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Core Services — Part 2

November 20, 2012

Last week, a professional colleague who leads a neighboring agency shared with me his leadership philosophy, which emphasizes personal ownership. “I want it to be said that under my leadership everyone in the organization proudly and confidently answers the question, ‘Whose agency is this?’ by pointing at their chests and responding, ‘Mine!.’”

I’m not ashamed to say this makes me uncomfortable. I have been a proud public servant for most of my adult life. I don’t think my agency exists or operate for my welfare or anyone who works with me. Our first, last and only purpose is serving the public. Our citizens own the organization. We have the privilege to serve them.

Clearly, ownership has its place. People with a sense of purpose tend to perform and prosper. Some may see little difference between having a sense of ownership in an organization and taking personal ownership of its purpose and mission. I can think of few distinctions more important for a leader to emphasize though.

For starters, the public is increasingly aware they have choices. Choices about what to fund. Choices about what’s most important. And choices about whether to live, work or employ others in our community or pursue their dreams elsewhere.

Has a lack of clarity about and lack of commitment to public service apart from public employment has become more the norm than the exception?

Leadership expert Barbara Kellerman seems to think so. In her recent book, The End of Leadership, she writes

There is less respect for authority across the board–in government and business, in the academy and in the professions, even in religion. Power and influence have continued to devolve from the top down–those at the top having less power and influence; those in the middle and at the bottom having more. For their part, followers, ordinary people, have an expanded sense of entitlement–demanding more and giving less.

Kellerman notes the concurrent erosion of faith in our governing institutions, both public and private. Laying all the blame for such decline at the feet of our leaders would be a mistake. Similarly, it defies reason to assume leadership alone can resolve the problems that led us to this point.

When public servants become unhinged from the purpose and ethos of public service, the sense of entitlement and resulting focus on individual and group empowerment can become overwhelming.

None of this is to say public servants who put their own interests first fail to deliver quality public services. For the most part they do, often for the very reason that it is in their own interests to do so. Good government and a sense of community demand more than competent service though. Efficiency and accountability matter too.

Public servants’ sense of ownership should attach to the work and its value to others. Not just in terms of the pay and benefits they receive for doing it, but for its importance to those they serve. This cannot be measured in purely monetary terms. That said, cost matters.

If public service is something worth owning, it should strive to be the art and science of delivering priceless results for people at the lowest possible cost.

Now That I Have Your Attention …

November 19, 2012

Several months ago, I took a sabbatical from cross-posting my thoughts on the higher-visibility blog I also reduced the frequency with which I posted to this site.

I took both actions in hopes that the furore regarding my candor among co-workers at my day-job might subside. Alas, this has not transpired. If anything, the attacks have grown more frequent and more personal.

By their very nature, weblogs are intended to provoke passions or inspire reflection. Indeed, I have enabled the comment feature in hopes those readers who take issue with my musings would offer an intelligent critique in response. Instead, I get anonymous slurs like the one posted a few days ago that read, “You are a miserable turd.”

I am relieved that being a “turd” is yet another thing my colleagues consider me unqualified to do well. I would have been far more concerned if they had enough of a grasp of the English language to suggest I was an exquisite turd.

All joking aside, I have tried very hard to keep my arguments here civil and well-reasoned despite their controversial and unconventional nature. Likewise, I have avoided attributing my opinions to specific situations arising at work. Indeed, I often wonder whether these essays make much sense taken out of the context of my own life. Clearly, they do, but one far different from that intended judging by the reaction of people with whom I work.

To most of you, I hope my thoughts express concerns about the state of public service generally worthy of consideration and discussion.

Despite my efforts to avoid mentioning my employer or colleagues by name, they have seen fit to see themselves in my remarks. Many seem to believe the blog is actually about them despite the fact I have written it far longer than I have been employed in my present role. 

If you are one of those who sees yourself in these posts, then take note — this one IS directed at you.

If you have something to say, say it. Do so here and now. Make reasoned arguments and provide evidence to support them and I will quite happily approve the comments to appear on the site provided their publication would not amount to libel. If you can’t adhere to this simple rule, then start your own blog and post away to your heart’s content. For what it’s worth, I consider the antidote to free speech with which I disagree nothing more complicated than more free speech.

Just to be clear about this: If you have a right to stand up in public meetings and accuse me of engaging in unethical conduct and pursuing ulterior motives, then I have an equal right to speak my mind online and to defend myself against your unwarranted and unsubstantiated attacks.

I don’t ask much less expect you to agree with me. You are as entitled to your opinion as am I. Your efforts to silence me have not gone unnoticed, but they will be ignored.

