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Why Not?!

August 28, 2015

Soon after my children began to master language, their two favorite words — like most toddlers — were “no” then “why.” Like most parents, I responded to their increasing usage of these words with a mixture of amusement then annoyance.

As we grow up, we learn that saying no to every request we receive is not really an option. Even on those occasions when it might be the right thing to do, we become reluctant to say no to people who seek our help or hold authority over us. As a result, many of us take on more than we can handle.

Young inquiring minds habitually ask about causality as they seek to discover their place in the world and start to form a sense of agency over their circumstances. Some of us never lose this curiosity. Almost all of us are routinely pressured to ignore or suppress this impulse and accept things as they are.

Seeking understanding of the world and our place in it by questioning situations and assumptions does not mean we cannot accept things as they are or prefer things as we ourselves think they should be. When why and no become flashpoints for conflict among adults, it need not be so if only we take understanding as a prerequisite for acceptance.

Indeed, when acceptance and agreement come quickly, we would often do well to ask ourselves why. In many if not most cases, such easy agreements are based on competing or conflicting understandings of own own and others’ interests. Accepting the outcome or the process for achieving it does not mean we all agree on why it is important or what it will do for us.

Combining why and no into a prescription for action has become quite fashionable in recent years when phrased as a statement rather than a question: “Why Not!” As opposed to “Why Not?” (Nike made good use of this tactic with their “Just Do It!” campaign a few years ago. Anheuser-Busch seems to be taking a similar tack now with their “Up For Whatever” campaign.)

As a statement, “why not!” has become synonymous with a “can do” attitude, a sense of adventure, and a keen appetite for risk. As much as we might want to admire these qualities, we should ask ourselves why or at what cost?

The rush to to implement solutions and get results comes at a cost just as waiting or failing to act sometimes has a cost. Learning how to be patient, or as Kevin Cashman puts it, to apply The Pause Principle, is an important leadership skill. And that skill requires expert knowledge and experience to apply consistently and correctly.

The older I get, the more important I find it to reconnect with my younger self. Over-committing too often leads to under-performance. Making “no” a default setting for taking action may have a bigger place in our thinking than popular culture suggests.

Likewise, asking why we should change or move from this default should be encouraged. Asking why repeatedly and insistently until we get to the root cause of problems will help us avoid creating solutions for which we have yet to discover a definition, which usually leads us to solutions that themselves only become new problems.

Let’s keep “why not” a question rather than making it a statement. Seeking understanding will help us build acceptance based on shared values, which will lead to better solutions and fewer problems with those we seek to help and upon whom rely for help and success.

Firefighters in the Sights

January 2, 2013

This post was published today at Fire Chief magazine’s website in their Mutual Aid blog. I extend thanks to Janet Wilmoth, Mary Rose Roberts and Lisa Allegretti for sharing this piece with their readers …

The fire service made the national news twice over the holidays, one story garnering much more attention than the other.

On Monday, Dec. 24, a gunman lay in wait and fired on first responders as they arrived to attack a fire he set in West Webster, N.Y. Two volunteer firefighters were killed and two others seriously injured. The gunman later killed himself. Fire investigators found the remains of the killer’s sister, also shot to death, in the burned out house.

Two days later, NPR’s Morning Edition aired a story from its Planet Money Team about the closing of four Contra Costa County (Calif.) fire stations after a funding measure failed to pass. The program described the fiscal mess that led to the referendum and the animus towards taxes and career firefighters emerging in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

The fact that the first story garnered much more attention in the popular press is not too surprising. It resonates on several levels, especially in the aftermath of the Shady Hook Elementary tragedy a little more than a week earlier.

What surprises me is the fact that we in the fire service are not paying much attention to the second story and others like it occurring in many other places. In fact, we are just as mesmerized by the tragedies in Newtown and West Webster as the general public, despite our knowledge that such incidents are outliers.

The verdict on firefighters in Contra Costa County presented by NPR is not an outlier or isolated event. The circumstances that led voters to turn on their protectors follow precedents all too familiar to firefighters across the country (and for that matter around the world). Nevertheless, our unwillingness to confront these circumstances with either realism or reinvention has made the outcome we see there all the more certain to follow us home as well.

