What’s Good for Us
Efforts to improve the efficiency and accountability of government services, as I discussed last week, are more likely to involve questions of quality than quantity. This, of course, presents certain problems, in part because our judgments about such things are influenced not only by different perspectives but also different values.
As the nation’s political discourse has become more hostile and divisive, I have discerned equally clear and consistent calls for consensus. To me, these calls often strike a dissonant chord, that comes across more like, “Be reasonable, do it my way,” than “What can we do that will satisfy everyone.” I chafe at this suggestion not because I dislike agreement (or alternatively, like disagreement), but rather because of the dangers such mindsets pose in monocultures.
Sadly, too many public safety organizations present just such problems. Not long ago, many public safety organizations suffered under the self-imposed oppression of autocratic, top-down management styles. Today, the pendulum has, in too many instances, swung too far the other direction. Some agencies are, in the words of a colleague, in danger of letting “the inmates run the asylum.” (The corollary to this perspective goes something like this: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but you might find it helpful.”)
Recently, some people have tried to convince me that this new cultural orientation reflects a generational shift in the workforce, others argue it is evidence of maturity or even diversity. (“We all agree, so anyone who disagrees with us is not only wrong but self-serving, petty, immature and intolerant.”) Consider me less than convinced.
Instead, what I see is a growing tendency to promote consensus as a way to avoid making decisions. It works this way: If I agree with you or you with me, I will support you and urge others to follow your direction. If what you suggest does not benefit me, even if it might arguably benefit others, I will not only refuse to support you, but I will actively organize others to oppose you. Moreover, if you don’t take the hint and desist from the course of action I dislike, I will attack you personally.
I find some of the most supportive and compliant people in my organization are the youngest and least senior employees. That is not to say, however, that they are the least experienced or mature. Note this distinction: Many of the employees with limited tenure in my organization defer to positional power not only because they lack tenure, but also because they often bring diverse experience outside public safety agencies to their positions. Put simply, they appreciate their positions in the organization and are usually more prepared to play them because they have no expectations of preferential much less deferential treatment. In many cases, they view their jobs as just that: a job, not an entitlement or a calling or a vocation or a profession. They work to live, not live to work.
Much of the conflict I experience in the workplace involves what I term “violent agreement.” Put another way, “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.” These days, it seems when people get what they want it often comes to them as a surprise. The problems this poses are amplified by the fact that many of their requests come in without goals or priorities attached.
This problem operates at all levels of the homeland security system. When I worked for a regional professional organization of public safety executives in the mid-1990s, I cautioned the board I worked for that their requests of Congress to expand federal grant opportunities would come at significant cost to them in the long run. As more resources became available, I suggested, more people would begin lining up at their desks with their palms extended. And as the line grew, they could expect that it would require them to pile the bills higher and higher to meet any one demand just so they could move on to the next one. And if, heaven forbid, the money stopped flowing, so too would the gratitude and support they received from those lining up to tell them how important and respected they were.
I would like to say I was proved wrong in my prediction, but sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. In addition to what I predicted, we have also experienced something I only feared. Ready access to more resources clearly made many public safety organizations less creative, flexible and responsible. In many ways, this has made them less reasonable as well. Not only are many public safety professionals unprepared to respond to calls for new ways of doing things close to their core business, they are also incredibly incensed that anyone would have the temerity to expect this of them. Two of the many examples of this that have come to my attention in recent weeks involve the cities of San Jose, California and Phoenix, Arizona.
In San Jose, an IBM Global Business Services team has recommended significant changes in the way the city manages fire department resources. For starters, they have openly questioned the practice of allocating firefighting resources to equalize or at least minimize disparities in response times across a geographic area. They have rightly noted that evidence of the effectiveness of this strategy is not only lacking, but that much of the evidence that does exist suggests marginal improvements in response times greater than three minutes and less than ten minutes do not pay in aggregate. In other words, they are inefficient because it costs more to shave a few seconds off average response times than any additional firefighting crew can ever hope to save in fire losses. The same can be said of emergency medical service, where the evidence points to bystander interventions, particularly CPR and automatic external defibrillators as key factors in improving outcomes in cases of witnessed cardiac arrest.
What makes the San Jose case even more interesting is the fact that IBM suggests a risk-based resource allocation as an alternative. This would result in staffing fluctuations based on trends in call volume and severity. It might also result in more units, staffed with fewer people being based in more flexible locations. Which is to say, it sounds an awful lot like the way private-sector ambulance services manage themselves already.
This, of course, not only frightens, but also angers firefighters. You see, EMTs who only ride ambulances get paid far less than firefighters. Using firefighters to perform roles as EMTs may make them more productive, but it does not improve efficiency and is thus steadfastly opposed by most firefighters.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the management consulting firm Management Partners, has recommended replacing many uniformed officers with lower-paid but similarly or better-qualified civilian staff. This and other interventions, including new technology for compiling electronic patient care reports in the field, could save the city as much as $5.1 million per year.
Both cities face some formidable challenges in implementing their consultants’ visions. San Jose has already cut staffing by 18 percent since the recession began. Their firefighters union is openly hostile to absorbing any further cuts.
Phoenix Fire Chief Bob Khan has defended his department’s performance by arguing that joint labor-management committees have already begun implementing many of the consultant’s recommendations. I suspect this means they are happy to implement the ones they like — those that do not offend anyone, but expect a fight over the rest.
All this leaves me wondering why, in an era when public safety employees like many in the public itself openly question the old saw, “What’s good for GM is good for America,” they still believe that what’s good for them is what the community wants, expects and supports. When job security, pay and benefits trump public safety, I have to wonder. I wonder no less though when these same things (masquerading as public safety) are said to trump efficiency and accountability.
It is not my place to tell the public they cannot have public safety, efficiency and accountability all at once. It is not my responsibility to defend job security, pay and benefits that far exceed the median household incomes of those who pay for these services. And it is not reasonable to assume they – the public – will tolerate public service leaders who will accept or make such arguments for very much longer.