Core Services

November 7, 2012

Is fire service a core function of local government? If so, when did this happen and why?

Protecting public safety usually ranks above all other priorities when citizens weigh-in on government expenditures. Citizens clearly see a role for government when it comes to protecting them from others’ malevolent actions and events beyond their own control. But the situations that generate citizens’ concern for safety often fall well outside the traditional role of firefighters.

For centuries, literally, municipal governments had little or no role in providing protection against fire. Where organized fire protection was provided, it usually fell to private interests to organize and deliver these services. In the United States, community volunteers and insurers played prominent roles in establishing and organizing fire services for most of the first two centuries of North American settlement.

When government stepped in at the beginning of the 20th century, it did so reluctantly and mostly to restore order. The incendiary behavior of firefighters had become as much a hazard as the conflagrations that threatened many overcrowded cities.

For most of the first half of the 20th century, fire posed a real and growing threat in most American cities. These days, the trend has clearly been reversed. Fire incidents and fire deaths are declining everywhere, with the latter falling by more than 60 percent since they  peaked in the early 1970s. The reasons for this improvement have less to do with the work of firefighters than with the efficiency and effectiveness of local government’s other core services.

Public safety services are but one example of how government employs the police power to promote the health, safety and welfare of communities. Indeed, firefighting itself is less an exercise of that power than an exception to it. Firefighters are the only public officials to whom we routinely permit entry to  private property on official business without first obtaining permission or a warrant.

The more conventional application of the police power to control development and construction practices receives too little credit for creating livable and vibrant cities. In fact, people are more likely to blame local regulators for stifling growth than promoting prosperity.

Although firefighters generally enjoy enviable public support, they can hardly take credit for making cities successful even if you believe they keep people safe. In contrast, building officials, zoning administrators, planners and public works officials exert a much more moderate and mediating influence over the sometimes chaotic and often conflicting market forces driving development in our cities even as they operate out of sight and at the margins public approval.

Over the past few years, police and firefighters were often spared the budget ax while other public services were slashed or eliminated altogether. Those public safety agencies that did implement cutbacks often did everything possible to preserve frontline staffing rather than cutting services.

Today, fire service agencies are among the most responsive of all public services. Firefighters still respond immediately to almost every call they receive. Unfortunately, we have little evidence that their prompt response makes much difference.

As the number of fires has decreased, the total number of incidents attended by firefighters has steadily increased. As the numbers rise, so too does the proportion of incidents that do not constitute emergencies. These days, medical calls account for more than 70 percent of fire service responses while fires amount to less than five percent. We now expect firefighters to respond when no one else will. Consequently, firefighters respond to a wide range of calls that do not require much less benefit from a sense of urgency.

Firefighters and fire chiefs routinely argue that this kind of “mission creep” is not only reasonable but beneficial because it increases the productivity of firefighters. This thinking usually reflects the failure to acknowledge the difference between productivity and efficiency.

Productivity has more to do with the amount of work performed over a period of time. Efficiency describes the value of that work as it relates to the difference between all inputs and all outputs. Both measures tend to neglect the very fuzzy relationship to outcomes that accompanies most efforts to improve public services. Even when firefighters are productive, their labors rarely prove economically efficient.

The communities positioned to make the most of today’s fiscal challenges recognize the core functions of government include activities that regulate and promote prosperity in addition to preserving order. Public safety executives in these communities can do themselves and their citizens a big favor by looking beyond cost-saving strategies. Real innovation will come from aligning public safety services with efforts to promote community outcomes rather than preserving the status quo.

Self-Organizing Actualization

August 22, 2012

Last week I discussed the relationship between patience and certain aspects of resilience. In that post, I suggested, among other things, that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs provides a useful framework for assessing how people demonstrate resilience without particular respect to time.

As I noted, preparedness facilitates the kinds of adaptation that meet the most basic needs outlined by Maslow: physiological, safety and belonging. But I also noted that the unprepared benefit from these efforts and achieve resilience as well through the phenomena of emergent leadership and self-organizing systems. The formation of ad hoc communities facilitates adaptive response.

The same phenomena can also inhibit the transition from response to recovery and slow or even prevent recovery. As Bill Cumming expressed in response to the post, resilience raises interesting questions about the role and influence of top-down versus bottom-up leadership.

Top-down leaders rarely display patience out of fear they will be perceived as weak or ineffective leaders in a community’s time of need. By the same token, their eagerness to do something, anything, even if it might be wrong, leaves them extremely vulnerable to turning a disaster into a crisis. (The distinction here is one of moving from a situation that results in damage or disruption to one that also undermines confidence in public institutions or cultural norms.)

