Archive for the ‘Priorities Run Amok’ Category

The USPS: An Early Contender for the 2013 Ebenezer Scrooge Award

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

At a time when retailers around the U.S. are bemoaning the shortened Christmas buying season and holding their breaths to see its impact on their 2013 profitability, there is one vendor that apparently is doing just fine. In fact, while other merchants are making it easier for customers to shop by staying open more hours and augmenting their sales staffs with seasonal workers, this one has decided to CUT its normal business day by 2.5 hours. As of December 7th, it will be open from 8:30 a.m. till 5 p.m. Monday through Friday – and closed on Saturday and Sunday.

Who is this retailer? My local branch of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Yes, beginning two and a half weeks before Christmas, during the busiest mailing/shipping season of the entire year, the USPS is making it harder for customers to do business with it. Today I noticed that this branch has two kiosks that allow some customers to purchase stamps and send small packages. Unfortunately they are located in the part of the lobby that is locked during non-business hours. Honestly, what other business in the world deliberately throws obstacles in front of customers who want to use its services?

Could the fact that the USPS agreed to provide Sunday delivery for have anything to do with its decision to cut the branch’s hours of operations by 23% beginning the first Saturday in December? Based on my understanding of what I’ve read about that deal, its executives said they could take on Amazon’s business without incurring additional labor costs. So maybe they decided to cut branch employees’ hours during the week and have them deliver packages for Amazon on Sundays instead. I have to say I’m skeptical: surely the union contract has something to say about how much more employees must be paid when they work on Sunday rather than during the regular work week.

For the above reasons, the USPS gets my vote as the organization that best exemplifies the miserly spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge this year. Although I will allow for the possibility that the USPS decision-maker will go through a Scrooge-like transformation and reverse this anti-customer service choice, I’m not holding my breath. I suggest you don’t either. Ship FedEx.

©2013 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

City Governments are NOT in the Job Preservation Business

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Last month the Los Angeles Times reported that in an effort to avert layoffs of city workers, local labor leaders accused the mayor of waging a “war against women” because the proposed layoffs, part of a plan to close an estimated $238 million city budget deficit, would affect female workers disproportionately. One leader was reported to have said that the city “,,,is remiss in not factoring in how cuts might affect its gender balance.” Several days later, an editorial in the Long Beach Press-Telegram opined that these labor leaders were greatly overstating the seriousness of the situation. In a twist that defies logic, the editors then re-framed the situation as a fight between “reproductive freedom” and “religious freedom.”

Both pieces completely missed the point, which is that city governments are NOT in the business of preserving the jobs of their employees. Broadly speaking, their mission is to provide a reasonable level of public safety and create an infrastructure that will enable people to live, work, and visit there. Although creating jobs may be a by-product of carrying out their missions, city governments do not exist either for the purpose of creating jobs, or of preserving jobs they no longer need or can afford.

Having said that, city governments ARE obligated to honor the processes in place for firing employees. Often those processes are spelled out in union contracts and must be negotiated because they affect workers’ terms and conditions of employment.

When the economy is good and city revenues are robust, politicians tend to expand the number and types of services provided to include those that are “nice to have.” The public wants these additional services, and politicians who depend on their constituents’ votes to keep their jobs are glad to oblige. As the number of services increases, more city workers are hired. Salaries and benefits, including pensions, become a larger percentage of city budgets. People get used to the additional services, and as long as taxpayers continue to foot the bill, politicians are happy to supply them.

However, this symbiotic relationship is disrupted when the economy takes a drop. City revenues fall, often dramatically, so that at the same time that there are greater demands on public services, there is less money to pay for them. Something has to give. In a service-based economy, there are few alternatives to reducing or cutting services, which means the people who provide them are no longer needed.

The question comes down to this: should taxpayers continue to pay the salaries of city employees who, through no fault of their own, are no longer providing the services they were hired to perform? Though the workers are willing and able to continue to carry on, cities no longer can afford to pay them, and politicians cannot justify asking taxpayers to fund their continued employment – especially when many of those taxpayers are themselves out of work.

