For a free executive education, look no further than Flint

Embedded under the chaos in Flint are some deeply rooted managerial and structural issues that go a long way toward explaining why the debacle has mushroomed out of all proportion. Some lessons worthy of learning:

Direct action: Sometimes the only thing for a top manager to do is to get out of the office and go see what’s going on with your own eyes.

In 1999, an explosion at the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge plant took six lives and terribly injured several other employees. Then-chairman William Clay Ford Jr. was advised by his staff not to go to the site. He smartly rejected the advice and spent hours consoling the injured and talking with shocked and grieving employees.

The upshot was, Ford workers felt the family was directly engaged in their welfare, thereby differentiating the company from the usual impersonal corporate façade.

And only days after Detroit Public Schools teachers held sickouts to complain about terrible building conditions, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan personally toured buildings, bringing engineers with him and pledging city attention.

Teachers at last felt somebody in authority had listened.

Lesson for Gov. Rick Snyder, who tends to concentrate on data rather than direct engagement: Sometimes you have to get out of your office to understand directly the human dimensions of a crisis. Remember President Obama visiting the devastated areas of New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy?

Sense of implication: We all live in an environment literally buzzing with messages, whether via email, social media, phone calls, whatever. What distinguishes a good manager from just an adequate one is the capacity to sense quickly that a few messages have large consequences that go well beyond the mere facts of the matter. Recognizing this isn’t easy – but it is a terrific skill.

Focusing on what’s really important is key.

Flint offers a case in point. Let’s go back to the summer of 2014. Michigan is in the middle of its usual election season with charges and counter-charges flowing freely.

You’re in the governor’s office, trying to run a complex state and handle a tough reelection campaign.

Someone mentions, vaguely, that there’s some kind of problem with the water in Flint. You’ve got other things to tend to and the message goes in one ear and out the other without the potential implications sinking in. You assign somebody in your office to go have a look. Eventual result? The debacle we have now.

Bureaucratic instincts: Most big bureaucracies are primarily interested in making sure all the boxes are checked (“compliance”) and in protecting itself and the boss from criticism. And many civil servants have instincts to please the boss, which often means not intervening too aggressively and striving not to be a nuisance and especially not to have to be the bearer of very bad tidings.

The detailed timeline published in Bridge makes it clear the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was interested in achieving regulatory compliance with the badly written federal lead and copper rule, which provided a rationalization not to charge into Flint and require prompt proper treatment of Flint River water.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency office in Chicago was more interested in making sure Miguel Del Toral’s memo that blew the whistle on lead in Flint drinking water was fully reviewed by the lawyers to cover their bureaucratic asses, rather than in doing everything in their power to make sure kids weren’t being poisoned.

Normal bureaucratic instincts are all too often not obviously apparent to distracted and busy governors, CEOs or presidents. In the case of the Flint debacle, it is clear Snyder was repeatedly given terribly bad (to say the least) “information” from the state bureaucrats. When you’re running a big state, it’s not always obvious when your bureaucracy is following its well-developed instincts. Perhaps “persistent skepticism about reports” should regularly accompany “relentless positive action.”

Finger pointing: If there is one invariable reflex arc in things governmental, it is to point the finger of blame elsewhere when things go wrong.

What we are seeing now is a disgraceful scramble by all concerned to direct blame in other directions. DEQ blames the state department of public health – and vice versa. Both blame the feds at the EPA. State bureaucrats blame Flint authorities.

Federal EPA folks blame the locals. Flint officials in charge today blame past emergency managers.

Even more despicable is today’s scramble of politicians to fix partisan blame on the other party, on “bureaucrats” of various sorts, on badly written laws and mutually contradictory regulations, on lack of financial support from the state/the feds/the other party/whomever they can. Maybe somebody should start a regular feature, headlined “The Blame Game” and collect – for general scorn – press releases and emails trying to shift blame, not just in this but in other disasters.

Finally, cost versus value: As I wrote last week, the English writer Oscar Wilde once defined a cynic as somebody who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Antigovernment ideologues who want to reduce the size and cost of government so it can be drowned in the bathtub, to paraphrase their hero Grover Norquist, might wish to reflect that failure to fund infrastructure that provides for public goods like reliable drinking water and safe roads is a sure route to corrode our society. The cynic in me worries that the long-run objective of such folks is to undo public trust in government at any level, and at any time. And that would be a recipe for anarchy, chaos, and disaster.

