so it doesn’t do to be complacent about processes that no longer work well.  Do you have questions or a different point of view on this subject?  If so, please consider posting a comment. Thanks for your time.    

______________

View Senior Fellows and Friends Events to Date