There are no easy answers here. City workers who lose their jobs must find other ways to support themselves and their families. Like their counterparts in the private sector, they face a very tough job market. There is no denying the toll this situation takes on individuals and families. The reality is that city governments are not in the business of preserving the jobs of their employees. In fact, politicians have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that taxpayer money is NOT spent on services that no longer are provided. City leaders do, however, have an obligation to negotiate the terms and conditions under which workers will be terminated. They may move the now-displaced employees into other jobs for which they are qualified, help them find other jobs outside the city, or let them go. City governments simply are not in the business of preserving jobs for their workers.

Going back to the situation in Los Angeles, it makes no sense to use the gender of city workers – or any other demographic characteristic – as a criterion for deciding which services to cut and which ones to retain. In fact, making employment-related decisions based on those criteria is illegal under federal and state laws. From a human perspective, it is gut-wrenching to tell people that economic conditions have resulted in cutbacks that will cost them their jobs. Yet to assert that the city has an obligation to keep people on the payroll when their jobs have disappeared simply is not true. Preserving jobs for city employees who can provide services no longer being offered simply is not part of any city’s mission.

Instead of trying to divert attention from the real issue – even when the diversions represent legitimate concerns – labor leaders would better serve city employees and taxpayers if they spent their time seeking viable alternatives to the layoffs and, failing that, negotiating fair separation agreements for their members.

© 2012 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Public Safety: Top Priority or Collateral Damage?

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

During the first few years of the economic downturn, police and fire departments across the country often were protected to the extent possible from budget cuts, layoffs, and furloughs. After all, isn’t public safety a core function of local governments? More recently, however, that automatic protection has been removed – as arguably it should be. However, in their zeal to cut their budgets, politicians and administrators seem to have gone from one extreme to the other in how they treat these agencies – and by extension, the services they provide. Instead of being a top priority, public safety suddenly seems in danger of becoming collateral damage in the political budget cutting process.

By “political budget cutting” I mean a process in which politicians and administrators resort to ineffective resource allocation tactics such as engaging in “proportionate sharing” or choosing to retain programs and services that are popular with constituents but non-essential, instead of setting priorities and making the tough decisions that they were elected or hired to make. One reason why the proportionate sharing tactic is ineffective is that it lumps essential and non-essential services in the same basket, and subjects them to the same percentage cuts without considering the fact that providing public safety and infrastructure are the only reasons government exists, whereas things like staging parades or providing pretty hand-printed proclamations to constituents are not core government functions. If public safety is, in fact, the top priority of a city or county government, then why do those whose job it is to allocate resources treat it exactly the same as they treat services that clearly do not represent life and death matters?

I am not ignoring the fact that public safety costs represent a major component of many, if not most, local government budgets. There is no question that the levels of fire and police pensions have become unsustainable in many areas. (At the same time, let’s not forget that when pensions are negotiated through a collective bargaining process, as most are, both parties have to agree to the terms and conditions of the contract. Public sector employees are not the “bad guys” simply because they accepted the very generous pension and benefits terms their politicians offered them.) It is clear that unsustainable public sector pensions must be addressed. More immediately, however, let’s focus on how we can ensure that public safety is treated as the top priority by politicians who must cut budgets, rather than as collateral damage.

Everyone has a role to play to ensure that public safety is treated as a top priority rather than becoming collateral damage. Here are a few suggestions:

Fire departments and police departments:
– Educate the public and decision-makers about what you do, how you do it, and most importantly, the impact your actions and choices have on public safety. Things that are obvious or second nature to you because your training is in the fire service or law enforcement are not on the public’s, or too often the politicians’, radar screens. You have a moral responsibility to educate people on the likely consequences of actions that affect public safety. Don’t make them find out through experience. And don’t allow politicians to hide behind the excuse that they didn’t know what the consequences would be.

– Educate your stakeholders in ways that are personally meaningful. By that I mean, describe to them specifically what the impact on public safety will be if a given service is taken away, or delayed, or partially provided, or reduced in quality. For example, one of the proposals in Long Beach is to reduce the number of firefighters on engines from four to three. Some people seem to think that this is a reasonable to response to budget cuts in tough times. Those are also the people who have no idea how that change affects public safety. Citing dozens of studies that show why this idea has a serious negative impact on safety is not helpful in making your case. Instead, explain the likely consequences in personal terms so people can “get” it. Few people know that if they are trapped in a burning house and an engine with only three firefighters arrives on scene, federal law prohibits those first responders from entering the house until a fourth person shows up. It’s your job to tell them.