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Comments

Richard Cole
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 10:23am
As usual, your insights are, well, insightful -- especially your final paragraphs, in which by my interpretation you touch on one aspect of why those who insist government be run like a business are both off base, and perhaps delusional. I won't attempt to go through (and in some sense repeat from your column) the obvious differences between executive management at the commercial versus governmental level. One core difference derives from the fact that no CEO would long function well with a board of directors that has a "constitutional" mission to be adversarial? But there is a strong irony worth noting in the "run government like a business" paradigm. No CEO in the business world would employ a strategy of appointing unit leaders based on their expressed commitment to dilute, dissemble or dissolve the functions over which he or she is assigned to oversee. Unfortunately, this form of cynicism has been the stock-in-trade of many governmental leaders in this post-Reagan era -- those who have risen to power on the theory that government should be run like a business.
Charlene S
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:22am
Interesting perspective. The core purpose of any business is to stay in business. The core purpose of any government is to provide for the common good of the society. If one gets involved in government because he/she believes government is bad, how can that individual effectively contribute to its core purpose?
Charles Richards
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 6:11pm
It is true that " The core purpose of any business is to stay in business.", but in the process of doing so, they promote the common good. I know it is difficult for some people to grasp, but it is true, as Adam Smith pointed out, that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher and baker that we have our dinner, but their pursuit of their self interest.
John S. Porter
Sun, 02/21/2016 - 1:14pm
Charles, The butcher and baker are pursuing self interest in a viable market. The biggest reason we have government is to provide the essential services that the market hasn't provided. These include a central water system rather than thousands of individual private wells. If government only cuts costs without looking at the reason they are in a business, it will be trouble. If you are a little government and don't like cooperating with other governments, you better look at the job that needs to be done before you end that cooperation. In private business you just spin off the dogs and get out of the businesses you don't like. Not so in government. Government is generically different than a market driven business.
Charles Richards
Sun, 02/21/2016 - 3:22pm
You are only partially correct when you say, "Charles, The butcher and baker are pursuing self interest in a viable market. The biggest reason we have government is to provide the essential services that the market hasn’t provided." It would have been preferable to say, "The butcher and baker are pursuing self interest by selling private goods." Private goods are both excludable and rival. A good is excludable if the seller can prevent anyone from enjoying it if they have not paid for it. A good - an ice cream cone for example - is rival because if one person eats it, another person cannot eat the same cone. Public goods such as parks, infrastructure, fire and police protection, courts and national defense, are neither excludable nor rival, and thus cannot be provided by the market, and must, by necessity, be provided by the government. Your statement, "If government only cuts costs without looking at the reason they are in a business, it will be trouble." is not very precise. It would have been better to say, "If government or business cuts costs without considering the benefits those costs were providing, they will be in trouble. Both government and business must make the same judgment about whether the benefits they were purchasing justified their costs. There is, in that sense, no difference between government and business. It is not the case that "Government is generically different than a market driven business." except that business receives instantaneous, powerful feedback as to the wisdom of its decisions, whereas government does not. That is why government is not as efficient and responsive as business.
David L. Richards
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:16am
There is a lot of wisdom here. I would add to the list of Mr. Power the problem of herd mentality. If the people around you think a certain way, the likelihood that you will conform to some degree to the prevailing view is quite high, even if the prevailing view is inaccurate. A few mavericks around to say, "yes, but what are the consequences if we are wrong", or "this just doesn't add up", and to test the approach of the majority, make a contribution. The value of direct action to see the human side of a problem being different than what appears on paper is certainly true. But even beyond that, looking at a problem on-site gives you an entirely different perspective than relying on writing or even pictures or video to get information, which never have the impact of reality in front of you.
Phil
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 12:31pm