Having the temerity to bring this situation up is itself considered an act of disloyalty by many. Firefighters stick together, they will tell you. We don’t turn our backs on one another, say others. Contracts are commitments; all nod in unison. The community owes us.

You had me right up to that last statement. The community owes us nothing. That’s why we call it public service.

Many critics have firefighters and the fire service itself in their sights. And we are coming under fire for good reason. Times have changed, and the fire service has not kept up. It’s not that we cannot change. We possess remarkable strengths and skills when it comes to adaptation, flexibility and resourcefulness. It’s that we choose not to change when change involves loss. And no loss means more to us than loss of control.

Here’s the surprising part to me: Firefighters fear nothing more than the prospect of losing their status as public idols — we like to remind everyone we are the most respected and trusted profession. We have no control over this, however. Our image is completely intangible and ephemeral. It has no real or lasting value. Few if any in the fire service will acknowledge they harbor any particular anxiety over this. It seems they prefer denial or at least the denial of plausibility to acknowledging, accepting, adapting and, when necessary, atoning for the sins of excess exciting public outrage.

We need to ask ourselves though, “What’s really at stake if we don’t face the facts?” From where I sit, everything is on the line.

We can only maintain control of our destiny by accepting responsibility for earning and retaining the public trust. This trust depends not just on how well we perform our duties, but also on how well we manage the costs and benefits of doing so. We can accomplish much more in partnership with the community than we can in conflict with it.

Here’s a quick test: How much time do your firefighters spend actively engaged with organized groups of citizens that does not involve either incident response or passive activities like requests for station tours and demonstrations? If your agency is not meeting people where they are on issues of importance to them, it’s no wonder they have little time for issues importance to you.

The most resilient and resourceful communities during times of crisis and tragedy are those that invest the most energy and effort in building strong social ties. These ties form not just around geography but issues of mutual benefit and concern. What communities may lack in wealth they can more than make up for in good will and the willingness to lend a hand to others in need. And it is easier to help when you share common interests but different yet complementary resources and skills. What efforts does your department make to leverage these impulses? If your answer is like most, then you now have a pretty good idea where the problem lies.

As long as most fire departments expend several times more maintaining their speed and strength of response than their communities lose annually in fire damage, we will have a credibility problem. As long as we fail to distinguish efficiency from productivity and double down on looking busy instead of promoting stronger, safer communities, we will have a credibility problem. As long as we defend a system of pay and benefits disconnected from the fiscal realities of our communities, their crumbling infrastructure and the failing labor markets driving down property values and sales tax revenues, we will have a credibility problem.

Bringing federal grants to our communities will not solve the credibility problem. It will only displace other federal investments in infrastructure, education and long-range planning for sustainability that most communities desperately need to pursue.

As long as we have a credibility problem, fire service budgets and firefighter jobs and lives will be at risk. But not so much from crazed gunmen or the more routine dangers of fighting fires themselves. No, these risks pale in comparison to the losses we face as we burn the bridges connecting us to the public we serve and the dollars needed to repair or replace our aging civic and civil infrastructures.

Strike Free or Strike Three?

December 31, 2012

As 2012 comes to a close, most of us are hoping the New Year brings more new opportunities than it does challenges. For some, 2012 was as challenging a year as any they have had to endure. I am not so sure I would go that far in my own case, but I for one will shed no tears regarding the passage of this particular year.

Among the things about 2012 I will not miss are the personal attacks levied against me, many suggesting I am anti-union. It comes as no surprise that in a year when unions, especially those representing public employees, came under unprecedented attack from politicians, that any sentiment less than full-throated support for organized labor would be viewed as somehow suspect if not disloyal.

To be clear about this, I unequivocally and unreservedly support the right of employees to represent themselves in negotiations with their employers and bargain collectively over pay, hours and working conditions. Admittedly, my view about what constitutes a bargainable subject is not as broad as that held by some employee representatives, but I am nevertheless open to discussions about such subjects when they do not cross into the public policy domain reserved for elected officials.