Politicians and administrators:
– Instead of focusing primarily cutting dollars, begin by deciding what level of public safety you choose to provide to the community. To do otherwise is to shirk your responsibility and put the public in jeopardy. Articulate that decision clearly to the public. Tell your law enforcement and fire service managers what you want the public safety “picture” to look like, and let them inform you what resources are required.

– If the necessary resources are not available, ask your public safety experts for options that come with clear explanations of each one’s impact on public safety. For example, how is “actionable” response time affected by each option? (By “actionable” response time I mean the amount of time it takes for officers or firefighters or medical personnel to arrive and take immediate, effective action to resolve the emergency, not merely the amount of time it takes for them to arrive on scene and wait for additional personnel and/or equipment.)

– If you SAY that public safety is your top priority, make sure your decisions and your actions match your words.

– Prioritize the services you choose to provide given the available budget. I am NOT advocating that public safety comprise 100% of the budget – far from it. Quality of life is an important issue that should be considered in the mix. The question is, where should it rank on the list of priorities relative to public safety?

The public:
– Lean about what public safety providers do to keep us safe, what changes are being proposed, and how those changes will impact the safety of our communities.

– Consider the big picture. Times are tough, and government isn’t able to afford all the “nice to have” services it has provided in the past. Decide where public safety should be on the list of priorities.

– Ask questions – of public safety officials and of politicians and administrators. Engage in constructive dialogue with others in the community.

– Let’s not forget that politicians are in office because a majority of those who voted cast ballots for them. It’s up to us to speak up and tell them what level of public safety we want and are willing to pay for.

– Become active advocates for what we believe, and back up our beliefs by voting for politicians whose actions match their words. If they are acting out of personal interest rather than out of the community’s interest, it’s up to us to hold them accountable and vote them out of office. Otherwise we are enabling their “me first” behaviors.

The bottom line is that public safety is everyone’s business. We all have a stake in ensuring that our communities are safe, and each one of us has a role to play. When any one party abdicates its role, especially in times of extraordinarily tight budgets, public safety is in danger of going from top priority to collateral damage. It’s up to all of us.

What will YOU do?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Why Insisting that Employees “Do More with Less” Is a Mistake, and How You Can Stop Making It

Monday, July 4th, 2011

One of the biggest and most preventable mistakes I see employers making in response to layoffs, furloughs, and budget cuts is what I call the fallacy of “doing more with less.” The admonition to “do more with less” has become commonplace in organizations over the last two years. Do you find yourself using it yourself? If so, stop it!

Here are three reasons why adopting the “doing more with less” approach is a mistake:

    1. It’s counterproductive: surviving employees, already demoralized by layoffs and furloughs, perceive that they are being asked to pick up the slack without being compensated for doing so – and they’re right!

    2. Doing more with less is not sustainable long-term. There’s only so much you can add to existing workloads before people and systems begin to break down.

    3. Employees become disengaged, burned out, resentful, and cynical – and they will leave the organization the first chance they get.

    In addition, I’ve found that when they try to “do more with less,” people start seeing everything as a priority. And of course, when everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.

Here are two ways you can avoid falling into the fallacy of “doing more with less:”

1. Embrace the concept of doing LESS with less

This actually increases productivity: employees know you are being realistic and they appreciate your honesty so they reciprocate with good performance. Employee commitment is likely to increase when you’re truthful about what you’re asking your workers to do. If you would like to learn more about this issue, here are two articles that go into more detail:

The Fallacy of “Doing More with Less”

How to Prioritize: Doing LESS with Less Effectively

2. Set priorities effectively, and allocate available resources accordingly

Let’s be clear about two facts about priorities that people often ignore. First, priorities are what you DO, not what you say you will do. Realistically, you can only have a handful of priorities at any given time. (That’s ONE handful!) Second, priorities involve choices about time. By saying you don’t have time to do something, such as going to your kids’ soccer game, you effectively are saying that other things are more important to you at the moment.