If leadership is an essential ingredient to creating resilient communities, then why would it matter whether that leadership comes with formal authority exercised top-down or emerges from unlikely places within the community from the bottom-up? For starters, no one can control the emergence of ad hoc communities. As a social species, it seems the spontaneous emergence of collaborative coping is hardwired into humans. As such, its inevitable emergence creates opportunities for conflict between competing conceptions of the good and the right course of action to achieve it.

A common problem encountered in homeland security and emergency management practice illustrates this. Those charged with formal authority to control the impacts of emergencies on the community must often decide whether to order the evacuation of exposed populations they consider vulnerable. I have personally experienced the antipathy of residents committed to protecting their property or livestock under imminent threat from wildfire. Now more than ever, I have to question whether my desire as a public official to protect citizens and firefighters trumps an individual’s desire to stay in the fire area, even in peril, to protect his own livestock and property.

These questions are hard enough. But the zeal to be seen as effective if not essential to a community’s response and recovery clearly encourages many emergency managers and elected officials to reject or suppress spontaneous assistance. This has devastating effects on efforts to progress from response to recovery if only because it undermines the sense of self-esteem that accompanies successful efforts by individuals and communities to meet more basic needs.

It may be easy for public officials to resign themselves to the fact they cannot make everyone happy, but those citizens whose efforts we reject experience the rebuff as an unreasonable and unwarranted personal affront. Nothing undermines the democratic much less professional legitimacy of public servants faster than their rejection of community involvement in matters of the public good.

Even if public officials can course-correct and overcome these decisions, their efforts to inhibit or marginalize emergent leadership can have one of two effects on the self-actualization of self-organizing communities and their leaders. One potential outcome is that the sense of marginalization will take root as a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Our help is not needed or valued, so we must not be valued or needed.” The second possibility, which can often be even more disruptive to the community as a whole, emerges from efforts of marginalized groups to advance their agendas in spite of opposition. “We’ll show them, nothing will stop our community from getting what we need to prosper.”

At best, such conflicts pit the interests and vision of the few against the many. At worst, it fragments the community into competing interest groups that never coalesce around a coherent much less comprehensive vision of a shared future than benefits all.

Clearly, bottom-up leadership has its place in disaster response and recovery. Leaders at the top of emergency management organizations harm their own efforts to restore normal functioning within the community when they inhibit self-organizing collaborative responses among citizens. Aligning interests by acknowledging and addressing the concerns of emergent leaders is an essential element of adaptive response and ultimately recovery itself.

Patient Resilience

August 15, 2012

In my last post, I reflected on the difference between patience as a strategic virtue and more conventional notions of persistence and perseverance. This week, I want to raise some questions about how the notion of patience fits with the concept of resilience.

Among most disciplines with well established notions or frameworks for assessing resilience — notably engineering and psychology — resilience is expressed in terms of the ability of an individual or system to bounce back or recover an acceptable, if not normal, level of functionality after experiencing a challenge, particularly a challenge that exceeds its capacity to resist or deflect harm. The capacity of any one individual or system to exhibit such characteristics is most often measured in terms of the time required to regain the stated level of functionality after experiencing a harmful event.

Time is also important to the notion of patience, but in a different way. This begs a question: Can one be patient and resilient at the same time? Put another way, does resilience require some degree of impatience if not a sense of urgency?

Homeland security and emergency management practitioners, particularly those working in government, are expected to demonstrate measurable results. But we know not everything that can be measured is meaningful and many things that are meaningful can be difficult to measure. Is this the case when it comes to assessing the relationship between patience and resilience? How can we avoid the potential trap of focusing on time as a measurement, especially if it turns out not to be all that meaningful?

In my experience, the rush to advance from response to recovery and then through a recovery process holds many perils. Not the least of these is the sense that people have a say in the process, which lends democratic legitimacy to decisions the group must make or live with long-term. Even if the community has a well-established consensus about recovery priorities, a rush to or through recovery by some can leave others struggling to keep up despite the fact that their recovery process is proceeding at an entirely reasonable pace.

This suggests that any meaningful assessment of recovery and resilience requires consideration of what makes each individual or community’s adaptive journey unique. The question is not how fast but how well they move through the process of adaptation. If time matters at all, the question should not be how fast an individual or group adapts but whether they adapt fast enough to avoid suffering further adverse consequences.

What adaptive behaviors should we expect to observe then if we are to gain an objective appreciation of resilience and recovery progress? This seems a simple enough question, but again, each individual or group will have different answers. Therefore, it seems logical to look for frameworks that can help us with the assessment.