I do not favor efforts by legislatures or executive branch officials to rescind or curtail bargaining rights, especially for public employees. These efforts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and elsewhere this past year have been unsettling to say the least. What makes them unsettling is not only what they seek to accomplish — diminishing the rights of employees to bargain collectively — but also what they seek to avoid.

It should come as no surprise that some particularly cynical politicians have exempted unions representing police officers and firefighters from their proposed enactments to limit workers’ collective bargaining rights. This should serve as an important signal as to what’s wrong with current practices on both sides of the table.

Public safety employees in states with strong collective bargaining laws have in many, if not most, instances treated these employees differently all along. Even as they extended rights to representation and collective bargaining to public employees, they limited the avenues of redress available to them by making it illegal for those performing public safety work to withhold their labor through strikes.

In place of the ability to strike, these employee groups were given an alternative means of resolving disputes: binding interest arbitration. In an ideal world, redress to disinterested third parties for the resolution of disputes by equitable means with equal and enforceable effect on both parties would seem to many to be both reasonable and efficient. But the reality suggests it is very hard to tell in practice whether it works this way.

In those instances where the scope of arbitrators’ decisions is limited by certain past decisions and practices, it could be argued that the result has been dangerous wage arbitrage, which has fueled an upward and ultimately unsustainable spiral in pay and benefits. This extra cash has fueled political activism by public employee unions, which have rights to representation and free speech that far exceed those available to management representatives. In some instances, I would agree with union critics who say these activities have produced agency capture by making some political leaders and the officials they oversee more interested in and accountable to the demands of union donors than other segments of the public.

I believe public safety employees should have the right to strike, and that binding interest arbitration should become voluntary not mandatory. Giving employees the right to strike would mean that they could withhold their labor when employers do not meet their demands. But it would also mean their demands would have to look reasonable not only to the employer but the public at large, otherwise the legitimacy of any job action would rightly be questioned and the employees would risk losing public support for their cause.

Limiting the use of interest arbitration to instances in which the parties have arrived at an intractable impasse with clearly-defined and well-articulated positions refined through negotiation and mediation would ensure the parties rely on this process only as a last resort rather than relying on it to make decisions they simply find difficult or unattractive.

Firefighters in particular place a great deal of weight behind their public image. The current arrangements do not require them to risk much of their political capital when it comes to public support of their bargaining position. Their employers on the other hand lose either way. If contract negotiations reach an impasse and go to arbitration, they can be accused of foot-dragging and bad faith bargaining. If they settle too readily, employers can be accused of ineptitude or profligate spending, especially when their agencies fall on hard fiscal times as they have in recent years.

The truth is that neither side would find close public scrutiny of the bargaining process very comfortable. In California, for instance, municipal bankruptcies, fire and police pensions reforms, the defeat of tax referendums supporting fire service and Grand Jury reports questioning fire service staffing and financial management practices are regular media staples.

Giving firefighters and police the ability to strike would once again level the playing field for public employees and employers, especially if limits remained on the ability of public employees in bargaining units that are not parties to a dispute from joining a job action and refusing to cross picket lines. Without the ability to influence the outcome of disputed employment agreements in this way, “strike-free” all too easily becomes “strike three” by leaving decisions about the best interests of parties to a dispute in the hands of someone with no particular accountability to or regard for the local public interest.

Effective bargaining requires commitment from both sides. Everyone has to have some skin in the game or no one will be willing to do the hard work necessary to come to terms acceptable to all interested parties, that’s especially true when the party with the most at stake is the general public to whom both sides in public sector labor agreements must ultimately remain accountable.


December 9, 2012

Neuroscience has started to provide some pretty surprising and compelling insights into the way we think, feel and experience the world.  Some of these findings don’t seem so striking at first glance, but they do explain quite a lot about the way things are.

For instance, it seems we humans are hard-wired to seek out and react to negative experiences and potential threats. These cues register with us much more quickly and strongly than we sometimes realize. Interestingly enough, however, our reactions do not necessarily give us a negative view of the past. Happy or sanguine experiences seem to resonate much more strongly with our consciousness, making them seem more accessible when we reflect upon the past.