A few years ago, I developed a straightforward process for setting priorities. Here it is in a nutshell:

    First, identify clearly your organization’s vision or mission. Beginning with the end in mind is the first step in organizational success.

    Second, use that vision to categorize everything you do (e.g., evaluate performance, develop products and services) as critical, very important, or important.

    Third, devise a realistic formula for allocating resources based on the above three categories. For example, while you might decide to allocate 100% of your resources to items in the “critical” category, it’s probably more realistic to devote 70-80% of them to the critical priorities, 15% to very important items, and 5% to important items.

If you would like more detailed, step-by-step information about this process, you may obtain the template, Pat Lynch’s Process for Prioritizing Organizational Services and Programs, by clicking here and checking the appropriate box on the list from my web site. You will receive the link to the template immediately via e-mail.

What are your thoughts or experiences about doing LESS with less? Let us know!

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

California Budget, Part II: Be Careful What You Ask (Legislators) For

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

In November 2010, California voters decided to stop tolerating state legislators’ annual refusal to pass a balanced budget by June 15th each year. They passed an initiative that requires the State Controller to stop paying the errant legislators when they fail to meet their constitutional mandate to produce a balanced budget by that date. And that pay is gone forever – no retroactive pay allowed.

That strategy seemed to work: for the first time in anyone’s memory, the legislature passed a budget on June 15, 2011. Everyone celebrated, most of all the legislators, who believed they had saved their paychecks.

The celebration was short-lived: Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the budget the very next day, saying that it was not a balanced solution to the state’s financial woes. In fact, he was quoted as saying that the budget that was passed contains “legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing and unrealistic savings.”

Personally, I call that budget the “Save our (California legislators’) paycheck” budget.

Legislators reportedly were outraged. After all, they passed a budget, didn’t they? And didn’t it show that revenues matched expenditures?

Well, not exactly. The Governor had promised voters a “gimmick-free” budget this year, and in his view, this budget did not pass the “no smoke and mirrors” test. In fact, his assessment of a gimmick-laden budget was backed up by the State Controller’s analysis, which found that while the budget committed the state to spending $89.8 billion, it only provided revenues of $87.9 billion, leaving a shortfall of $1.85 billion.


Now legislators are REALLY mad: the Controller’s assessment came with the news that because the budget was not balanced, their pay and per diems would be suspended until they pass a budget that does meet the “gimmick-free” criterion. One Los Angeles Assembly member was quoted as saying, “I now have to explain to my wife and daughter that we won’t be able to pay the bills because a politician chose to grandstand at our expense.”

Welcome to the world of tens of thousands of Californians, whose financial situations are fraught with uncertainty each year when the legislature engages in its own form of grandstanding when it chooses not to meet its constitutional mandate of passing a balanced budget by June 15th. Institutions that rely on state funding, for example, have been forced to pass their own budgets without knowing how much money to expect from the state – if any. In the past few years, the state actually decided to issue IOUs in lieu of cash because the budget had not been passed. How well do legislators think that asking one’s landlord or bank to accept an IOU in place of a rental or mortgage payment will go over? Now they have an opportunity to find out themselves.

There are at least two related lessons to be learned here:

    1. Be very specific when asking for what you want or need.

    In this case, the voter-passed initiative said the budget must be balanced. Alas, it apparently did not define the term “balanced” in a way that made it crystal clear to legislators that their constituents would no longer tolerate their annual “smoke and mirrors” approach, but instead must pass a budget that actually balances when held up to the light of day.

    2. Be careful of what you ask for.

    By putting legislators’ pay at risk (as it relates to passing a balanced budget), voters caused lawmakers to focus on passing a budget. This seems to be a good thing, doesn’t it? Unfortunately in their haste to save their paychecks, the legislators neglected to take care of a few critical details. According to the State Controller, for example, the budget relies on a variety of fees and taxes to raise revenue – but lawmakers didn’t pass the legislation necessary to collect that revenue. Apparently the initiative should have said that intentions don’t count – there actually must be mechanisms in place in order for the budget to be balanced in reality.

