Now that the elections are behind us, gone are the political conversations, debates, and media interviews that focus of symptoms instead of systems. Over the last several months, time and again it occurred to me how easy it is to craft a sound bite with no real bite and to express righteous indignation at what appears on the surface to be extremes without offering real solutions. Politicians identify the most egregious excesses and shortcomings and use them as planks in an election platform, or for day-to-day sniping, but once elected, they do not address root causes of systemic problems. Identifying and addressing these root causes is where they transcend politics and achieve statecraft.
From November 2014 through August 2016, I was the Project Manager for the City of Boston’s PeopleSoft human resources system upgrade project. With a budget of $20 million, it was the City’s largest capital project during that time period. My business sponsors and executive leadership team were senior leaders from across the City, some political appointees and some career professionals. The project touched every City department and collective bargaining unit, and, throughout the course of the project, I had the opportunity and pleasure of meeting and working with many dedicated City employees doing much good work—people who do not deserve, and indeed suffer from, undeserved perceptions like Howie Carr’s “hack” moniker.
The project was supposed to be more than just a tech upgrade. We had the opportunity to analyze business processes and modernize the City's operations, but, for the most part, this did not happen, primarily because of entrenched factions unable to move beyond an antiquated "us-them" mentality that exists between management and labor, and internecine jealousies across departments. The City has 40 plus collective bargaining units, and the big three, Boston Public Schools, Boston Police, and Boston Fire, wield extraordinary power. The City also has 40 plus departments that are, effectively, a collection of individual business units. Again, Boston Public Schools, Boston Police, and Boston Fire have outsized influence and hold themselves out to be unique administratively when compared to other departments. Collectively, as independent organizations, these departments and bargaining units are generally focused on their own needs and desires, and there is no political or institutional will to work together to create healthier individual organizations that would ultimately lead to a healthier City organization overall.
Here’s one example of how these longstanding interdepartmental rivalries and communications breakdowns manifested themselves in the project:
Technology marches on, and we march with it. We have smart phones, and we download apps without a second thought, but when it came to giving employees self-service to access their HR, Payroll and Benefits information, truly a benefit and convenience even as it was a technological requirement, the conversation took a giant leap backwards in time to the days of On the Waterfront. Questions like, “Will it fly with the unions?” and, “What has to be bargained, and what doesn’t have to be?” predicated practically every conversation. And, when meetings happened with the union representatives, City leadership stood on one side of the room and effectively lectured union reps seated classroom style on the other. How hard is it to put chairs in a circle and, everyone equal, have a conversation?
The issues we talk about, especially during an election year, and more importantly, the root causes of these issues, are not going to be resolved symptomatically—by expressing righteous indignation at specific situations that make good soundbites. On the contrary, real and substantive change will require a paradigm shift in the relationship between the leaders who speak for, or represent the rank and file. These leaders must find a new way forward to come together for the good of all employees and for the better use of taxpayer dollars, and this change must be driven and modeled by our elected leaders first.
I also observed during my time with the City that many our officials do not know much if anything about, nor have any interest in learning about the business side of running the show, so they consequently have no real insight into these longstanding organizational challenges, or, if they do, they choose not to engage because it would not be politically expedient to do so. Now that the election is over, I offer a challenge to our newly elected leaders: Boldly go where no one has gone before. Spend a bit of the political capital you earned in your election win to address root causes of election soundbite issues. To paraphrase William Benjamin Basil King, a Canadian-born clergyman and writer who died across the Charles River in Cambridge in 1928, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
Here are a few suggestions on how to do that:
- Work to foster a collaborative environment and to bring much-needed organizational change across City departments.
- Consider introducing and passing legislation guaranteeing a base benefits package for all City employees and eliminate the confusing mishmash of collectively-bargained benefits that are, at their core, generous and similar.
- Create a trusting and safe environment for conversation and collaboration amongst all stakeholders.
- Encourage transparency, indeed, demand it.
- Leave the 5th floor, and go out and talk to the professionals managing the day-to-day operations of the City and your fellow employees working to keep the lights on and the snow plowed and the trash picked up and all the other things they do all across the City. Visit with your fellow City employees on all floors of City Hall and at 1010 Mass Ave. and 327 Forest Hills Street and the Boston Park Ranger Mounted Unit stables and all the other work locations across the City.
- Hire a City Manager. Boston needs to separate the politics of governing from the business of governing.
Congratulations on winning! Now, look within for the change you say you seek and transform City government from the inside out. Be forward-thinking, and bring healthy and real change to the City. You may be elected, but your paychecks say City of Boston, and, in the end, you are employees of the City like all other employees. Do this, and all citizens of Boston will be better for it.
Ken Brooks is VP of Finance & Administration for Step By Step Behavioral Solutions, Inc., an educational nonprofit, and lectures on Project Management at UMass Boston where he also earned his MBA in 2002.