In gramatical or linguistic terms, we call references to things that have already occurred at some point of note in the past as the perfect aspect (sometimes case) of the past tense. Organizations or groups of individuals have a particularly strong tendency to see their past successes without much regard for the struggles they endured to produce them. To the extent the imperfections of the past are salient at all, they tend to be seen in a glorious or sanctifying light.

Our tendency to acknowledge and react so strongly to the negative in our present-day experience often casts a pall of pessimism over our predictions of the future, which in turn makes us impatient with others and less tolerant generally of competing or conflicting views. If English had a grammatical way of representing this, it might be called the imperfect aspect or case of the future tense: Call it the tendency to assume others will make our future miserable.

The truth is, we have much more agency than we realize or are willing to admit to ourselves. We may not always be in a position to shape the future. But we can always choose how we respond to it. It helps if we remember that the past almost always seems rosier in retrospect than it did at the time things happened.

These observations give me hope that the disagreements, disappointments and disruptions of the present only have as much purchase over my life I choose to give them. Having influence (or lack thereof) over others is not nearly as important as whether I am willing to accept responsibility for how I think, feel and act. And this mindset need not depend on whether I experience advantage or adversity.

With any luck, adopting this way of looking at the world  will rub off on others, and they will be less inclined to see me or anyone else as a source of their unease or unhappiness. We would all experience a lot less tension in our lives if we were simply willing to accept that others are not the source of our happiness. We are.


December 6, 2012

Antifragile Cover

Noted essayist, author, scholar and trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s recently published book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder should mark a radical turning point in the way academics and practitioners alike think and talk about risk and resilience. It probably won’t, but it should.

Taleb notes that the recent surge in interest and discussion surrounding resilience and sustainability do not do justice to what makes certain systems truly different and worthy of our understanding and emulation. As he rightly asserts, unlike most things modern, these systems actually benefit from challenge and change. They don’t just survive change. They thrive because of it.

In the past, I have written about resilience in a way that emphasized adaptation and learning as distinguished from simply getting by more or less intact through bending not breaking. Conceptually, I was arguing something just shy of Taleb’s central thesis. Disasters and trauma not only can but often do make us stronger and better by encouraging if not teaching us how to behave differently. (The difference here being that sometimes we already know what’s needed, but cannot find the fortitude to do it consistently.)

Sometimes the pain and suffering of bad experience can be a good experience because it teaches us something, if not about the world in which we live then about ourselves and our place in that world.

This view, Taleb suggests, gives us too much credit and assumes a degree of personal agency that may be lacking, if not altogether irrelevant to our circumstances or the consequences. Sometimes, we owe our adaptability to luck alone and not design. Some days you’re the windshield; others you’re the bug that goes splat! rather than riding the slipstream over the car’s roof. Past experience has nothing to do with your ability to navigate the circumstances in which you find yourself.

That view may seem bleak to some, but that fact does not diminish the relevance or importance of learning from experience and taking steps to grow from adversity. It does, however, put it in the proper context.

A genuine appreciation of that context should encourage or maybe even inspire us. Instead of making our organizations or society more vulnerable by eliminating, controlling and minimizing risks, perhaps we should see focus on how our systems interact with them. As such, we should see change or challenge first and foremost as an opportunity to strengthen the larger systems in which the experience of it is embedded.

In a practical sense, then, what does this mean when applied to local public safety arrangements? Well, it should encourage us, for instance, to ask whether firefighters really make cities safer. Does the fact the fire service is a short phone call away make people more or less likely to take unwelcome or unfortunate risks? Do the consequences of these risks make the community better or worse off? How should we assess these impacts? What should we do about the impacts we discover if our goal is to make the community safer, stronger and better for everyone in the long run?

I’m not going to try and answer these questions just yet. You are welcome to give it a go, however, and see what comes of the debate (if anything).

Core Services — Part 4

November 21, 2012

In an earlier post, I argued that public service is the art and science of delivering priceless results for people at the lowest possible cost. If this is true, then, in my opinion, two of the three elements of public service delivery are of overarching importance: consistency and compassion. The third element of the public service triad — competence — is necessary too, but is not alone sufficient to deliver real or lasting value for citizens.