The best framework that comes to mind for making such an assessment is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Herein lies a problem, though. Adaptation is at its core a form of learning. That means every step we take to meet even the most basic needs, will inform, shape and ultimately fulfill higher needs.

This may help explain the phenomena of emergent leadership and self-organizing teams that we often witness after disasters. Those who have successfully mitigated their exposure or prepared to meet their basic needs are better equipped to help others. The ability to offer assistance has the immediate effect of redefining associations, rearranging priorities and redrawing boundaries that separate communities. Emergent leadership helps provide a sense of safety and security by giving direction and purpose to the response. It also helps give individuals a sense of belonging by defining them as members of groups they might not previously have seen themselves a part of or which did not previously exist. The creation of these new ad hoc communities in the immediate aftermath of disaster provides opportunities for self-actualization as individuals rise above their circumstances and the limitations imposed on them by forces beyond their control to bring a sense of order to the chaos they see around them.

Here’s where things get really complicated, though. The euphoria that accompanies a surge in the immediate aftermath of a disaster can soon fade as the harsh reality of the situation sinks in. The sloping sides of Maslow’s pyramid make it hard to stay on top for very long.

The pain and suffering that accompanies the Sisyphean struggle to regain a sense of normalcy can make it awfully difficult for us to appreciate the value of the struggle itself. But this experience and the mindset that produces it is the very essence of patience and resilience.

If we see pushing that rock uphill time and again as ultimately futile, then that’s what it is. On the other hand, if pushing the rock uphill is how we earn our way, how we prove our mettle, how we encourage others to persevere or how we give our life purpose for awhile, then it can mean much more than any one of us can fully appreciate.

For this reason, I prefer to see patience as an essential element of resilience. Those willing and able to exercise patience inspire others not to accept the tragedy or inevitability of their circumstances, but rather to make the most of them. This is especially, if not profoundly, true when the end does not yield rewards greater than the compensation expected from the means.

Perfecting Patience

August 8, 2012

If you’re anything like me, patience does not come easy. Don’t get me wrong, I am neither relentlessly achievement-focused nor all that goal-driven. I am just as prone to distraction and procrastination as anyone else. But when I think I know what to do, and others aren’t ready to join me to get it done, I find it hard to hold back.

As I have matured (read: gotten older), I’ve come to appreciate the importance of patience and its role in helping me achieve strategic successes. I’ve also come to appreciate what make it distinctive and worthy of my effort and focus.

In my younger years, I was encouraged to be persistent. The importance of perseverance was often emphasized too. I’m sure both of these practices have their place, but they clearly are not the same as patience.

Persistence is mostly about repetition. It’s externally focused and emphasizes doing something over again until you perfect it or it succeeds. This certainly has merit, as no one gets very good at any complex task without repeating and perfecting its essential elements. At the same time, persistence neither requires patience nor particularly benefits from its application. The harder you work, the more time you devote to perfecting execution, the faster you will achieve proficiency.

Perseverance suggests a mindset or internal orientation toward challenging or difficult tasks. We are much more likely to persevere when we think we’re right and all we need is time for people to come around to our view. It’s easier to persevere when we see things happening before others and expect the environment or their understanding of it to evolve in ways that will convince them to see the rightness of our advice. It’s only difficult to persevere when we don’t think that will happen in time to avert a bad outcome or we have to accept accountability for a failure to convince them to see things our way.

If procrastination is about failing to take action when we know we should and perseverance is mostly a question of keeping our powder dry and waiting for the solution to become apparent to others then patience must mean something else altogether.

I have become convinced that patience differs qualitatively from both persistence and perseverance in that it requires the alignment of both of these disciplines. Patience does not imply inaction. Indeed, patient people use their time wisely to perfect the essential elements of their craft. At the same time, they must display perseverance while waiting for the right opportunity to deploy their skills in ways that will influence outcomes.

In these ways, patience is a proactive rather than reactive response to circumstances beyond our control. Rather than resigning ourselves to accept external circumstance, patience affords us an opportunity to work on what we can control while waiting and watching for the right opportunity to arise. In some cases, it also opens our eyes to opportunities to acquire new skills that complement or enable us to fulfill our aspirations.

The discipline of patience requires us to approach problems in a different way. We usually think intentions influence our actions. This view suggests we get the results we desire by aligning our efforts to what we want to achieve. In reality, this works less often than it should because we tend to focus on what we know or think we know, which blinds us to opportunities to succeed by adapting our execution to changing circumstances. Sometimes it blinds us to change altogether.