All the more reason to have a leadership and culture survey in some (or all) departments - two that immediately come to mind are MDEQ and MDHHS. Of course the results should be released to the public, and it may be that the only bad actors/systems have been identified, but I doubt it. The money would be well spent in light of what's happened and may identify other departments that need addressing.
Phil
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 12:33pm
Oops - I just realized people may think the previous comment is from Phil Power. It's not. I'm a different Phil and should have said so.
Michelle
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 2:01pm
Isn't this really a discussion that all need to understand and employ personal responsibility, not covering one's fanny? Perhaps there are in fact too many steps built in to cover for lack of personal responsibility in the past? We can't legislate values. There is no reason to make more boxes to check when its endangerment of life that is involved - its not about boxes or protocols. That is why we are supposed to have whistle blower laws. If checking the boxes doesn't do it, then you go a step further instead of feeling sorry for yourself because nobody is listening. Use a framework when it works, but when you see a person endangered or are a person endangered, then get louder - don't say poor me... And thank goodness someone did so! We need to celebrate that person and give them recognition along with those who did stand up and sound the alarm. Along with the negative articles we need to celebrate those who used courage to do what was right! Find the heroes! I am not talking even so much about giving them their due credit as about saying each of us can have the courage to do what is right as well, even if it is outside the required protocol. Nobody started riots or hurt another's person or property to simply say enough is enough - I know this is wrong and I will get your attention so its worked on - NOW! So let's hear about that process please. too! Learn from our past - what didn't work and what did - so we can encourage others to do the same. That's how we straighten out Michigan!
EB
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 5:11pm
"If there is one invariable reflex arc in things governmental, it is to point the finger of blame elsewhere when things go wrong." That's undoubtedly true, but in this case there was only one authority, the MDEQ. Regarding the water system, nothing happened in Flint without their approval. It was their responsibility to get this right and they didn't. It frankly made no difference what any other organization or person wanted to do or not do or how wrong or right anyone else was, because the MDEQ had final authority on everything.
John Q. Public
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:44pm
I think there's more truth if "governmental" is replaced with" bureaucratic". While governments are bureaucratic, so, too, are many for-profit enterprises for which that belief is every bit as true.
Michael D. Ritenour
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 8:55pm
I agree with all of the above, and I applaud the frank and well written comments. As an aside: When Bridge first began publication a few years ago and I joined in the commentary with great vigor, I was often in the minority advocating transparency in government, fair treatment of all classes and races, and (gasp!) liberalism as a positive force in society. As a proud (and unabashedly biased) liberal, I'm gratified that the extremist vitriol from those on the right has quieted somewhat in the embarrassment they must (and should) be feeling in light of the succession of debacles following the "spend no money under any circumstances, " "I'm not responsible for Southeast Michigan", and "some constituencies must be sacrificed for the greater good" policies they've pursued for years. I hope (but doubt) that a lesson has been learned that government exists to promote the welfare of all the people, and especially the least among us, and that it does not exist merely to be the referee in a Darwinian struggle to determine who is most financially fit. Governor Snyder may be fundamentally a decent man, but he has deferred to the radical right elements of the legislature and his party too frequently and easily, particularly on mere "social" issues, and his political appointees have pursued a rightist "bean counter" philosophy that has promoted miserliness over magnanimity. The chickens now are coming home to roost: the legacy of the Right in Michigan will be the poisoning and brain damage of a generation of poor children, to the national disgrace of this State and the unforgiveable shame of its Republican stewards.
Barry
Tue, 02/23/2016 - 10:51am
Michael, Thank you.
Observer
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 9:20pm
Mr. Power is absolutely right when he says, "Sometimes you have to get out of your office to understand directly the human dimensions of a crisis." But that presupposes that you know there is a crisis. In the cases cited by Mr. Power, the visits by Mr. Ford and President Obama were of immense value in conveying concern and empathy. But they were of no value in preventing the respective crises. Would a visit by Mr. Ford prior to the explosion have alerted him to the fact that the safety measures were inadequate? Unlikely. What is our objective? Managing public relations, or preventing bad things from happening? Mr. Power chides Governor Snyder for relying on data rather than direct engagement. He says, "Lesson for Gov. Rick Snyder, who tends to concentrate on data rather than direct engagement:" Is it feasible, or wise, to go around the state and inspect every work site? "Someone mentions, vaguely, that there’s some kind