Monthly Archives: April 2013

In the last two blogs we discussed the three issues were associated with risk tolerance in the public sector which stifles innovation, application of business principles to public sector efforts, and the lack of vision and understanding of consequences.  In this blog we will explore the third issue – the lack of vision.  This is perhaps the hardest of the three parameters discussed.  One would think that applying private sector business principles would help with the vision process, but it does not because the terms for elected officials are comparatively short term.  In addition, our demands on the private sector are short term profits which has hurt the long-term vision of both public and private sectors.

What is a vision?  It is supposed to be a concept of where you want your organization to be in a longer-term future.  It is an agent for change and those developing the vision are outlining the change they want in the organization.  What services are to be provided, what water sources are to be used, energy self sufficiency, wastewater reuse opportunities, incorporation of storm water to sources waters, etc.? All possible ideas, but they only scratch the surface of the universe of opportunities that might exist.  The key is change, which normally requires thinking outside the proverbial box.  Change rarely comes from doing the same thing over and over.  Change requires innovation. So by its very nature, the status quo is not leadership because no change is required.  Managers who “don’t rock the boat” may be excellent managers, but they are not leaders.  Elected officials who’s mantra is not to raise rates, are not leaders either.

Your customers often are a great source for defining vision.  They will tell you what services they want.  I recall a meeting went to where I was talking about leadership to some elected officials.  The public was present in force.  I brought up the concept of developing a vision.  The public was encouraged.   They spoke out about ideas.  All very good.  Then one of the Board members informed everyone that vision statements were the job of the attorney and he would just write one up.  That did not go over nearly as well as that Board member had hoped.  He was abdicating his roles in overseeing the utility as well as any leadership role he might have hoped to have.  The public knew what they wanted, and it was clearly change, something the Board member clearly did not want.

So the question is “are we that afraid of change that we cannot tolerate leadership?” Are managers and elected officials so concerned about change that they actively suppress it despite public outcry?  I often raise the following question when talking to elected officials – how many statues have been raised for politicians who did not raise rates?  We’ll talk about that next time…

In the last blog we discussed the three issues were associated with risk tolerance in the public sector which stifles innovation, application of business principles to public sector efforts, and the lack of vision and understanding of consequences.  In this blog we will explore the second issue – application of business issue into the public sector.  The public and private sectors are different.  We need to recognize this.  For the most part, the public sector does those things that the private sector deems to be averse toward profits.  Clearly everyone needs water, but if you can’t get people to pay for it, you can’t make a business out of it.  Enter government, which has the ability to lein and condemn houses for failure to be connected.  A bit more incentive.

Or take fire service.  Fire service in New York was once a private affair.  You paid and the fire company would respond.  If your house caught fire and you had not paid, then what.  No one shows.  This was illustrated nicely in the movie “Gangs of New York” and was the catalyst for creating the NYC fire department.  And many others.  It simply is not acceptable to have some people but not all, because of the risk to everyone.  Vaccinations are the same way.  Much easier to implement by government.  And historically this is what has happened.

But we often hear the commentary about how we should be “running government like a business.” However I suggest this is an oversimplified argument that ignores true differences in the objectives of the public and private sector.   The two sectors are different and let’s look at an example.  If you were in charge of Ford Motor Company and let’s say you had only two vehicles, the F150 pickup (largest selling vehicle in the US) which has a high profit margin, or a passenger vehicle which does not have a high profit margin and does not sell nearly as well.  If you determine that your revenues are likely to decrease as a result of the economy, where do you make cuts?  There is an easy metric – cutting costs and reducing production of the passenger vehicle might actually maintain or improve your profit margin.  So that manager looks like a brilliant leader.

He (generic) now gets hired to run a City because of his success at Ford.  The City of course has a revenue shortfall, so what does he do? Much more difficult.  He has police, fire, parks and recreation, planning, etc. so where do you cut.  None of them are profit centers; they are all services, the value of which cannot easily be measured.  He could evaluate the risk of higher losses if he cuts the fire department, but that likely has other issues.  Hence there is a distinct different in the metrics between the sectors.  So he cuts all services the same amount – sharing the pain because there is no means to measure the impact of success of cutting costs. Every government employee recognizes this method to reduce the budget.  So how would that have worked at Ford?  Well, cutting back on the F150 and the passenger vehicle the same percent would likely make the overall situation worse, not better.  A Ford executive making that type of decision would be roundly criticized and likely dismissed, but that same person is viewed as a successful manager in the public sector.  Nonesense.  He’s still an idiot and deserves to be fired.  Ditto the other officials that go along with such simplistic decision-making.

The public and private sectors are different, and while there are commonalities, the inability to directly measure impacts on the public sector make private sector applications suspect in many situations.  Curtaining services that have much larger, unanticipated consequences, a risk that dissuades innovation because of the inherent risks and the risk of impacting some powerful constituency. Simplistic solutions that are commonly offered up simply mean that these “leaders” simply do not understand what their “products” are nor which ones are a priority.  And hence they abdicate their decision-making for simplistic solutions that seem “fair.”  Successful leaders in business and government will tell you lesson #1 is life is not fair. We need leadership to help us make better decisions.

One of the issues that arises in the public water utility sector is where are the leaders?  A recent online discussion of the issue identified a number of barriers to public sector leadership, which differentiates the public sector from the private sector.  The three issues were associated with risk tolerance in the public sector which stifles innovation, application of business principles to public sector efforts, and the lack of vision and understanding of consequences.  Related to the latter is the understanding of the various types and perspectives of expertise within the industry.  Over the next three blogs, we will talk about each.  Comments welcome of course.

So the first one.  For the most part, public officials, city managers, finance directors and elected officials, are particularly risk averse individuals as a group.  For one thing, their tenure in any given job is relatively short (city manager are aground 2-3 years).  Elected officials spend much of their time trying to stay in office, so clearly their leadership is guided by public opinion, never a strong point for leadership. Regulatory agencies can only be criticized, so why be innovative? For all three, plus the employees working beneath these folks, their performance is in the public eye and the public is rarely forgiving of continued or significant failures.  However, innovation is often correlated with risk, which suggests that the risk associated with failure may limit the pursuit or acceptance of innovation – instead keep doing what you have been doing because that creates no waves.  Nevermind that the same old way may be inefficient or outdated, the concern is the risk if a new idea fails.  The reality is to “stick with what works,” a mantra that has existed in the industry for many yeas, does not accept innovation easily.  Particularly of issue is organizations where many mid- and often upper division managers avoid decision-making, but may be particularly poignant in pointing out decision failures of others as a means to improve their own stock – “I’ve never made a bad decision.”  But as in baseball, sitting on the bench 0 for 0, means you have never had an at bat, so you have accomplished nothing, while the person who is 6/10 may have accomplished a lot.  It is successful risk taking that may lead to changes in the organization, changes in doing business, improvements in efficiency and new means to accomplish tasks or deliver services.  You need to think “outside the box,” to use an overused euphemism.

So the question is how do we get the public and the public officials to accept risk taking, and to relax their risk averseness?  For innovation to grow, we need leadership, which means risk tolerance.  After all doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results is the definition of insanity isn’t it?

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