So we’re back to smoke and mirrors. At least the legislators are not getting paid to not produce a balanced budget, which may jolt them back to reality. In the mean time, Californians across the state are suffering – again – because lawmakers –again – aren’t doing their constitutional duty.

I can’t wait for the next step: perhaps an initiative that makes the failure to pass a truly balanced budget by the constitutional deadline a terminable offense? No waiting till the next election either: no balanced budget, no job.

What’s your suggestion for getting the message across to politicians?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

California Budget, Part I: What a Difference Accountability Makes!

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

What a difference accountability makes! Compare these two statements about the California budget process. They were made nearly a year apart by the same California Assembly person:

    “The budget?” (Dismissive wave of her hand.) “We [Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature] just have philosophical differences.”

    “I’ll do whatever it takes to get a budget passed on time.”

The first statement was made by the Assembly person to attendees at a meeting of a Long Beach City Council person in 2010, about two months after the legislature continued to be in violation of the constitutional deadline for passing a balanced budget. (They finally passed it 100 days after the deadline.) She was quoted as making the second statement to a newspaper reporter one week before the constitutional deadline for passing a balanced budget in 2011.

What got the Assembly person’s attention? In November 2010, after years of frustration and serious economic hardship foisted by irresponsible legislators on Californians who rely on the state for funding (e.g., state employees, vendors, contractors, school districts, colleges and universities, health care recipients, welfare recipients), voters finally stopped tolerating the legislature’s annual illegal activity by passing an initiative that requires the State Controller to stop paying legislators their daily rates and per diems for every day they fail to meet their constitutional duty of passing a balanced budget by June 15th each year. The initiative further specified that there would be NO retroactive pay or per diem. Going forward, legislators are accountable for actually doing the primary job for which they were elected – i.e., to pass a balanced budget on time every year that identifies the state’s priorities.

Given that legislators’ pay now is at risk, was anyone surprised that in 2011, legislators suddenly began to turn their attention toward the budget? By essentially mandating a pay-for-performance requirement related to the budget, voters created a situation in which it now is in everyone’s best interest for legislators to pass a balanced budget on time. And it seemed to be effective: for the first time in anyone’s memory, the legislature passed a budget by June 15th. Whew! Legislative paychecks were saved. Accountability works!

Or does it? Stay tuned for Part 2….

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Budget Cuts: Why Fire Departments and Police Departments Need to Change the Question

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

As city, county, and state budgets are being discussed and finalized around the country, one thing is clear: those who allocate resources are asking the wrong questions. As a result, recipients of government services are being short-changed because resources are being misallocated.

During city/county/state budget negotiations, the primary questions generally are:

    1. How much must we cut so that our city/county/state has a balanced budget?
    2. How much must each agency cut so we can achieve this outcome?

The problem is that these are the wrong questions. Instead of focusing on money, politicians and administrators need to begin with the end in mind – i.e., the services to be provided. Here are the questions they should be asking instead:

    1. Is this service something that (city/county/state) government should provide?
    (If it is not, stop it!)
    2. If it is, what level of service do we (decision-makers) choose to provide?
    3. What is the best way to provide this service?
    4. How much are people willing to pay for it?

Using public safety (i.e., fire departments and police departments) as an example, here are the questions decision-makers should be asking:

    1. Should the government provide public safety services?
    2. What level of public safety do decision-makers choose to provide?
    3. What is the best way to provide this service?
    4. How much are people willing to pay for it?

When the conversation is all about cutting the budget, then guess what becomes the #1 priority? (You are correct if you said “cutting the budget.”) Focusing on cutting the budget can lead to dysfunctional behaviors (e.g., proportional sharing) and outcomes (e.g., ineffective resource allocation). (Elsewhere I explained why the tactic of proportional sharing as a budget cutting tactic is an ineffective way to allocate resources.) As a result, the public loses. In terms of public safety, for example, there may be fewer fire fighters, emergency medical personnel, and police officers available to respond to calls. Fewer civilian staff as well as outdated equipment and infrastructure also are consequences of cuts to public safety budgets. Together these results mean longer response times in situations in which seconds or minutes matter. Are longer response times okay with the public? If so, then there’s no need to change the question. But if public safety has taken a hit because of misdirected questions and stakeholders are not okay with longer response times, then it’s time to insist that decision-makers stop asking and answering the wrong questions.

