My heroes have always included a passel of brash public servants.
The Hochsprung Commitment
I've recently added Dawn Hochsprung, the intrepid Sandy Hook elementary school principal, to my personal pantheon. Hochsprung rushed the Newtown killer in an effort to stop him a few fateful days ago: she ended her extraordinary service to teaching and children by giving her life. Her journey is a rapturous, if very sad, counter to an emerging narrative: one that paints public employees as slugs and second raters, poorly motivated folks, people who don't have improving public life at the core of their working world.
There are many other, if less dramatic, examples: consider the fabulous crew at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory this year -- a mix of regular employees and hybrid workers who work for NASA and the California Institute of Technology. I've written in these pages about this crew and the shiny, combustible mix of imagination, engineering, technological skill, and ingenuity that informed the latest, and so far spectacularly successful, Mars rover project.
And however you feel about the capture of Osama bin Laden, I'm not particularly ambivalent about it myself, the team of warriors who pulled it off is also a cadre of public side folks who are extremely dedicated, intensely motivated, and obviously don't count unlimited compensation as their primary motivation.
And then there are a bevy of local folk who embody the Hochsprung commitment: There are, for example, the seven city employees that the mayor's office and the Tulsa City Council rightfully recognized last year for their participation in the city's so far small-scale, but important "gain-sharing" project. Designed to empower employees to foster new ways of doing established tasks or lean pathways for crafting new services, the program shares savings spawned by time or process innovations and has awarded over $27,000 to seven workers who are "internal entrepreneurs" in the city's building maintenance and operations unit.
We could count the city's new "Tulsa Blue" employee recognition program as another welcome departure. This new effort recognizes City of Tulsa employees who "go above and beyond the execution of their duties in serving their co-workers and Tulsa citizens." According to the Tulsa World and the city's website, 27 employees have been nominated by their co-workers and citizens and recognized with special awards this year. But are these initiatives enough? It looks increasingly like the answer is hell no.
War against Public Employees -- Why?
But despite these examples and a passel of local and other stories (we could illuminate stories that should ennoble us all), there is a war being fought against public workers. You can see it in Wisconsin; you can see it manifesting most recently in Michigan with its vicious, anti-democratic, union-busting, "right to work" legislation. You can see it in lots of different places. And sadly it has a place, a long-standing place, in Oklahoma and a seat, a big seat, in the labor-management dynamics at Tulsa City Hall during this mayoral administration.
So, why are we, and by we, I mean large elements of our society and too many of our federal, state, and local elected leaders, at war with public employees and the entire idea of public employment?
The Big Query
How do we go about getting the best possible city services? How do we get not just reliable, but truly superior, policing, world-class streets, a state-of-the-art bus/mobility system, top notch reviews of residential and commercial projects for functional and safety compliance, improved utility/refuse services, responsive help with neighborhood initiatives, small area planning, and the huge potential of full execution of our new comprehensive plan/PlaniTulsa effort? How do we get the best work out of the nearly 4,000 professional, administrative, and field/front-line workers at City Hall? What are the investments -- and that is what we should call these outlays -- we need for a top notch crew at Tulsa City Hall?
A Big Look
Starting with this piece, and continuing over the course of the first couple of months of 2013, I'll talk to people from all the camps. I'll be looking at gain-sharing and outsourcing, two of the primary options the Bartlett administration has been employing to try to improve productivity and lower costs: I'll look at the downside and the upside of these strategies and what the mayor's new Management Review Office -- the unit constructed to oversee these efforts -- has on tap for the coming year. And I'll scan some other "service science," worker empowerment, and leading edge technology paths that City Hall ought to explore.
Here are some of the issues I will look at next year:
1) I'm told that there are sizable numbers of workers at City Hall, in the labor and trades and administrative/office tech categories, who barely make enough money to put food on a table, secure transportation, housing, daycare, and other essential services. If true, this is a moral outrage. What are the costs of what many call a "living wage" initiative at One Tech/City Hall?
2) Is there a path to constraining the growth of public safety outlays in T-Town -- that is, the explosive growth of wages and benefits associated with police/fire outlays without denying "sworn" folks adequate compensation or doing damage to the sometimes dangerous, always essential work these employees provide? Can we find a way to continue to have good public safety services without compromising compensation and benefit gains for other city workers and shorting money needed for other key services? A variety of municipalities, including Chicago, are currently experimenting aggressively with combining police and fire facilities, doing joint facility/asset programs, cross-training and high productivity/dual use efforts -- these strategies have enormous promise: is there potential in T-Town for using these gambits?
3) There's a long, arguably uncritical, tradition of using consultants to look at high-level human resource and labor-management matters, public safety, technology, and re-examination of basic operating regimes, cost trends, and core services like water and sewer provision at City Hall.
The argument goes that consulting professionals can bring singularly broad experience, detachment, and political independence that might be hard to secure from veteran city employees and elected officials, and that the work is often too demanding for even the most motivated citizen volunteers. Is the city making too much use of external consultants and others to the detriment of talented internal professionals -- what are the motivational and moral impacts of using outsiders to carry out strategic work that could be performed internally, signature work that could be a positive challenge for internal leaders, highly talented staff pros, and rank-and-file workers at City Hall?
4) And here's a heretical thought: how about looking at the energizing, imaginative role unions are playing in the re-invention of the American automotive industry and in advanced manufacturing? How about exploring new roles for Tulsa city unions: catalytic plays in re-conceiving services, in motivating, galvanizing workers: this proposition is singularly important, since a big part of Tulsa's city workforce is part of the police/fire union group or the local branch of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees. I'll try to illuminate how, with the right climate, some imagination, a bit of risk-taking, and a supportive mayor and City Council, T-Town city unions can be stout productivity tools for re-engineering public services in a time of fragile economics and lean budgets.
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