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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

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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