Public servants too often emphasize their competence over the other aspects of the services they provide. This may be in part due to the difficulty and discomfort measuring compassion and the very real consequences of performing inconsistently. When it comes to measuring the performance of public services, most public employees favor two metrics above all others: speed and staffing.

Oddly enough, neither of these matter nearly as much to most citizens. Emergency responders find this conclusion particularly difficult to comprehend much less accept.

When it comes to emergency services, most citizens understand that not all emergencies are equally urgent and very few are truly urgent. This is just as true when the emergencies affect them as when they affect others. Since the advent of 311 services in many cities, citizens themselves has self-selected out of requesting a 911 response. This suggests consistency has more to do with responding at all as opposed to coming quickly to every incident.

Similarly, I am often approached by citizens who wonder why so many people are standing around watching the action rather than doing something. And that’s when something is actually happening. Few, if any get to see what happens in fire stations and other public facilities between incidents.

On the other hand, when a response occurs, people will focus more on how responders perform as opposed to how many come or what they do. In fact, most people have very little idea what needs to be done. That’s why they call for help in the first place. As such, they always remember how the things responders did made them feel.

All of this suggests to me that the place to start when it comes to determining whether public services add value is to ask citizens not responders. When doing so, don’t bother asking whether people like public servants, especially public safety officers, and avoid assessing the status quo altogether. Instead, focus on what people know and how this knowledge influences their expectations and preferences. And remember, the opinions of people who have no direct experience of using public service matters too.

So, what then should we ask? For starters, we need to know how people prioritize things. We also need to know how these priorities are affected by competing and conflicting values. What limits, high and low, do people recognize that might define what they consider an acceptable safety net or ceiling for public services? And perhaps most important of all, what responsibilities do they expect apply to them as well as other citizens? Does it extend beyond paying taxes to becoming involved?

Core services help a community function at its best. Seeing public value in purely economic terms is just as inappropriate and unhelpful as assuming that cost doesn’t matter. Consistency and compassion are core measures of public value to most citizens. Understanding and focusing on how we meet these expectations is just as important as measuring how well we do in other areas such as speed and staffing.

Core Services — Part 3

November 20, 2012

One of the best perks of leading a public agency involves receiving feedback on the agency’s activities and performance from citizens. I have had the good fortune of working for agencies that enjoy strong public support, so, more often than not, the feedback is positive.

Lately, I have found the way people inside an organization hear and respond to this feedback even more interesting than the citizens’ comments. What seems to be getting through most clearly to them is how much they are needed and appreciated. They see this as validation of the status quo, and evidence of future funding support to sustain the system the way they want to see it run.

It should come as no surprise that I hear something quite different. The things that stand out to me are how often citizens express appreciation not for the speed or skill of our service providers, but rather their heartfelt thanks for the care and concern shown them and their loved ones. To me, this suggests the importance of comforting people ranks at least as highly in the public mind as delivering competent service. In fact, that’s really where responders add value.

This certainly does not suggest the quality of service can be judged solely by how people feel about it. But it does say something important about what we should emphasize and strive to sustain.

No public agency should take public support for granted. Neither should it assume that public satisfaction equals willingness to pay, especially if that means paying more for services measured first and foremost by speed and staffing.

One of the reasons people place so much value on how well we treat them is that’s no longer expected of government and not so often seen these days. We hear regularly from those running for public office that government is the problem not the solution.

This perspective neglects the fact that government is an important vehicle through which citizens care for one another. If that’s not the case, then government and those who deliver public services are nothing more than hired hands. And if that’s true, then they should not only expect but even demand to be treated well. The fact people are still surprised when this happens, though, suggests they see us differently. They have a sense of ownership of our service and take pleasure and pride in seeing us treat them as they would expect us to want to be treated ourselves.

One of the things I fear the most about the future of public service is what I see as a very real risk that public servants are becoming disconnected from the communities they serve. Fewer and fewer of them live where they work. And increasingly public agencies not only seek but expect basic support from the federal treasury. If this trend continues, citizens’ surprise may come not from the fact that we them well once we arrive, but rather that we come at all.