The bottom line: if you want different answers, you have to change the questions you ask. If the public is at greater risk due to budget cuts and the heads of fire departments and police departments are not okay with that, it’s time for them to re-direct the conversation by changing the questions. While re-focusing the discussion won’t change the reality of scarce resources, it can ensure a much more effective resource allocation process.

What are you waiting for?

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

How Public Safety Professionals Are Shooting Themselves in the Foot

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

When the Long Beach Press-Telegram reported recently that Long Beach’s Chief of Police had vowed that the police would “get the job done” regardless of what they were tasked with doing in the face of drastically reduced resources, I had two immediate and contradictory reactions. As a Long Beach resident and business owner, I felt relieved to hear that the police still plan to provide “…the best possible service for the people who are accustomed to that service.” As an expert in resource allocation, however, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding!” By publicly promising to maintain the normal level of safety no matter what, the Chief essentially gave the City Council the green light to take resources away from the Police Department and give them to other agencies. In short, he metaphorically shot his department in the foot – unless the Police department has been greatly over-funded, and recent budget cuts merely reduced its budget to an appropriate level. Somehow I doubt this is the case.

I’m not picking on the Long Beach Police Chief; he just happened to be a local example of what I’m hearing and seeing in law enforcement and fire service agencies. In both these professions, members tend to downplay the significance of their roles in keeping people safe while routinely putting themselves in danger. “It’s just my job,” they often protest when grateful recipients of their services try to express their thanks. As a result, over time the public began to believe them, and subsequently was lulled into a false sense of security because these public servants make what they do seem almost easy. Few people stop to think about what is required to keep our law enforcement and fire service protectors at the top of their respective games so they can perform at high levels at a moment’s notice. Thus when City Council members or other decision-makers adopt deeply flawed policies like proportional sharing instead of stepping up to the plate and making the tough decisions they were elected or hired to make, there is relatively little resistance from the public about whether the resources are being prioritized appropriately. As a result, we witness scenarios like the one in which a Los Angeles City Council member vowed to save the jobs of the City’s calligraphers (employees whose job is to produce the pretty certificates that Council members like to hand out to constituents) at all costs – even though “essential” jobs such as those of teacher, police officer, and fire fighter were on the chopping block.

The fact is that when law enforcement and fire service leaders continue to assure the public that all is, and will remain, well despite fewer and fewer resources each year, they are doing a serious disservice to the public and to their own employees. While service levels may be maintained in the short-term, they are not sustainable over time: employees get burned out due to overwhelming work loads, and critical, life and death decisions are made by people who are tired and stressed out. When equipment malfunctions, when (or even if) it can be repaired will depend on factors such as when overworked mechanics can get to it, and/or how long it takes for the parts to arrive after someone realizes that no one ordered them since the clerical personnel who handled the ordering were laid off, and/or whether the money to pay for the parts can be found somehow.

In short, the “things will continue to be normal” mantra is a charade that must stop. Decision-makers and the public need to be educated about the trade-offs that result from allocating fewer resources than required to maintain service levels.

Here’s my advice to leaders in law enforcement and the fire service, and to public sector decision-makers: stop it! More specifically:

    1. Leaders in the fire service and law enforcement: I’m sure you believe you’re doing the right thing by assuring the public that you will keep us safe. And I think you are sincere when you say you will do everything possible to make sure that happens. But the truth is that you can’t, at least not beyond the very short term. And in your heart of hearts, you know it too. So please: stop sending the message that everything is fine, and begin to educate the public about what the trade-offs will be when you have fewer resources with which to work.

    2. Public sector decision-makers: stop hiding behind the appearance of doing your jobs (e.g., by implementing ineffective policies like proportional sharing), and start making the tough decisions required to deal with current and future conditions. A good place to start, for example, is by setting priorities and allocating resources based on what is needed to achieve the relevant government entity’s “big picture” (e.g., a city’s vision or mission) rather than on what groups have complained the loudest most recently.