Exercising patience requires us to recognize that more often than not our intentions follow our attention. We see opportunities only when we look actively for them. As such, patience requires us to adopt a perspective outside ourselves. This demands much more of us than persistence or perseverance. Putting ourselves in the position of others also exposes us to risks because it may make us seem less in control from others’ perspectives.

Anyone with genuine accountability for performance inevitably encounters situations that require her to cede control in exchange for getting others to take responsibility for tasks. This is especially true in a complex world where no one person possesses all the skills required to complete complex missions.

As it has become clearer to me that patience really is the paramount strategic virtue and differs significantly from persistence and perseverance, it has also become clear to me that perfecting patience requires persistence and perseverance. You only become good at it through focus and repetition.

Ungrateful, Unfeeling or Just Numb

July 25, 2012

When Vice President Joe Biden addressed a hotel ballroom in Philadelphia this afternoon, he probably expected the blue-collar throng to be a friendly crowd. After all, firefighters have few friends in Washington, DC more loyal or admiring than he’s been. Few politicians appreciate the influence wielded by firefighters better than Mr. Biden, who once referred to them as Delaware’s third major political party.

As you might expect, the Vice President set a complimentary tone in his remarks, assuring firefighters that he and the President see them as the key to protecting America’s middle class. It was unclear whether he meant this literally or metaphorically. Perhaps it was both.

For the most part, the Vice President’s remarks suggested he was aiming to evoke the sort of mutual adulation that firefighters and politicians routinely share with one another in public. GIven the political season, Mr. Biden did not shy away from taking shots at the other side by suggesting the Obama Administration supports firefighters and their brothers and sisters in blue, the police, but those other guys, represented by Mr. Romney, do not.

Not long after he finished speaking, the reviews were in. Most firefighters were glad to see the second-highest ranking elected Democrat reaching out to the party’s traditional base at a union convention. But some expected more.

One of those who was not exactly thrilled with Mr. Biden’s remarks was the president of the Philadelphia local of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who expressed dismay bordering on disgust because the Vice President had not explicitly cited and endorsed the union’s victory in an arbitration case that awarded Pennsylvania firefighters protection against furloughs and a pay raise. City officials in Philadelphia, like those in Mr. Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, which recently implemented unilateral cuts to all city workers’ pay in a desperate bid to avoid bankruptcy, are appealing that decision.

These are tough times for cities. And that’s because times have been tough for city-dwellers. Not only have many Americans seen the value of their homes plummet, but many have seen real wages shrink even as their workplace tenure has become more tenuous.

Firefighters face few of these problems. For the most part, their pay has been stable or increasing since the recession started . Their benefits remain far more generous than those available to comparably trained workers in similar occupations. (I know, firefighters think no one has a job like theirs. They are right about that, many far riskier jobs provide far less secure employment and much poorer pay and benefits. Take fishing for instance. Or driving a taxi.) And until recently, they could be reasonably confident that they would continue being employed.

Now that the recession has lingered far longer than anyone expected, many firefighters are finding themselves in much the same position as those they protect. And that doesn’t sit well with a group that sees themselves as different, even special.

Firefighters have a difficult time relating to the plight of cities. Perhaps this is because so few of them live there. In most urban communities the days when fire departments were composed of neighbors stepping up to help one another is long gone. Today, the fire department is just another municipal service we pay others to provide.

Mr. Biden suggested that firefighters are the very soul of their communities. I am sure he meant to imply this was true of the communities where firefighters work, not the ones where they live, since these are rarely the same place anymore. I’m not sure he didn’t get this the wrong way around though.

Like Mr. Biden, though, I still admire firefighters. After all, it’s hard not to like anyone who enjoys his or her job as much as firefighters do, especially when they take so much pride in doing it well. But this does not make firefighters special. Neither do the risks they take. Although firefighting has its dangers, firefighters succumb to these far less often than one might imagine. The same things that kill other workers in far less dangerous occupations claim firefighters lives too, and take many more of them than fires do.

What makes firefighters special in my book is the peculiar compassion they show for others in their times of greatest need. Mr. Biden recognized this when he spoke of the selfless actions of responders to the Aurora theater massacre. Sure, these men and women faced perils in responding to an active shooter call. But the actions they took caring for the wounded was not simply about confronting risks or the skillful performance of well-practiced routines. It was also about the concern they showed not just for the physical wellbeing of those involved, but for their emotional and psychological welfare as well.

You can’t really train people to do this. They either feel empathy or they do not. The fact most of them do feel empathy means that the mere act of showing up when needed is the point at which they add the most value.

This value can easily get lost in debates about what the work people do is really worth. It can also get lost in the heat of a political fight for the heart and soul of a great nation whose public servants like her people have started to become just a little too numb to the pain most of us share.