of problem with the water in Flint. You’ve got other things to tend to and the message goes in one ear and out the other without the potential implications sinking in. You assign somebody in your office to go have a look." Mr. Power postulates this entire scenario. Does he have any evidence that it actually occurred? In any event, should the Governor fly around the state investigating every possibility, or should he delegate some tasks to a subordinate? Mr. Power is absolutely right when he says, "What distinguishes a good manager from just an adequate one is the capacity to sense quickly that a few messages have large consequences that go well beyond the mere facts of the matter." Does he have any evidence that the Governor knew about Miguel Del Toral’s memo? Or the fact that the EPA had repeatedly tried to get MDEQ to institute corrosion control? What information did the Governor have whose implications he should have grasped? On the other hand, Mr. Power does an excellent job of analyzing the nature of bureaucracies. He says, "Normal bureaucratic instincts are all too often not obviously apparent to distracted and busy governors, CEOs or presidents." And those flaws are exaggerated when the bureaucrats have civil service and union protection. I am unfamiliar with "Antigovernment ideologues who want to reduce the size and cost of government so it can be drowned in the bathtub,". I know of no one who doesn't wish to fund "public goods" such as parks, infrastructure, public safety and defense. I do know of many people who wish to reduce expenditure on non-public goods. They object to liberal/progressive programs whose principal function is to redistribute resources from one set of citizens to another set. It is of little interest to most liberals/progressives whether or not a program promotes the general welfare as long as it transfers resources from those who have earned material success to those who have not.
Sam
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 10:43pm
The employees of any organization take on the personality of its leader, in this case a republican governor who considers regulations as a third eye. Naturally, this attitude shines through in board meetings and other interactions with senior staff. As such, senior staff and directors' of institutions like the MDEQ and MDCH quickly get the message as to how the boss wants to do business. They then have a choice, either conform or buck the system and find a new job. Anyone working for a large organization understands this principle. From all appearances the Flint ordeal bears this out. This is why it's so important that senior executives and the Governor release all emails associated with Flint. If the governor is telling the truth he should immediately put this issue to bed by releasing the correspondence. If he continues to obstruct the truth then all the PR firms in the nation can't save him. The train has left the station and nothing will stop it but some sort of irrefutable evidence supporting the governor's position. He can apologize until hell freezes over but the poisoning of 9000 children along with attempting to spin the legionnaires outbreak that killed eight and injured scores more will not be forgotten anytime soon. His legacy will always be the governor that poisoned an entire city and the Michigan Republican Party along with its tax payers will pay the bill one way or the other. We can all try to rationalize this tragedy but the facts are what they are and no amount of cleverly arranged words will heal the children or bring comfort to those who died because of a cruel ideology.
Duane
Tue, 02/16/2016 - 11:59pm
Is Mr. Power interested in creating public trust in our government organizations or is he mired in the 20-20 hind sight blame game? Does he want our elected administrators such as Governor, Mayors, county Executives to have a necessary level of managerial knowledge and skills or does believe all they need to do is go shake hands where the symptoms of problems surface? If Mr. Power wants to break away from the blame game and help voters select candidates that will avoid problems such as Flint is experiencing I would encourage him to start talking about identifying knowledge and skills that candidates should have to be effective managers to fulfill the responsibilities of the offices they aspired to. The reasons businesses succeed and fail has to do with clarity of purpose and the accountability of programs and means used to achieve the desired results. Successful business leaders are those that clearly frame the purpose. By all appearances government lacks clarity of purpose and they lack accountability. If Mr. Power wants public confidence in our government organizations I encourage him to talk about government program purpose and accountability. I think a Bridge conversation with readers could develop a set of criteria for voters to use when they assessing candidates and help us gain skilled office holders, they could develop means to making government programs accountable and delivering results.
Jim
Wed, 02/17/2016 - 6:16pm
Emergency Manager Darnell Early reported to State Treasurer Kevin Clinton who resigned from his post quietly last April (2015), after only 18 months on the job. Mr. Clinton was an actuary who no doubt used his considerable math skills to forecast not only the size and magnitude of the Flint water crisis, but the optimum date by which he had to resign in order to escape notice and responsibility for this colossal failure. That kind of forecasting is a skill which has kept many a seafaring rodent alive over the years.