Public sector entities are having a tough time right now, and everyone is suffering as a result. Let’s not compound the existing challenges by setting unrealistic expectations about public safety, and then burning out good people trying to achieve them.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

The Euphemism Called “Proportional Sharing”

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

A euphemism is a vague word or phrase that is substituted for an expression that is considered to be harsh, offensive, or blunt. For example, some public sector leaders use the phrase “proportional sharing” as a substitute for describing what they really do when they decide to cut every department or agency’s budget by the same flat percentage. I suppose that “proportional sharing” is meant to evoke an aura of fairness about the decisions that leaders make about allocating scarce resources – perhaps a sense of “we’re all feeling the pain equally.” While such a process may sound fair, in fact it is not. The reality behind “proportional sharing” is that officials are failing to live up to their responsibility for setting priorities and allocating public resources effectively. To learn why this is the case, and what can be done about it, read my article Why “Proportional Sharing” is an Ineffective Resource Allocation Strategy, posted as a guest column on Alan Weiss’ Contrarian Consultant blog. And let me know what you think.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.

Why City Governments Are Floundering

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Across the U.S., scores of municipalities technically are bankrupt, as their financial obligations far outstrip their ability to cover them. Some cities already have declared bankruptcy legally. Politicians nationwide desperately are seeking ways to stave off bankruptcy by stemming the flood of red ink that threatens imminent financial disaster. So far the red ink is winning.

What is preventing decision-makers from devising an effective process for allocating their cities’ scarce resources in ways that will allow them to re-group successfully in the aftermath of slashed budgets, plummeting revenues, forced furloughs, and layoffs?

A major impediment is the lack of a clearly articulated “big picture” – i.e., a city-wide mission statement or vision. A quick check of half a dozen large cities across the U.S. reveals no city-wide mission statements on their official web sites. Yet most of the departments in each of those cities do have mission statements prominently displayed. And therein lies the problem. Although having department-specific mission statements surely is desirable, the departments’ individual efforts must be directed toward the same collective end. Unless those diverse missions are aligned with the city’s mission, all you have is a set of competing and conflicting interests – hardly the basis for setting priorities effectively.

The importance of having an overall big picture has never been more critical for cities than it is now, when resources are exceptionally scarce. Given the need to change decades-old structures, programs, processes, systems, and regulations that no longer work, at the same time that demand for government services has skyrocketed, setting clear priorities to allocate scarce resources most effectively is key to a successful rebuilding effort. In order to set priorities, however, there must be a unifying frame of reference. Otherwise, how can decision-makers and stakeholders agree on what programs or services should take precedence over others? Some groups’ “must have” lists are viewed as “nice to have” or even “unnecessary” from others’ perspectives. Absent the touchstone of a clearly articulated overall mission or vision, who is to say which group is “correct?”

For example, in February 2010, the Los Angeles City Council was considering drastic actions such as laying off over 1,000 employees, eliminating departments, and cutting public safety budgets and staff in order to erase a $208 million shortfall. During discussions about how to close this gap, one City Council member went on record as saying that he wanted to do whatever was necessary to preserve the $1 million allocated to paying a handful of city employees who work as calligraphers – i.e., those who handcraft the ornate certificates of recognition that elected officials like to hand out to constituents and other supporters.

Who is to say that this council member’s priorities were misplaced? After all, while most Los Angeles departments have their own mission statements, the City itself has none. As a result, there is no definitive basis on which people can decide whether keeping calligraphers on the job is more or less important than providing adequate levels of public safety or keeping libraries open.

While there are no easy solutions to allocating scarce resources, you first must have an effective process to guide the tough decisions. Trying to set priorities without benefit of a city-wide big picture is akin to trying to put a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle together without knowing what the picture is supposed to look like – and while both hands are tied behind your back. When I advise clients how to prioritize their scarce resources, step one necessarily is articulating a clear, overall big picture. That picture becomes the touchstone by which all decisions are made, and by which priorities may be set.

What is your organization’s big picture? Making sure that you have one – and that all stakeholders know what it is – ensures that you have a solid foundation upon which to set organizational priorities.

© 2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.